Charis Granger-Mbugua graduated Cobb County Schools, where her young son is now a student.
In this guest column, Granger-Mbugua, a Spelman College graduate and former high school teacher who earned National Board Certification, discusses the threat to students and teachers from the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 and calls for Cobb Schools to take critical precautions.
By Charis Granger-Mbugua
Well, here we are again. The end of another year of pandemic living. The brink of a new year, with all its opportunities and possibilities looming. And, for many, the continued desperate attempts to cling to joy and peace and hope amid COVID-19 cases surging.
Try as we might to ignore the proverbial 50-ton elephant in the room, the reality remains that in less than a week, schools across the country and across the state plan to swing open their doors and continue with the business of teaching and learning.
In Cobb County, where my children attend school, that means welcoming back more than 125,000 students and staff members into buildings and onto school buses without a mask mandate. There is no doubt in my mind that educators want to educate, and children want and need to be in schools. But it might behoove us to take stock of not just what we have all been through over the last two years, but also what we have been through over just the last two weeks — the holiday season coupled with the explosion of the omicron variant of COVID-19.
While initial reports suggest that omicron produces milder symptoms in those infected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and medical experts are still waiting for further data before they conclusively state just how mild omicron is for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
What we do know, however, is that this particular variant is much more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and that pediatric hospitalization rates are on the rise, outpacing adult hospitalizations over the last four weeks, according to an NBC News analysis.
Children — students in classrooms across Cobb and across the country — are not immune to COVID-19. That small fact is worth pausing to have the hard conversations. Conversations that district leaders, in Cobb specifically, where I have a vested interest, refuse to have.
Yes, pediatric cases tend to be mild, but that is not always the case. And there is not one parent I know who wants it to be his or her child who ends up hospitalized, or with long COVID, or diagnosed with the rare, but very possible multisystem (MIS-C) inflammatory syndrome.
But children are not the only ones in schools. Educators have worked tirelessly for nearly two years to support students during a global pandemic that has completely changed the face of education. From navigating lockdowns and virtual teaching to managing the delicate mental health of children and everything in between, teachers have been asked to do the impossible. And they have done it with grace, love and compassion. And they have done it, in many cases, without the supports and compensation they so clearly deserve.
This winter break was for so many educators a lifeline. A chance to pause and catch a breath. But unfortunately, like so many, they too fell victim to omicron. Instead of spending the break recharging, many educators spent it sick, quarantined, or isolated from family and loved ones. On Monday, they are expected to get up and go back to the classroom. And they will. But at some point, we as a society have to acknowledge the unsustainability of it all.
I recognize that there are those who continue to laugh in the face of science, who believe that COVID-19 is nothing more than a glorified cold. I recognize that there is very little chance that those people will feel the same sense of urgency as I do.
But that cannot negate the fact there are hundreds of thousands of people, who like my family, have tried to do the hard things over the last two years for the sake of protecting those around us. It cannot negate the fact there are countless parents who worry endlessly about the health and well-being of their children every day those children step foot inside a school building. It cannot negate the fact there are so many mothers, like me, who hold our breath at the sound of every sniffle or cough, not because we want to live in fear or paranoia, but because we are so tired of the testing, the quarantining and the masking. We do it anyway to protect our parents, and our grandparents, and our immunocompromised friends and loved ones.
So, what else can we do that has not been done before?
Maybe the reality is that we must keep doing what we’ve been doing all along.
We must admit that the pandemic is not over.
We must continue to recognize that COVID-19 is always changing, and we have to be willing to pivot when it does. When community spread is high, as it is right now in Cobb, with 1012 cases per 100,000, as of Dec. 28, we must do things differently. Maybe that means skipping the dinner date in a crowded restaurant or putting on a mask inside the grocery store. I commend Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid for reinstating the declaration of emergency in Cobb as of Dec. 22. When we make sacrifices together, we get through this more quickly.
We must continue holding our elected officials and leaders accountable. We must continue to find ways to speak up and ask the uncomfortable and difficult questions. We must continue to challenge the status quo and advocate for our children and our families.
As a parent in Cobb County, I continue to ask our district leaders and school board members for open communication, honesty and transparency. I continue to urge our superintendent and decision makers to listen to science and medical experts rather than making up their own rules and policies based on political agendas. And I continue to ask that the Cobb County School District acknowledge the reality of what is happening and come up with an appropriate and data-driven plan — whether that be instituting a mandatory mask mandate or reopening schools virtually for the first two weeks in January to help mitigate the spread.
While somethings may remain the same as we enter in to 2022 — like the ongoing presence of COVID-19 in our lives — somethings can be different.
And we owe it to our children, to our teachers, to our schools, and to our community to make this new year a better one.
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