Across the country, students and teachers are protesting for safer schools during the Omicron surge.
Across the country, students and teachers are protesting for safer schools during the Omicron surge. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

This is my first year of high school, a year that would be full of excitement in any ordinary year, but this year particularly so. Because of the pandemic, I haven't had a full year of in-person school since the sixth grade! So it's no surprise that this year, the exhilaration of being around my classmates has been palpable. When we first started school in September, I could almost see people's smiles through their masks.

There is a broad consensus that in-person learning is paramount for students. But to do in-person learning successfully, we must do it safely. The COVID-19 Omicron variant is raging through the country, particularly affecting students. Currently, there are more children hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any point previously during the pandemic. Schools and school districts across the country, including many in our region, have gone remote or outright closed due to unsafe conditions and staffing shortages.

I was delighted, then, to hear in Governor Inslee's State of the State speech this week that he is committed to education. "We are committed to having our schools open this year," he said, "but the impacts of necessary closures linger." He emphasized that "to keep schools open, we must invest more" in schools.

A meaningful way to keep schools open while protecting the safety of students and staff is with proper masking. We know that masks work. High-caliber masks, such as N95s, KN95s, or KF94s, are highly protective in filtering viral particles. These are the masks worn by doctors and nurses to protect themselves when they see COVID-19 patients. Even with a virus as transmissible as the Omicron variant, good masking can markedly prevent the spread of disease.

To successfully keep schools open, all students and staff must wear a high-quality proper, County-recommended mask to school. I believe the district must provide every student, teacher, administrator, and support staff with high-quality masks twice a week while we're in the middle of our current Omicron wave.

Thankfully, our Governor agrees. I was thrilled to see that earlier this month, Inslee announced that Washington state purchased 10 million masks, including KN95 and surgical masks, to distribute to schools and communities over the next few weeks.

But here we are, a week later, as we creep toward the peak of the Omicron surge, and these masks are nowhere to be seen, nor are plans for their distribution being publicly discussed. I didn't hear any mention of the KN95 mask distribution at the Seattle School Board meeting last night. No mention of KN95 masking on the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) website. No communication with parents about KN95 masking. And no discussion of KN95 masking at my high school where I serve on the student government. This lack of communication hopefully does not imply a lack of planning.

Ava Gharib is a 9th-grade student at Lincoln High School.
Ava Gharib is a 9th-grade student at Lincoln High School. Photo provided by Gharib
The details are important. When will these masks be available? As the highly infectious Omicron variant surges, we need these masks now. Will schools receive enough masks so that every school member, from students to teachers to support staff, all have access to these highly protective masks? I believe each school member should receive at least two high-quality masks per week. Planning is important, and these plans must be made now, before the arrival of the masks, to ensure smooth and efficient distribution. Everyone at school needs to wear these masks for the next few weeks as Omicron surges. Students and parents need to be involved in these discussions from the start.

We are very fortunate to live in a region with little-to-no drama around masking. To my knowledge, students and teachers have masked all year without incident or complaint. We've masked during class. We've masked when we laugh with friends. We've even worn personal protective equipment when we play our wind instruments in band. Students will gladly wear KN95s to protect ourselves, our families, our communities, all while keeping schools open, but please keep us informed about the process.

Omicron is surging in our region, affecting our students. Last week we had 803 new COVID-19 cases among SPS students and staff, radically higher than any of the prior weeks. Several SPS schools have unexpectedly needed to close this week, including my own, Lincoln High School. Students at Franklin High School, which has the highest COVID-19 infection numbers in the district, have organized protests this week, demanding the school implement safety measures before they return in person. Perhaps their most important demand is N95 masks for all.

With the surge of the highly infectious Omicron variant peaking in our community, we need to distribute high-quality masks for every student and teacher at school right now. Every week delayed means hundreds more cases and multiple new school closures. Masks work, but they only work if we can wear them.

I ask that SPS begin immediate community outreach to inform students and parents about the status of masks and the plans for distribution. Part of the plans must be the requirement to wear high-quality (N95, KN95, or KF94) masks at school while Omicron is surging. We're fortunate to live in a state that aims to follow the science—now we need to quickly implement these plans to keep our communities safe and our schools open.

Ava Gharib is a 9th-grade student at Lincoln High School.