Perspectives: At the height of the omicron surge, should school have moved online?

photo by Becky Dzortsev

YES – Noa Racin

Oftentimes, I find myself scrolling through the news, desperately looking for a light at the end of the pandemic’s tunnel. What I find is reassuring: many news sites are hopeful about the pandemic’s direction. Yet, when I come to school, I hear about so many new COVID-19 cases — it’s overwhelming. It seems like everyone is a close contact for the virus. Not only that, but some scientists caution against the relaxed COVID policies, like lack of mandatory pool testing and social distancing. 

While it is reassuring to think that the days of lockdown are behind us, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that COVID is still a large part of our lives. Feeling as though the end of the pandemic is near or that COVID will become “just like the flu” are hopeful thoughts that ignore many overlooked issues; therefore, I think school should be online. 

With the Omicron variant’s prevalence and Massachusetts’ average of 20,000 new daily COVID cases, actually having the virus has become de-stigmatized. However, the decreased severity is not an excuse to relax mask mandates and other prevention measures, especially as the virus is still mutating. 

Rather than taking the variant seriously, I continue to see more relaxed safety measures implemented, especially at South. This includes limited in-school testing and the continuous usage of large indoor spaces such as the cafeteria, as mask-free eating places. Additionally, South’s response to incorrect mask-wearing is subpar. Yes, it’s true that many students blatantly refuse to wear masks, but the lack of punishment suggests that mask-wearing is simply to please parents, as opposed to actual personal safety. 

Although Omicron is less severe, there is no evidence to prove that the other long-term effects of COVID besides a mild illness will occur. According to NPR, long COVID — caused by an infection of COVID — is still a major risk factor. Symptoms include acute muscle pain, fatigue, and brain fog. As this virus is still relatively new to the scientific community, treatments for this condition are still unknown. Despite Omicron being a lot less severe than its cousins, there has been no data so far to prove that long COVID isn’t a possibility. 

Long COVID isn’t the only risk associated with getting the virus. Forbes magazine has reported a decline in male fertility has been found, while the CDC published a study on an increased risk of diabetes in children following the infection from COVID. Even though many are having less severe cases, Omicron has still caused more cases of COVID. 

Therefore, a greater number of people have been flooding hospitals, causing medical workers to be overwhelmed, burnt-out and in short supply. This uptick in cases makes it difficult to obtain treatment for other conditions such as a heart attack or stroke. If people begin to give up crucial infection-preventing measures such as masks, the hospital overload will drag out and hinder care to others. 

In short, I understand that being back at school provides a sense of normality, as though the pandemic never happened. It’s a freeing thought; however, online school will drastically lower the risk of getting COVID by reducing the number of people we’re in contact with daily. Even if this transition isn’t feasible due to Gov. Charlie Baker’s in-person school mandate, a hybrid option would be preferable to an in-person one, or even a temporary online school during a surge. 

South encompasses a diverse population of students, many of whom have various health issues and family members who are at varying risks of infection. It is impossible to assume that everyone at South is healthy and low-risk. Many of us have close contacts who are at-risk, and keeping loved ones safe should be a top priority.

NO – Annika Engelbrecht

My alarm clock rang, but I had no desire to get up. After grappling with online school for almost a year, forcing myself out of bed each morning became a daily struggle by March 2021. Once finally out of bed, I would drag myself over to my desk and get ready for yet another day of mind-numbing migraines, faulty connections and endless classes on Zoom. 

By 1 p.m., I was ready to call it quits, for the cacophony of my household echoing constantly throughout the day prevented me from focusing on my schoolwork. My dad’s discussing with his own students the velocity of someone jumping out of a plane with a skateboard wafted up from our kitchen and definitely didn’t help me focus on my French grammar lesson.

Such memories shared by our generation of students serve as constant reminders for why reverting to virtual learning isn’t the best option for students’ learning and mental health.

When I think back to the material I learned last year, my mind goes blank. While I generally remember the concepts we covered, my recollection lacks specifics. According to a Washington Post article detailing a study by McKinsey & Co, students lost anywhere from one to five months of education in mathematics from March to June 2020. 

Going back to online learning would only add to the learning loss that so many students have experienced. South can’t replace the education lost from online school, but it can prevent a greater decline by staying in person. 

Retention levels weren’t the only thing that suffered during the pandemic; students’ mental health did, too. After learning over Zoom for a year, I felt completely burnt out. Every day I would stare at a screen and sit in one place for hours on end. This monotonous routine not only made me unable to pay attention in class, but caused me pain physically. 

The very nature of online school contributed to a lack of interpersonal connections between students, yet another way our mental health declined. Despite teachers’ attempts at encouraging group work through breakout rooms, the awkward online environment only felt more isolating. No one ever spoke, had their cameras on or even attempted to do the group work together. Zoom lacked the capabilities to strengthen student relationships and promote socialization among students, which is essential in fostering a connected community. 

According to the American Psychological Association, in-person classrooms are more conducive for student motivation and overall social development. Without in-school interaction and student bonds, it was hard to connect with others, which created months of social isolation. However, once back in the building, I could finally reconnect with people I hadn’t seen since my freshman English class. After months and months of mute buttons, silent breakout rooms and blank screens, I learned how important socialization was for my well-being, which pre-pandemic me took for granted. 

Despite all of the benefits to keeping schools open, there are still ways that South can improve their safety measures. The lack of mandatory COVID testing is a problem that needs fixing. Even though weekly pool testing was planned originally for high school students, Newton Public Schools never implemented it at the high school level. The 73 and 99 positive cases that South recorded over December break and during the first week back to school served as a reminder that variants are still rampant. 

Being back has incredible benefits which, with the proper safety measures, greatly outweigh the risk of spreading COVID. I feel as though I’ve learned and retained more in the past five months than I did all of last year, and being able to laugh and talk to my classmates has helped renew my desire to go to school. Although COVID is still prominent, it’s possible to stay in person and combat the virus.