Less than an hour after my youngest left for high school Friday, I got the text. Less than a third of the kids in his class were there for first period. There was another substitute. And there were 10 more reported COVID cases in the school (on top of many more earlier that week).
He’s usually my chill kid, but he was clearly worried (“sketchy” was used several times) and asked to be picked up (even though he’d been super-excited to show his friends the Hasan Piker merch that he got as a late Christmas present).
Schools across the country are closing again — not because of government shutdowns, but because the insanely contagious omicron variant is doing that job for us. When you don’t have enough healthy teachers or students, something’s got to give.
We live in a time when a major Michigan hospital is emailing patients and running ads declaring in all caps, “We’re at a breaking point,” thanks to unvaccinated patients overrunning hospitals and staff getting ill.
Pretending that schools would be immune from the omicron domino effect is magical thinking. If we were serious about trying to ensure in-person learning continued, we would talk about vaccine mandates for students and staff. But given that only 62% of the country is fully vaccinated (it’s only 57% in Michigan and North Carolina) and millions believe right-wing conspiracies about the shots, we don’t even discuss the smartest policy option.
Instead, there’s a lot of screaming from Republicans and pundits that teachers unions should be broken and schools should be forced to remain open — something they’ve always wanted and are just using a pandemic as an excuse. They cynically believe that making teachers the enemy, as they’ve done with attacks on Critical Race Theory, is the key to winning the midterms. (Also, government mandates are evidently OK as long as it furthers a right-wing agenda, got it).
It’s weird how the same people who tell us we musn’t ever hurt the feefees of selfishly unvaxxed folks that brought on the omicron onslaught have no problem calling teachers lazy bums for having concerns about their safety.
So I didn’t hesitate to pick my son up last week, even though Ivy League economics professors might tell me I should tell my kid to suck it up because it’s time to just rosé all day and put the plague behind us! And childless guys who average polls for a living might lecture me that my kid being out of school is an atrocity on par with 460,000 people dying in the Iraq war.
Let’s take a moment to talk about how some people have decided a plague is the perfect opportunity to do TV hits on subject areas in which they have zero expertise for the clout. There’s been no shortage of folks popping off on social media about Zoom classes and their favorite villain, teachers who don’t want to die.
In years to come, people are going to discover the tweets of their elite parents screaming that schools better take their kids off their hands during the unprecedented omicron wave in the pandemic and have a lot to talk to their therapists about.
Look, everyone is frustrated in Year 608 of COVID. The vast majority of parents are just doing the best we can, trying to make sure our kids are healthy in every way — especially if they have disabilities, preexisting conditions and mental health issues that were largely ignored in society long before the pandemic.
Kids have never been immune to COVID and have always been vectors for the virus, but the delta and omicron surges have resulted in more children getting it and even dying. There’s so much we don’t know about the long-term effects of the disease — another aspect that’s frequently ignored — but a new study showing child COVID survivors are more susceptible to Type I and II diabetes is disturbing.
We also don’t spend much time talking about how many children have lost loved ones and been orphaned during the pandemic. In Michigan, more than 3,200 kids lost a primary caregiver, hitting Black families the hardest — and that data is just until last June before delta and omicron took their toll. Nationally, 140,000 kids have lost their primary caregiver in that same time.
That’s the kind of trauma that takes years to work through. And yet the media Discourse about kids’ mental health is, once again, shallow, incomplete and often in service of a right-wing agenda. While online learning certainly hasn’t been beneficial for most kids — mine included — it’s sophomoric to blame the youth mental health crisis on that alone when many kids are dealing with myriad issues like family illness, poverty, body issues and more. (Not to mention the fact that many are deeply concerned by big problems like the planet burning up, school shootings, structural racism and student debt).
I’ve taught my kids to advocate for themselves, their health and their safety — you have to, especially as this is a generation that’s grown up with dystopian active shooter drills. And so when my kids don’t feel safe at school, I trust them.
And I really don’t care if rich parents dabbling in soft COVID denial judge me for being weak. I didn’t have kids with the expectation that a nanny would take over after a few weeks, followed by private preschool and then school and scheduled activities from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. so I could have plenty of me time. That’s not parenting for 99% of people, sorry, especially those of us who spent years as single moms. And more importantly, why would we want it to be? My kids are the most amazing people I know and being there to guide them on their journey — especially through a pandemic and attacks on democracy — is exactly what I signed up for.
So I’m sorry you’re sick of COVID. We all are. It didn’t have to be this bad, as we’re terrifyingly closing in on 1 million deaths. But too many Americans have bought into anti-vax propaganda and seem determined to keep the virus circulating in perpetuity.
Seeing more and more thought leaders shrug that some people just have to get sick and die is monstrous. Omicron might be more mild, especially if you’re vaccinated, but it seems quite adept at spreading apathy and inhumanity.
Susan J. Demas is the editor-in-chief of the Michigan Advance, which first published this essay.