Crossfire: Should We Return to School As Soon As Possible?
October 13, 2020
Returning to School is too Dangerous for Now
In-person classes are simply not practical yet.
While many teachers and students may be looking forward to a return to in-person classes, it simply isn’t feasible. Consider the fact that the school closed its doors in March when there was a single case in New Mexico with whom a member of the extended Academy community may have been in contact. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, there have been almost 29,000 coronavirus cases in New Mexico, with almost 6,500 cases in Bernalillo County alone. So why then would we consider returning to in-person classes?
Academy says that it has invested more than $750,000 “in enhanced COVID-19 safety measures” including a new HVAC system and air purifiers in every room, but these measures aren’t enough. The items the school has invested in do not reduce overall contact size. Given the amount of space available to the school, Academy could have invested $750 million and it wouldn’t have made a difference. There is simply a limit to how effectively the school can enforce social distancing in a large student population. With each student in two classes of around 12 students, each student should be in contact with only 22 other students. However, each of these 22 students is in contact with another 11 different students, who are in turn in contact with at least another 11 different students. Just accounting for 3 degrees of separation, the contact size per student is the entire student population.
If we account for the faculty, students, and staff on campus, we can conservatively say that there are around 1,500 people on campus each day. Assuming that Academy students are relatively safe and only closely interact with an average of 4 other people regularly outside of school, there are 6,000 people within 1 degree of separation of someone regularly on campus. Combined with the 1,500 people on campus, Academy has a 1 degree of separation contact size of 7,500 people. This means that if any one of those 7,500 people gets COVID, it is likely that someone who goes on campus regularly will also get it.
The NMDOH predicts that around 14 people out of 100,000 will get COVID-19 per week in Bernalillo county in late October and early November. While there is only a 0.014% chance that a given person in Bernalillo County will get COVID in a week, an event that is low probability per individual becomes relatively likely across a large population. The probability that there is at least one case within 1 degree of separation of the Academy in the first week of reopening is 65%. This is the equivalent to rolling a die and hoping for a 1 or a 2, knowing that any other number leads to chaos. If we look at this over a two week period, we see that the probability of at least one case in the broader community is 88%. By the third week, it is 95%.
One flaw with these estimates is the assumption of independence between cases, meaning that if a single person in the community gets coronavirus, the assumed probability of a second case in the community is still 0.014%. In reality, with a single case in the community, the probability of a second case is even higher, meaning that the estimates above can only provide a baseline and the reality of the situation will be much less favorable.
A single case among this 1 degree of separation group is highly likely to lead to multiple cases among the students, faculty and staff regularly coming to school. While the school has plans to symptom track students, multiple studies have shown that coronavirus is still transmittable days prior to any evident symptoms. The only way for the school to truly prevent spreading would be to administer coronavirus tests to every student every three days. This is simply not logistically nor economically feasible.
These estimates assume that Academy students are only interacting with their nuclear families. This is not the case. Some students are working at jobs and many are participating in club sports or other formal and informal group activities. While the Academy can enforce some social distancing at school, the administration is taking no steps to control students outside of school. Academy students, like most teenagers, often make poor decisions, and many of these decisions will result in greater levels of exposure.
Academy is not a closed community. The health of the Academy is tied to the health of New Mexico. As state-wide restrictions relax, New Mexico will see another spike in cases, leading to even higher rates on campus. In the process of considering a return, we cannot just consider ourselves. It is our responsibility to not return to in-person classes in order to protect the overall health of Albuquerque, which will suffer as more and more businesses return. Academy is one of the few schools that actually has the ability to provide high quality remote schooling. This allows for a continued high level of education, while protecting our students. By staying online, we reduce the total cases in the broader Albuquerque community.
So while the administration is under pressure by many parents demanding a return to in-person classes, a return is simply not safe for the students, faculty, staff and state. If we in fact return, we will see multiple cases on campus within the first few weeks. A return to school will undoubtedly lead to multiple cases on campus, and possibly even deaths. According to the CDC, 3% of all cases result in death. While many of the people on campus are young and unlikely to die from coronavirus, the Academy community also consists of many older men and women, as well as many people with preexisting health conditions, all of whom are much more vulnerable to COVID-19. What amount of risk are we willing to accept? How many lives is in-person education worth? By returning to in person classes, the Academy would assert that the health of our population and even the lives of our faculty and staff are worth less to us than a small uptick in the quality of education.
We Should Return As Soon As Legally Allowable
Students don’t just want it, they need it.
Students at Albuquerque Academy should return to in-person learning as soon as Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham allows us to do so. Since Academy’s campus was shut down on March 11 due to possible exposure to COVID-19, members of the community have lost the opportunity to form bonds with each other that cannot be developed in zoom classes. These bonds are formed while passing on the Path, conversing in the library, or stumbling upon one another in the small yet meaningful occurrences that happen day to day on a campus such as ours, with its cherished nooks and crannies. The shutdown of schools due to COVID-19 has shaken each of us and removed access to a place many know as a second home – our campus. Not only have we lost these moments, but students have experienced loss of focus, stress due to heavy homework loads, social isolation, and mental health issues, all of which already existed at our school but have been amplified by the tragedy of a global pandemic. Academy has created a solid COVID-19 prevention program, and since most Academy students want to return to school, there is no good reason to delay once the Governor gives the go-ahead.
The primary reason we should return to school in-person as soon as possible is that most students feel they learn better in person. In a survey sent out by Academy in June, 61% of students reported that they would prefer to return to school in-person. Another 29% said they would prefer hybrid learning while only 10% wanted to return online. According to a 1,000 person survey of college students by The College Fix, 79% of students feel the quality of their education is worse with online learning. It’s difficult for students to focus in their classes when they are at home and there are no consequences for checking your phone or even muting the zoom class and watching a movie. In a home setting there are so many distractions, and unless your parents have nothing better to do but look over your shoulder and make sure you’re paying attention, there’s not much to do about these distractions, especially when you’re a teenager and struggle with impulse control. Lack of focus in classes leads to lack of understanding, especially those courses in which you have to take in and understand a lot of information at a time, like math or science. This lack of understanding leads to more time spent on homework and more stress related to school. Many students feel they have a heavier homework load this school year, with 41% in 6-12 reporting in a September survey they have more homework than they had during spring online learning. This feeling is exacerbated when we don’t focus on the material. For all the valiant efforts of our teachers, they can’t physically be there to make sure we are focused and engaged. It would be difficult and an interruption to the lesson for teachers to call out students every time they think we’re looking at our phones, especially when we could be doing things like taking notes.
Students at Academy are also in a crucial developmental stage of their lives. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “ongoing changes in the brain, along with physical, emotional, and social changes, can make teens vulnerable to mental health problems.” The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense social change in our lives. We are more and more dependent on technology for human connection, and we are able to filter our social interactions so that we only experience what we want. Through technology we avoid the most uncomfortable interactions in our lives. We no longer have to do intensive group work with people we might not like. We don’t have to run into exes (significant others or friends) in the hallways, and we don’t have to talk to people we don’t know very well. When removed from comfort zones and habit, the human brain grows. Without these uncomfortable social interactions, we aren’t growing into adults that will be able to handle situations such as tough work colleagues. We are creating for ourselves a time in the future when society and new people will make us anxious. According to Rogers Behavioral Health, children will “struggle with how to socialize again when they’re back in a face-to-face setting after months of virtual-only connections,” not to mention the loneliness that many feel when they aren’t able to see their friends on a daily basis. FaceTime isn’t the same as sitting in the grass with friends on a sunny day or bonding with classmates you’ve never talked to before. What were once daily activities now have to be planned and aggressively advertised by class officers and the deans. To minimize the impact of decreased socialization, it’s important for us to go back to school sooner rather than later.
Academy has developed a solid COVID-19 prevention system that will be able to adapt if a member of the community is infected. Under the Academy system, students will be organized into cohorts to prevent mixing and to track infection. The learning reimagined page states that “this will allow us to quarantine/present online lessons to a small group of students should someone become infected or exposed”. In addition, students are encouraged to leave campus when they don’t have class, and hallways will also be monitored to keep students of different cohorts from coming into contact with each other. Masks are required, and there is a hand washing schedule for everyone throughout the day. Every night, classrooms will be deep cleaned through “ionized aerosol disinfection.” All Academy protocols follow CDC guidelines and Academy’s reopening task force includes the school nurse, Shelby Parsons, and a physician, John Pederson. With these tactics in place, students can and should return. A successful return to in-person learning will lead the way for other independent schools in New Mexico, and will project the message that this virus can be lived through. Our mental and emotional health, as well as our futures, depend on it.