The new warriors on the COVID frontlines: Teenagers.
As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to surge, students across the country are demanding N95 masks and PCR tests, signing petitions and staging walk-outs in what they say is a fight for better school COVID safety measures.
In New York City, hundreds of teenagers attending over a dozen of the city's public high schools walked out of class on Tuesday, demanding an option for remote learning. In Oakland, students are threatening to walk out next week if district officials do not increase COVID-19 safety measures. Students in Michigan and Boston are also planning walk-outs.
Students say that they, more than anyone, want school to be in-person. After two years of on-and-off remote learning, they yearn for normalcy. But they're worried about getting really sick at school.
"In each of my classes we have at least 30 to 40% of our students missing," Haven Coleman, 15, a 10th grader at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver, Colorado, tells TODAY Parents. "And right now we have at least 10 teachers out sick."
Coleman is one of five students who launched a petition for increased COVID-19 safety precautions. Coleman says her school's district currently has a mask mandate and adheres to other basic COVID-19 safety protocols, but she argues that it's not enough.
"Our demands are that the district go back to remote learning until COVID-19 cases decrease to (levels during the) Fall 2021 Semester," she explains. "If classes don't go back online, we need KN95/N95 masks provided to all students on all campuses, excused absences for those with COVID, ventilation in all classrooms and airflow to lessen the risk fo COVID-19 cases, PCR and rapid testing for students in person twice a week, integrated learning for those at home with COVID or those choosing to stay home for their protection, access to more outdoor spaces for safe lunches, and more social distancing measures in the hallways and stairs of schools."
In just 10 hours, the petition received nearly 300 signatures. A spokesperson for Denver Public Schools noted the system has 90,000 students in 200 schools.
"We certainly understand our students’ frustrations," the spokesperson said. "But our scholars and families rely on our schools, and we need to do everything we can to keep them open for in-person learning and support. Too much time has already been lost to the pandemic."
Nearly 8.5 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association report. In the first week of January 2022, over 580,000 new pediatric COVID cases were reported — a 78% increase over the new cases reported during the last week of 2021.
“We’re so tired of having to risk our lives just to get an education,” Coleman says. “Going to school should not be this hard.”
Students say virtual learning was hard, but going to school right now is harder
Remote learning has hurt students' mental health, left students behind academically, and is particularly hard on students who rely on school for shelter, food, clothing and safety. According to a 2020 survey conducted by Common Sense/SurveyMonkey, 59% of teens believe online learning is worse than in-person schooling, with 19% categorizing it as "much worse."
"My remote experience sucked," Theo Demel, 14, an eighth grade student in New York City, tells TODAY. "I'll be straight up. But we know that a couple of weeks of remote learning, if it means to fight this pandemic, is worth it in the long run."
Demel walked out of his New York City school in protest on Tuesday. He says his dad is currently battling COVID-19, and watching his father get sick is one of many reasons he's demanding virtual learning options.
"I wake up every day and hear him coughing. I go in the living room and I see him lying down, very, very sick," Demel explains. "And the same goes with many of my friends whose parents are older. And I will tell you, it is a drastic thing for your mind to go through. No one should ever need to see their parents like that. No one can sustain their kids like that."
Moxie Maguire, 15, a 10th grader at Thomas Jefferson in Denver, says virtual learning was “very hard” for her.
“I would just like to say that we, as students, want to go to school,” Maguire, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns, says. “However, the way schools are handling COVID, especially Denver Public Schools, is making it harder to go to school and not be scared of getting Covid. I want that to change, which is why we are doing this.”
Dr. Regine Muradian, a licensed clinical psychologist and parenting expert, says she saw children developing extreme anxiety, depression, decreased focus, and feelings of isolation when a historic number of schools were closed in 2020.
"So many kids didn't feel like they had teacher support — they didn't feel like they were understood," Muradian tells TODAY. "I mean, they're separated by a screen. So obviously, they were missing healthy day-to-day peer interaction."
Former Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Robert Redfield told reporters in Nov. 2020 that the safest place for children ages K-12 is school, a sentiment currently being echoed by many elected officials. New York City Mayor Eric Adams told reporters "the safest place for our children is a school building," insisting that schools would stay open despite the record-breaking COVID-19 surge.
Still, Muradian says that if children feel unsafe at school, there are negative mental health ramifications
"There's this feeling of desperation. There's this feeling of 'I'm on my own' and that adults are not in control as leaders. That creates instability and more fear," she explains. "It's very healthy that they're able to take on this leadership position. But it's scary, too, because they want to feel guided."
What do the parents think?
Maguire says their parents are also being supporting and "trying to help," and Coleman says her parents are and have always been "supportive of her activist and organizing work." The Denver teachers union has called for a district-wide switch to remote learning in a letter sent to the district's superintendent. "We have some teachers from a few high schools that are supporting us," Coleman adds.
Evie Hantzopoulos, a mom of three including a high school student attending school in Queens, New York, says she fully supported her daughter, 16, walking out of school on Tuesday.
"If she wanted to skip school, she would just skip school. But she got up, took the subway, took a bus, and went to her classes," Hantzopoulos tells TODAY. "She wanted to take action as the rest of students did, because they feel like our school system, our city, is not taking care of students and teachers the way that they should be."
Hantzopoulos says that rather than dismissing the students who are walking out as "lazy," adults should consider just how difficult the ongoing pandemic has been for young people.
"My daughter was really happy to go back to school in person this year, as was I," she says. "But we still have huge concerns about what's going on, especially with omicron and how it's spreading and how many students are sick and how many teachers are sick and when we're not really receiving timely information on what's happening."
While she says she's proud of her daughter, she's also angered and saddened by the walkouts.
"As adults, we should be doing everything we can to ensure the well-being and health and education of our young people," she says. "And the fact that the students have to take up this fight because we've had policy that's all over the place just really makes me angry."
While Demel says he has lost faith in many adults in positions of power, he has not lost faith in the power of his peers.
“I will say that I have faith that we could turn this around," he adds. "And if the youth get more involved in politics, we can do this."