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As schools debate COVID safety, students stage walkouts to voice demands

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant may be past its peak in parts of the U.S. Several states are reporting fewer new daily cases now than they were, say, a week ago. But that doesn't mean things are back to normal. The country as a whole is still reporting more than 700,000 new daily COVID cases, far more than the daily numbers reported during earlier surges. And the pressures caused by the omicron wave are still being felt all across the nation, at many hospitals, businesses and - this is where we begin our program today - at schools.

In many states, schools have become battlegrounds in the fight over COVID mask mandates. Politicians, parents and staff all have their opinions about how school should operate during a pandemic. Students themselves, however, often feel like their voices are not being heard. And last week, many of them decided to do something about it by walking out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).

MARTIN: During one walkout in Montgomery County, Md., one of the organizers used a bullhorn to give voice to student demands.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are packed in to the schools, shoulder to shoulder every day. We're here with no social distancing in our classrooms, a virtual option that will severely impact our grades and our mental health.

MARTIN: What the students want varies from school to school. We reached out to one of the walkout organizers at Northwest High School in Germantown, Md. Ian McNeely is a junior at the school. We ask him what prompted him and his fellow students to speak out.

IAN MCNEELY: When we came back from winter break, COVID cases were incredibly high, and the county was barely changing any of its already not great COVID measures to compensate. So we waited, and we waited. And then there was - this is on top of a staffing shortage. And then there were, at one point, 90 bus routes that didn't get serviced one day. So then last week, they announced we're going to walk out.

MARTIN: What's the rest of the school year been like? What's it been like so far?

MCNEELY: It's not that much different from before COVID. There's no social distancing. There are hygiene issues, with a lack of soap in the bathrooms. That's what I've heard from other schools as well. I mean, I personally have been affected by the staffing shortage. One of my teachers, we have not seen her since November at the latest. And, you know, we don't have temperature tests. As I said, social distancing is pretty much not implemented at all. And then in the classes, we sit right next to each other, only a foot of space between us.

MARTIN: So, you know, it's interesting. One of the reasons we called you is that, you know, as you see that parents in some parts of the country and, in fact, including in this area - really different reactions to this. I mean, some parents have gotten really aggressive about not wanting their kids to wear masks. And they've complained bitterly. They feel like officials are not listening to them. Any sense of why it's such a different attitude about this?

MCNEELY: Well, I think the parents who are generally complaining are not in the schools. We are. We are the ones experiencing this, whereas the parents only hear it secondhand, maybe thirdhand. Like, I was at a board meeting in December. And some of the things that were said there were just not true because they haven't been to the schools, and they don't know what it's like.

MARTIN: Do you feel safe in your school?

MCNEELY: Personally, not really. I did get COVID. I don't think it was - my brother was the first one to show symptoms, so I don't think I got it from school, I think, because he is not old enough to go to school. But, you know, there are regularly students out. And as I said, you know, there aren't safety precautions, really. There's testing, and there's masks, but that's about it.

MARTIN: Do you have some specific demands of the school or of the county administration?

MCNEELY: Our main demand was going virtual at the very least for as long as it takes them to get precautions like social distancing and temperature tests and all of that in order. You know, people disagree on how long it should be. Some people say two weeks. Others say, you know, as long as it takes. They aren't communicating with us. And they aren't - you know, what they're doing isn't enough. And I have personally experienced, having been out with COVID for two weeks, being very behind. It's just not something any student should have to choose between, either getting COVID or their grades going down and their mental health suffering. You know, we're going to keep - we don't intend to stop doing this. We intend to keep going until things are improving and until students are safe.

MARTIN: That was Ian McNeely. He is a junior at Northwest High School in Germantown, Md. He helped organize a student walkout there last week over COVID safety measures at the school. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.