An Open Letter on Reopening Schools

Fri, July 31, 2020 — Published by Omaha North students

UPDATE: As of 2:15 PM, August 7, Omaha Public Schools has made the decision to start the school year fully remotely. We will still be taking names for signatures on the letter to show how much community support the district's decision had, though it may take longer for the names to appear on the site. Thank you all for your support.

“I’ve thought about the school districts’ plans to reopen school and what the results may be. There’s a simple fact that I don’t really think I had internalized until today: Teachers will die,” says Micah Gilbert, a rising senior at Omaha North.

This isn't just a single instance; this is a phenomenon. When Omaha Public Schools first announced the back to school policies in late June, there was hope that COVID-19 would be successfully contained by the end of the summer. However, as time goes on, and the virus only continues to spread, the idea of returning to school has grown more and more grim. Our concerns are only heightened by the recent blocking of the proposed mask mandate.

Let us be clear, we want students to have the ability to return to school full time and in person, which is why we support taking classes fully remote until the city of Omaha shows that they can control the spread of COVID-19. Until the city is willing and able to protect students, teachers, and families, it is not safe to return to school. According to Dr. Ali Khan, the dean of UNMC’s College of Public Health, “The No. 1 thing we can do to protect our children is to decrease transmission in our communities.” Once COVID-19 gets a foothold in a school, it has the potential to spread undetected due to its long incubation period and the fact that some people don’t ever develop symptoms.

It is important to not understate the dangers of the coronavirus. The United States has a 3.4 percent case-fatality ratio, compared to roughly 0.1% for the seasonal flu. While there are very few severe cases among those under 18, we also have concern for our teachers and families. We must keep in mind the medical uncertainty surrounding this virus. Firstly, while rare, reinfections have been reported, meaning it is possible for an individual to be infected more than once. But as new information comes out, the most worrying aspect of coronavirus is not its reinfection, and potentially not even its mortality, but its long-term effects, specifically pertaining to the heart. Science Magazine reports that ongoing problems include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain.” They add that “with the crisis just months old, no one knows how far into the future symptoms will endure, and whether COVID-19 will prompt the onset of chronic diseases.” Many of those who develop cases that face hospitalization will face a long recovery. Even students who are likely to have mild cases are still at risk of lingering bodily harm caused by a mild case of coronavirus. This is all preventable. When so much is still unknown, it is important to reign on the side of safety. We shouldn’t be willing to take a risk that we are unable to quantify.

There are clear drawbacks to both virtual and in-person learning, but the potential consequences of in-person learning are far more severe. Virtual learning may be less effective than in-person, but it assures some standards of workplace and school safety. Madison Johnson, a rising senior at Omaha North, writes that “I hate the idea of virtual learning, but I hate the thought of losing teachers even more. Sacrifices should be made but our lives shouldn’t be among them.” Consistent with the national trend, returning to school will cause disproportionate harm to minorities and marginalized communities. Lastly, as pandemics are predicted to happen more frequently as time goes on, it will be increasingly more important to have tried and true remote learning procedures.

Some teachers have children; all teachers have families. What happens when one of them dies? Some OPS teachers are already preparing for the worst. One teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote that

I miss my kids. I miss my classroom. I miss my colleagues. But going back to school puts my kids, my colleagues, and myself at risk. I am immunocompromised, and I'm scared I'm going to die. In preparation for my return to school, I have filled out a Living Will as well as a Medical Power of Attorney. These things should not be on my "Back to School" list . . . We are teachers, not martyrs.

Most of us have teachers who, aside from their teaching responsibilities, also act as parents, counselors, and therapists for their students. They are not replaceable, they are humans with families, and in many cases, they are also an integral part of a student's family away from home.

Lastly, before coronavirus, students already faced a mental health epidemic, with many reporting heightened stress, anxiety, and depression. We worry that knowing that someone in the same room as you could either be infected with COVID-19 or be an asymptomatic carrier will cause additional distress and that students not taking the safety precautions seriously could be triggering or detrimental to other students with anxiety or other disorders.

For the aforementioned reasons, we do not want to be transmission vectors for our peers, teachers, or family members, which is why we are asking Omaha Public Schools to remain closed until COVID-19 is under control in the city of Omaha. While we are open to dialogue with health officials about how to define “under control,” we are currently using UNMC's threshold of less than 50 new cases a day per million people on a seven-day rolling average (for reference, Douglas County was reporting nearly 151 new cases a day per million people in mid-July). We encourage you to read through the links contained in this letter for more detailed information.

If you support our message and would like to help, please take the time to add your name (instructions below), sign our petition, and share our posts on Twitter and Instagram


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This site was created by Micah Gilbert and Jackson Long and is hosted on GitHub Pages.