"Every Day Is A Worry": 19 High Schoolers' Real Concerns About School & Coronavirus

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The coronavirus pandemic may be ongoing, but school must go on. As of August 2020, it’s been about five months since students were last in school, as many towns and cities moved to remote learning to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. But now, as back-to-school season starts, a national debate has begun over whether students should go back to in-person learning or not. But while lawmakers, teachers, and parents debate the safety of reopening schools, some voices have been left out — what do the students think? Elite Daily asked high school students how they really feel about reopening schools during coronavirus, and here’s what 19 teens had to say.

The coronavirus is believed to be transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets and close person-to-person contact, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises maintaining a social distance of 6 feet and wearing a mask to prevent spreading the virus. But even with social distancing guidelines and mask-wearing policies, bringing large groups of students and teachers together in enclosed spaces is risky. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, only 2.5% of colleges across the nation plan to fully reopen for in-person learning as of Aug. 10. But while colleges get to make their own choices, the decision to reopen K-12 schools rests with local and state governments, and reopenings haven't always gone seamlessly. In early August, North Paulding High School in Paulding County, Georgia, went viral after a photo of a crowded hallway of students without masks circulated on social media. Brian Otott, the superintendent of Paulding County School District, said in a letter to the community that the school was following Georgia Department of Public Health guidelines.

The benefits and risks of reopening are hotly debated by experts: Some infectious disease experts have cautioned against reopening schools due to increased risk of community spread of the virus, while advocates for reopening schools cite benefits including developing social and emotional skills, building a safe environment for learning, fulfilling nutritional needs, facilitating physical activity, and much more. As of Aug. 19, the American Academy of Pediatrics advocates for in-person learning, while simultaneously noting that areas with high case rates must move to virtual learning for safety reasons. “The pediatric community agrees with the CDC that, in a perfect scenario, we would all like schools to be open,” Dr. Chad Sanborn, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Kidz Medical Services of south Florida, tells Elite Daily. “The main risk to reopening schools would be that the children, teachers, and staff could contract COVID-19 because of exposure in an indoor setting.” The CDC has also assembled a list of FAQs for school administrators looking to reopen schools safely.

But not all students are convinced. Many shared concerns about immunocompromised family members, fear of catching the virus, and distrust that safety guidelines will be enforced. Here’s what these 19 high schoolers from around the country have to say about reopening schools.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Srilekha, 17
Courtesy of Srilekha Cherukuvada

Srilekha is an incoming high school senior in Austin, Texas, with a chronic illness.

I don't think going back to school is safe. It's basic science. More people are contracting the virus, more people are dying, yet we still choose to go back and interact with others. By not making wearing masks or social distancing mandatory, we put not only ourselves, but the lives of our family and friends at risk.

Although my doctor said I wouldn't be high-risk regarding COVID-19, with my chronic illness I still feel an extra layer of fear. That, mixed with the social anxiety of seeing people again, terrifies me. Although not everyone has the same personal health experiences, we all know going back to school means a higher number of COVID-19 cases — but, why would policymakers care? They didn't care when gun violence killed thousands of students, and they don't care now. I hope through this article, students' fears and worries can finally be heard.

David, 16

David is an incoming high school senior in Somers Point, New Jersey. He is from a low-income family.

I am against going back to school. My biggest concern is fear of lack of enforcement of masks and social distancing guidelines. New Jersey closed schools on March 15 with 427 cases in the state. As of Aug. 17, 2020, we’ve had nearly 3,000 new cases in the past seven days. I don’t want to see us move backward again, the way we saw with reopenings in other states.

Because of my fears and the general lack of support from my high school, I decided that it would be a good time to transfer to a 100% digital program. It’s hard going back to a school that may set you up for failure. By moving in the digital direction with a new school, I can avoid the issues that would come with a hybrid program.

Tatiana, 16

Tatiana is an incoming high school junior in Richmond, California, whose family is low-income.

I constantly see photos and videos of my peers on social media hanging out in close proximity to one another and not social distancing. They aren't thinking about who their actions impact when they decide to get together.

I don't live in the same city as where I go to school because my school’s city is predominately white, and the rent for homes or apartments there is too high for my parents to afford. Unlike a majority of my classmates who live in spacious houses with multiple bedrooms, floors, and/or bathrooms, I live in a low-income, predominantly BIPOC neighborhood in a cramped apartment where it would be difficult to self-isolate if one of my family members caught COVID-19. It's a privilege to be able to bear the expense of this virus, and it’s one my family wouldn't be able to afford if schools physically reopened.

Katie, 17
Courtesy of Katie Chen

Katie is an incoming high school senior in San Jose, California.

As someone living with parents who have hepatitis and risk of both diabetes and high blood pressure, I’m concerned that going to school in-person could compromise my family’s health. Despite statements from school administrators and boards, maintaining social distance simply isn’t possible at school. Students may be 6 feet apart in the classroom, but won’t maintain social distance outdoors and during breaks.

I’m also concerned for the health of my teachers, many of whom are older and might be vulnerable to coronavirus. Some of my teachers said they would have left their jobs out of concern for their families' health if schools hadn’t closed down, so I’m concerned that we would have substitute or inexperienced teachers on campus if we were to open in-person. That would be counterproductive to what reopening schools is meant to achieve.

Lauren, 17

Lauren is an incoming high school senior in Homewood, Illinois. She is disabled.

I’m an autistic student who also has mental illnesses, and I’ve been excluded from public school since my freshman year because of my disabilities. A lot of students are probably thinking about prom, how extracurricular activities will operate, or how their class schedule will function. Because I’ve been sent to outside placements that haven’t had these opportunities or activities for years, I’ve always wondered those things. I’ve never even had the option to fully participate in clubs, sports, dances, or other activities. Whether school is remote or in person, it won’t matter to me. My school didn’t want me as a student before I even knew what COVID-19 was. That’s my biggest concern.

Kashish, 16

Kashish is an incoming high school junior in McKinney, Texas.

I’m totally against reopening schools. I believe that Americans must stay socially distant. My mental health has degraded since the start of the pandemic, and I’m very afraid that mental health crises will lead to violence in schools in the fall. I’ve been working part-time since I was 14 to contribute to my bills, and I’m also not sure how to work around my job and activism schedule this fall. I’ve picked up more hours at work, and school reopenings may hinder my employment. It's difficult to make priorities for this school year.

I’m also concerned that chaotic reopenings will lead to schools ignoring major inequities in our schooling system. In my school district, resources and personnel (like janitors) are much less present on my campus (which is around 34% white) than they are in a majority white high school across town. This is a direct result of the prioritization of schools with higher household incomes and higher levels of whiteness. We must address these issues to protect all students, not just a select group.

Zachary, 16

Zachary is an incoming high school junior in Tampa, Florida.

I’m straddling the line between totally against reopening schools and a mixed virtual/in-person school year. I’m concerned about my school’s inability to socially distance effectively. I have some classes that have 30 kids in them and are only getting larger, in a classroom that’s hardly bigger than a living room. Most of my teachers are older and/or immunocompromised, which makes me worried to go back to school. I urge the leaders of the country to mandate that schools be online for at least the first semester of the school year.

Jailene, 17
Courtesy of Jailene Sinchi

Jailene is an incoming high school senior in New York, New York, who is a first-generation immigrant.

I support the idea of a blended semester this year. Students should be able to go to class remotely and be able to attend their schools. For those whose parents work or rely on schools for child care, there should be more organizations or support systems to support the parents and the children. But I understand the risks that come with attending school. There are many children who can’t grasp the meaning and the severity of the virus, making themselves more vulnerable to the disease. Plus, at my school, students come from all five boroughs, making it easier for them to contaminate themselves on the train or on the bus.

Avery, 15

Avery is an incoming high school sophomore in Seattle, Washington.

As a rising sophomore, my grade won’t have to complete our first, last, or hardest year of high school from our homes, but there are still significant challenges. I’ve signed myself up for a pretty difficult year, and I am scared that virtual learning will be unorganized or I’ll have a hard time grasping new material without in-person lessons. I’m also concerned about clubs at school. Without physical school, I’m unsure of what my status will be in clubs that I am already a member of, or clubs that I am looking to join.

Still, online school seems like the way to go. I would never want to be infected with COVID-19 or be the person who infects someone else — especially with the risk that they might have immunocompromised family members.

Gavin, 16

Gavin is an incoming high school junior in East Greenbush, New York.

I miss school to death. I never thought I'd say the words, but it's true. I miss my classmates, my teachers, and being able to actually learn in an environment free from distractions. That being said, I can't go back now. My dad has a heart condition, and I don't want to be the reason he and others get sick, or worse. I know the kids that go to my school, and I know a lot won't bother to wear a mask or social distance. I know my school district officials care about their students and teachers and are only trying their best, but they know what they're doing about as much as everyone else.

Ebony, 16
Courtesy of Ebony Crandle

Ebony is an incoming high school junior in La Jolla, California.

I’m concerned about the unfairness that comes along with online learning. Are teachers and administrators going to use the same grading system that we used with in-person learning? My peers and I have been learning in person our whole lives, and it’s not fair to implement the same grading system for online learning, which we’re still adjusting to. Online learning is safer, but it’s not an effective adjustment for the long run.

Makayla, 17

Makayla is an incoming high school senior in San Diego, California.

As much as my school board wants us to reopen, it doesn’t seem realistically possible. For a school my size, taking everyone’s temperature in the morning would take four hours, and classrooms would only be able to teach up to eight students at a time. At a school of 2,500, this doesn’t seem remotely possible. That leaves me anxious about my future and safety, and unsure of what my year will look like.

Many people are focusing on the death rates as a metric for how safe they feel, but that doesn’t take into account all the people who’ve had long-term lung and organ damage due to COVID. So even if everyone in my age demographic survived the illness, we could still face irreversible damage if exposed to it. Furthermore, my grandparents live nearby and come over every other week. The idea that I could pass COVID onto them is a tremendous burden.

Brianna, 17

Brianna is an incoming high school senior in St. Louis, Missouri, with asthma.

I don’t think it is safe at all to attend school, no matter how much kids want to return. How can we ensure that everyone really quarantined, or is really practicing social distancing? As an essential worker at a grocery store, I already feel uncomfortable as I’m surrounded by people who come and go, and I have no idea where they’ve been before they came to my store. Not everyone is taking this as seriously as they should.

I understand that everyone is tired of being in the house, but lives are being lost. People who have asthma, like me, are at high risk. Every day is a worry. We need to stay safe for as long as we can.

Lexi, 14

Lexi is an incoming high school freshman in New York, New York, who is a first-generation immigrant.

I’d like schools to reopen as much as possible, safely. This year's situation may require partial online school, but I’m against going fully remote. I’m worried that wearing masks will not be enforced or be taken seriously, but I’m more concerned that communication and learning material will be lost due to confusion or disorganization within a school. Because I’m an incoming ninth grader at a new school, meeting new people and becoming familiar with the school is important to me. I’ll be disappointed if that can't happen.

Michael, 17
Courtesy of Michael Pincus

Michael is an incoming high school senior in West Palm Beach, Florida.

My mother has lupus. Last summer I went into toxic shock syndrome, with complicated effects. People like us are unsure about how COVID-19 might impact us, and we have to take extra precautions to stay safe and healthy. It’s easy for someone who’s not immunocompromised to feel invincible, but in acting upon that feeling, they’re choosing to put people like my mother and I in danger.

The idea of going back to school in-person is really scary. It seems like the people making these decisions are not themselves at high risk, and so they can feel apathetic toward the real human impact of this pandemic. Someone who isn’t worried for their personal health or the health of their close friends and family can focus more on material relief and luxuries. I understand why students want to go back to school, and I miss human contact more than anything, but it’s just not safe right now. Not yet. Not for my family.

Lilah, 16

Lilah is an incoming high school sophomore in Durango, Iowa.

I’m against going back to school in-person this fall. Even with mandated masks, people won’t stay 6 feet apart, because teenagers want to socialize with their friends. When the U.S. had less than 50 confirmed COVID-19 cases, school went virtual. Now we reopen schools with more than 5 million confirmed cases and no sign of slowing. Our government is treating us like guinea pigs.

As a student athlete, I feel like my school and state are putting my health at risk. In a cross country meet, hundreds of runners race close to each other, breathing heavily, and not thinking about the importance of staying 6 feet apart. I wish the state of Iowa would consider the health of runners and all students.

Minhal, 14

Minhal is an incoming high school freshman in Prospect, Kentucky.

I shouldn’t have to start my first year of high school behind a screen. The three months of virtual learning before the summer was one of the most difficult things I've had to do. The lack of socialization, personal connection, and overall absence of a classroom environment drained me. I miss being able to get lost in studying and experiencing a sense of accomplishment after a hard day of work. But my immunocompromised mother and my own deteriorating health from a recent illness have forced me to recognize that virtual learning is the safest option. However, I still miss being in school, where I'm not sitting in English while my mom is telling me to do the dishes and showing me memes on Whatsapp.

Isabella, 17
Courtesy of Isabella Fallahi

Isabella is an incoming high school senior in Indianapolis, Indiana.

My father is immunocompromised, which makes it difficult for me to want to go back to school, but I also want to have a normal senior year. I spent most of my school years not only studying, but working in political and social justice activism full time. I never really experienced what it was like to just be a normal teenager, and now with COVID-19 that experience was entirely robbed from me. Meanwhile, it seems as if the entire activist organizing world has been put on hold.

My parents have made reopening schools a battlefield — there's been so much fighting and debate over it that I don't even know what I want to do at this point, and my relationship with my family has been strained. I just feel trapped. As a queer Latinx Middle Eastern youth, I just want to get into a good college in NYC or D.C. and never look back to the Midwest. My whole life has almost been an escape plan where I've counted down the years till I graduate, and now it seems impossible.

Riya, 17

Riya is an incoming high school senior in San Antonio, Texas, who is a first-generation immigrant.

I would prefer virtual/in-person options over being forced back to go to school. My dad is a pharmacist and my mom is a nurse practitioner. I might not be seriously affected by COVID, but if I get it and pass it onto my parents, who then go see high-risk patients that trust them, I could indirectly pass it on to their patients. I'd be directly responsible for their illness, and that's not fair to them. If my parents bring it back to me, I could possibly pass it onto a kid at my school who is either immunocompromised or related to someone that's immunocompromised, and that's also not fair to them.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.