By Kennedy Rodriguez and Maggie Stern
Students are demanding more protections amidst another COVID surge and renewed debates about returning to in-person classes this semester. They are coping with the added stress of facing exposure to Omicron, the new COVID-19 variant which spreads rapidly. In response, students from Oakland to New York to Chicago are speaking up at school board meetings, organizing letter-writing campaigns, and leading walkouts to demand stronger safety measures.
Texas students have also joined this youth-led movement. Students in Round Rock ISD are calling for increased precautions, such as providing free N95 or KN95 masks and creating outdoor eating spaces in their schools. A student petition currently has over 600 signatures from middle and high schoolers across the district, and the youth organizers held a walkout last week. Students report that they don’t feel safe in the classroom as they watch parents who work in healthcare struggle, or witness staffing shortages at school due to infections.
College students have expressed similar concerns as campuses reopen for the spring semester. At the University of Texas at Austin, classes will be remote for the first two weeks of class and students must return in-person on the 31st of January. Other Texas colleges are following suit. These changes come in response to the highest volume of COVID-19 cases on UT’s campus since Fall of 2020 and a return to Stage 5 transmission rates in Austin. This is a reflection of one high-traffic Texas city, and does not account for the possible exposure of students that have traveled between cities for winter break, or the exposure rates in other areas. UT students have been vocal online about returning to campus and risking heightened exposure that threatens their health and hinders their ability to attend class lectures, engage in extracurriculars, or see family members and friends. There are many added stressors to factor in, such as how students’ housing, dining, transportation, and overall wellbeing can be affected for students when exposed.
While decisions about education during COVID have been difficult, students have spoken up—and now decision makers need to listen. Asking students to come back onto campus puts them at high risk for contracting the virus and spreading it to others, even if many are vaccinated and masked. This is especially true when students show little to no symptoms and have no reason to suspect illness. Many Texas schools and institutions have done away with mask mandates, and only strongly suggest the use of them. This suggestion is not enough for students like those in Round Rock ISD who are demanding stronger protections.
Although we cannot control the ongoing pandemic, we can control how we influence our decision makers. If you are a student, you can make your voice heard. Contact your school board, your college president, or get in touch with local leaders or other students who are pushing back. For high school students, you can contact your teachers, principals, or school board members. For college students, look into getting in touch with classmates who might be involved in civic engagement organizations and professors who are civically engaged, or contact the Office of the President or the Division of Student Affairs.
Finding your school board:
To learn more about COVID-19 safety protocols for high transmission areas: