I’ll admit it: I’m lonely. I miss high school, I miss competing in track and cross country events, and I miss seeing my friends and teachers. Five days a week, I spend the better part of the day at home completely alone staring at my computer. And once I log off of my virtual classes, there’s nothing I want to do less than to stare at another screen. Many of my classmates feel the same way since the vast majority of Washington’s high schoolers haven’t been back to school or sports since March.
Last summer, when the state’s school reopening guidelines were released, it was clear that our state’s leaders were taking an ultracautious approach, setting strict reopening guidelines. Following the original school reopening “decision tree” meant schools started the year remotely and without athletics, even though virus rates were low.
But as the months passed by, we’ve learned that when schools follow masking and distancing rules, they are not a significant source of spread. And successful athletic competitions in other states demonstrate that sports can be done safely.
What’s bewildering to me is that our state leaders haven’t yet used this information to revise the guidelines for reopening schools and athletics. It’s been four weeks since Gov. Jay Inslee’s office was briefed on the risk of COVID-19 in schools. It’s been two weeks since he stated publicly that he was learning about the “emerging science of schools” and how “on-site education has not resulted in broad-spread communicable transmission.” Even Dr. Anthony Fauci believes schools should be open. And yet, our state has yet to revise the reopening metrics for schools.
Other states are clearly making different choices, balancing the pros and cons of in-person schooling and athletics very differently than we are. My cousin lives in a Michigan county with COVID-19 rates similar to those here in King County. She’s had various versions of in-person school, shifting to remote when rates started to rise. Two weeks ago, she competed in her state cross country championships, earning her a scholarship to Northwestern. Lucky her. Since Washington’s athletics are still on hold, our athletes don’t even have a chance.
The inaction on schools and student athletics is tough to accept, especially since state leaders seem to be working furiously enabling progress in so many sectors — airports, churches, hair salons, weddings, funerals, makeup artistry and more — most continuing to operate even as COVID-19 rates rise. Where is the urgency for school reopening?
When reporters ask about schools, both the governor and state Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal dismiss school reopening decisions as under the purview of “local control.” Meanwhile, local health authorities point to the state reopening guidelines when they advise schools to remain closed. It’s all becoming quite circular, such that we’re always back to square one.
I know many reading this will see the youth perspective as irrelevant in a global pandemic since we’re generally not the ones at risk of dying. Loneliness, in-person classes and athletics are a small price to pay. The young are resilient. I get it. But it is also true that the months of isolation are taking a deeper and deeper toll on many of us, and that perspective feels completely lost when it comes to state decisions.
Where we can reopen schools and restart sports with little risk to our communities, we should. But in order to do that, someone at the state needs to prioritize Washington state’s 1 million students. Who will that be?