We *Should Have* But We Didn’t
Why Schools Are So Important and So Neglected
As we enter yet another winter of surging COVID cases and uncertainty, parents discovered a fresh hell this week: the return to school from the holiday break. When my kids came home from break on December 21, Omicron was certainly on my mind, but it wasn’t dominating my thoughts. By January 2, it was playing on every feed like a broken record. However, there was very little communication from the state or my kids’ schools about any new protocols. It seemed, as ever, we were on our own to figure it out.
My kids’ schools have been very fortunate and very vigilant; for most of the 2020–2021 school year, my daughter was in her classroom. My high school son spent more of his year online, but he was up and running again by the spring. By the time school started this fall, I had one vaccinated kid and hope for a vaccine for my youngest. My husband and I were both fully vaccinated, and it had been a great summer of low case counts and almost no deaths in our county. The kids headed back to school, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that we were on the back end of all of this.
Until we weren’t.
Omicron arrived determined to remind us that even as we are absolutely done with the virus, it is most decidedly not done with us. As the weather turned cooler, the virus was able to spread a bit more, and as Omicron arrived on the scene, the tinder was everywhere.
My mother came up to visit in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and we had all kinds of fun activities planned. Unfortunately, Omicron had other plans. We ended up stuck inside on the couch. I warily looked at case counts and watched as they grew. I knew they were undercounted; it was a holiday week, and rapid antigen tests don’t show up in those counts. Even still, the positivity rate was exploding.
As we drove through town, I noticed all of the restaurants and shopping areas were still packed with people. Omicron did not seem to be on the minds of many as they went about their post-Christmas activities. I must admit that, even as a social scientist, this still unnerved me.
You see, for months, I was told that schools were the *most* important thing. The first to open and the last to close! I’ve heard that phrase from more politicians than I can count. Study after study showed that kids had been negatively impacted by online school and social isolation. This is not surprising to those of us that study humans; we are never meant for social isolation. It’s detrimental to our mental health. We are social creatures, and we thrive with each other.
However, I think what we lost in that message is that social isolation is not the only thing that impacts our mental health. Our children have received some pretty rough messages over the last few years about the value we put on lives, particularly those lives we don’t deem “worthy”. They have seen tantrums and meltdowns over masks. They have witnessed adults throwing fits over vaccine mandates. And, most importantly, while they heard the “first to open, last to close” message, they saw that it was absolutely not true. Bars, restaurants, gyms, malls, and other stores got priority over their schools. Over and over again, we chose eating in restaurants over kids being in school.
I know it’s easy to ask the question: why can’t we have both? There’s a simple answer that Omicron is about to show us. We can’t have both because we don’t have an unlimited workforce, and we’ve done a terrible job of protecting it. If we had really wanted to prioritize schools, we might have limited some things during the winter break. Perhaps restaurants could have returned to takeout for a bit. Perhaps a football game with 90,000 unmasked spectators in a closed stadium was not all that wise. Maybe we could have pulled back capacity in public spaces.
Spoiler alert: we never do. We never prioritize education and the mental health of our kids over everything else. We say we do, but our actions show another story. It’s the story where any minor inconvenience is treated as a major disruption. We want it all, and we want it now!
So, here we sit with overwhelmed hospitals and schools that are looking at the relative calm before the proverbial storm. And there will be a storm. This virus is evasive and pervasive. It will find every host it can. We’ll likely have a tsunami of cases, and, hopefully, the wave will come down as quickly as it went up. But during that crest, even if the virus is “milder”, we’ll face a worker shortage. No one has to make a decision to shut down the economy; Omicron will do it for us.
So, parents all across the country wait. We wait to see what will happen in our kids’ schools. Some schools are fortunate; they have robust testing programs and adequate ventilation. Many more are not. We knew what we should have done, and we simply didn’t do it. And, once again, our children will bear the burden of that decision. We can only hope that the disruption is quick because it most certainly won’t be painless.