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COVID-19 and school openings are a dangerous mix. Don't force us students to risk it.

Students know that our desire for a traditional high school experience is outweighed by the common good. Why doesn’t our government?
Photo illustration of Sadie Bogard, a woman wearing a graduation cap, and a surgical mask.
High school students know that we can’t simply go back to life as usual. NBC News / Courtesy Emanuelle Sippy / Getty Images

I’m sad that I missed the prom last spring. I’m sad that I missed my final day of 11th grade and saying goodbye to my graduating senior friends. I’m even sad that I missed studying for finals and taking AP tests in a crowded gymnasium and experiencing the exhausted feeling of relief that follows.

But that doesn’t mean I think we should have kept schools open. Unhappy as I may feel, I know the momentary joy of a school dance, even one as momentous as prom, was not worth the accompanying danger to public health. I know that school closures and self-quarantines were necessary measures to keep our community healthy and safe.

I’d rather spend my senior year online than needlessly endanger the lives of my school’s teachers and staff.

Though teens are often accused of being irresponsible risk-takers, my peers and I seem to generally agree that these sacrifices were worth it. In addition to the many friends who have told me so, a student-led education advocacy group in Kentucky that I’m a part of, the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, conducted a survey in May of more than 9,000 students from 119 counties across the state. Some 84 percent agreed with the decision to close schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Students know that our personal desires for a traditional high school experience are outweighed by the common good. We know that to return to school, we need detailed plans to protect students and school employees, ones that follow health recommendations. We know we can’t simply go back to life as usual. So why doesn’t our government?

Over the past weeks, White House officials have called for a return to a pre-pandemic education system. Last week, Trump threatened to withhold federal aid from schools that do not reopen fully, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending that schools return to in-person teaching.

These directives are infuriating. With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, the administration’s efforts to force me and my peers back into crowded buildings without protection reveal just how little they care for our well-being and for the well-being of our at-risk friends and relatives. I’d rather spend my senior year online than needlessly endanger the lives of my school’s teachers and staff.

It makes me angry that I, a student, have managed to prioritize the guidance of public health officials over my desire for the traditional high school experience when so many government officials struggle to make a similar sacrifice or calculus.

The stereotypical teenage battles with authority have now, quite literally, become a fight for our lives — and contrary to expectations, we’re the ones asking for more rules and restrictions. Instead of arguing with our parents over curfews and social media use, we’re demanding that our policymakers honor our unwillingness to go back to school if we can’t do so safely.

Despite students’ concerns, some states are starting to act on President Donald Trump’s suggestions. In Jefferson, Georgia, for instance, schools are opening in-person without requiring students and teachers wear masks, practically guaranteeing the spread of the coronavirus. They’re doing this notwithstanding vocal complaints from much of the student body and nationwide polls showing Americans are still concerned about reopening schools.

In Florida, teachers unions are suing to block a July 6 emergency order that requires schools to be open five days a week. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster made similar demands that schools offer in-person instruction.

Other countries are demonstrating that a safe return seems possible. In nations across Asia and Europe, schools have reopened without major outbreaks. But those countries waited until their COVID-19 caseloads were relatively under control before sending students and staff into what would otherwise be hotbeds of infection.

They also took significant precautions before attempting in-person education, precautions I am happy to take myself when my school eventually transitions away from virtual learning. From distancing desks and staggering class schedules to daily temperature checks and mandatory mask policies, there are dozens of measures that can alleviate the risks created by a pandemic that’s still raging.

School systems, however, must also help students in a holistic way. COVID-19 has made it harder for students to access mental health care even as they experience increased feelings of depression and anxiety, while the economic crisis is creating new difficulties for students and families. Schools have historically played a role in providing social services, mental health assistance and nutritious meals, a role that needs to be amplified in the coming months.

In Kentucky, at least, most school administrators seem to recognize the danger facing students, teachers and staff. After exploring a variety of hybrid options, like having only half the student body come to school on a given day, my district recently announced that we would start the semester virtually.

This news was disappointing, to say the least, but also a relief. I’m glad my state has taken the safer, more rational course of action. But the confirmation that I won’t be seeing the vast majority of my friends or teachers this August, that I’ll be spending the foreseeable future mostly confined within the walls of my house, brought on a fresh feeling of loss and dismay.

It also made me wish we had taken more forceful action sooner. It made me wish we hadn’t let our desire to reopen the country at all costs outweigh our respect for undeniable facts.

The stereotypical teenage battles with authority have now, quite literally, become a fight for our lives — and contrary to expectations, we’re the ones asking for more rules.

The inability of our policymakers to grasp a concept that a fifth grader could understand is highlighting something students have known all along: Our voices matter. As the direct recipients of education, we deserve to be included in decisions that impact our everyday lives. The public officials determining what school will look like during a pandemic need to listen more to public health experts — but also to students, who spend over 30 hours a week experiencing firsthand the impacts of their policies.

We won’t go back to a school that’s unconcerned with our health and safety. We won’t listen to the mandates of a school system that won’t listen to us.