Good morning, my name is Pragya Upreti. Right now, I should be in class, but I am missing school because I feel a deep sense of urgency to share both my experience as a senior at Lafayette High School in Lexington and my expertise as a co-leader of the Kentucky Student Voice Team.
The Kentucky Student Voice Team strongly supports the statewide mask mandate for schools and the Kentucky Board of Education’s regulation. While we were hopeful to return to school this year without masks, rising COVID-19 rates and the spread of the delta variant have made doing so clearly unsafe.
Despite what some have said about the negative impacts of wearing a mask in schools, public health experts tell us that masks are the least invasive way to protect students and educators and ensure a return to the type of education experience we know and miss.
Over the past year, Audrey and I and about two dozen other members of the Kentucky Student Voice Team spent hundreds of hours trying to understand the experiences of Kentucky students other than ourselves throughout this pandemic. Specifically, last year, the Kentucky Student Voice Team surveyed nearly 10,000 students from 119 of Kentucky’s 120 counties. What we found in our Coping with COVID Student to Student study resonates with my own high school reality and underscores the need for us to do whatever it takes to ensure Kentucky students have a shot at more in-person learning this school year.
Spending nearly my entire junior year of high school on a virtual learning platform was not easy. Among so many other things, I missed the casual banter with friends in the hallway, easy access to teachers when I needed extra help, and so many of the extra curricular activities that make learning fun. I wasn’t able to receive the same level of education to the same standard as before the pandemic, and I wasn’t alone in that.
What we learned from over 65% of the young people who responded to our Coping with COVID survey--is that remote learning took a severe toll on many of us, and particularly among our peers from less-resourced backgrounds.
In addition, young people we heard from told us that academic achievement was not the only thing that suffered. The middle and high school students who responded to our survey told us that increased responsibilities at home and work, and changes in physical, financial, and emotional safety and stability all created drastic challenges for them as they remained stuck at home. These added stressors contributed to the hundreds of students in our study reporting a decline in their mental health due to COVID-19 and virtual instruction. This was something to which I could readily relate.
For weeks last spring, I was fearful of removing my mask to eat lunch in a cafeteria crowded with students face-to-face with one another. I want you to know that there was--and still remains--a great deal of discomfort in doing that. But worse than masks at lunch is the prospect of having to eat lunch alone again--and for long stretches--at home. The social isolation was crushing.
I feel the weight of Covid so profoundly because I’ve spent a sizable chunk of my teenagehood grappling with its daily uncertainties. Beyond the fear of getting and spreading a deadly virus are the more everyday questions: Will my wifi hold up? When can I see my friends again? What will college look like for me? What about my lacrosse season?
And again from our Coping with Covid research, I know it’s not just me.
Nearly one quarter of the nearly 10,000 students we surveyed described a negative change in their future plans.
So, like so many other students across our state, I have had to adapt to changes that I could never have previously predicted or imagined. But, if there’s one silver lining, it’s this:
With that uncertainty has come growth, and I’ve learned something crucial in the process.
Sometimes making uncomfortable decisions, like the decision to keep a mask on at all times in school or making the tough transition online last year... is necessary. Sometimes we need to think about the commonwealth ahead of our own comfort.
As a high school student who willingly wears a mask to school each day and as a high school researcher who has heard the voices of thousands of Kentucky students about the overwhelming need to maintain in-person learning, I implore you to uphold the mask mandate in our schools. Prioritizing the health and safety of young people should not be rooted in politics, but instead guided by informed decision making.
Hello, I’m Audrey Gilbert and I’m a junior at Frankfort High School--located exactly one half of a mile from here--and a co-leader of the Kentucky Student Voice Team.
This month, my school, like many others, eliminated our virtual option and brought all students fully back in person. Even though we are masked up, no amount of face covering can mask the anxiety that my peers and I face every time we walk down the hall and see that student who thinks that they don’t need a mask. The student who says “Well I’m fully vaccinated so this doesn’t apply to me.” This past year and a half of the pandemic has been rough on everyone, and the fear of catching or transmitting COVID has held me back from participating in many quintessentially high school experiences.
Last year, I was fully virtual. I only went into the school building for special occasions, like math exams. Every time I would go into school to take a math exam, I would freeze with fear seeing some of my classmates with their masks down, completely disregarding their own health and everyone else’s. I would go home after those exams panicking, not about how well I did on the test, but worried about whether or not I caught this virus that could hospitalize my immunocompromised mother. The knowledge that I had done everything I could by wearing my mask to school wasn’t good enough to calm my nerves.
When I found out that I would be going back to school fully in-person for the first time in almost 18 months, I was reasonably anxious. I know my classmates and teachers well enough to understand that if masks were optional, many would choose comfort over safety. We would have no fighting chance against COVID.
Thankfully, my district was cautious. Frankfort Independent listened to the public health experts who told us that masks offer a critical barrier to the delta variant. The district has required masks from the beginning, but after speaking with peers and friends from around the state, fear still lives on in districts where school leaders aren’t stepping up and doing the right thing, but rather battling science, compassion, and empathy with baseless arguments that show timidity instead of strength.
Attending school fully in person now, I’m still anxious about the health of my family along with the thousands of other things that high school students go through every day. Knowing that the Kentucky Board of Education will mandate masks until the virus is no longer a looming threat gives me a bit more comfort that all schools in Kentucky are united in our efforts to keep students safe and healthy and in school. Wearing a mask is a simple action we can all take to show love to our neighbors.
This is not an issue of partisan politics or popularity, but an issue of the health, safety, and equity for our students, teachers, families, and communities. Superintendents and local boards pledge to serve these groups, but by adamantly opposing this simple precautionary measure, they are breaking that promise. Mandating masks keeps schools open and students learning across the state without the added pressure of poor internet connectivity, unstable home learning conditions, and the lack of direct support that we all have seen over this past school year.
To the members of this Committee, I implore you to consider all children, all teachers, and all families. Consider their health, both physical and mental. Keep in mind students who have compromised immune systems or live with others who have them. Isn't it the job of our representatives to represent the most vulnerable among us too?
We call our great state a commonwealth because it means our government will be there for everyone, standing to protect each one of us when we are under threat. But if we do not fully support the Kentucky Board of Education’s mask mandate in schools, we will set our state up for failure. We will leave our communities at risk and create a future where young people like me can no longer trust our commonwealth to act in our common interests. Surely, Kentucky can do better than that.
The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.
This testimony was written collectively by members of KSVT and presented to the Administrative Regulation Review Joint Subcommittee. Pragya Upreti, a senior at Lafayette High School in Lexington, and Audrey Gilbert, a junior at Frankfort High School, delivered the testimony.