Opinion | Don’t send me back to school in Michigan coronavirus outbreak

Madeline Gupta is a rising senior at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor and was recently named one of Washtenaw County's 2020 Young Citizens of the Year. She is director of development and communications at ByKids4Kids, a nonprofit literacy program in Washtenaw County.

At my school, before COVID-19 hit, there was seldom a moment where a student could walk through the hall and not accidentally brush another student. In the classroom, it was unsurprising when the number of students exceeded the number of desks. The stairwells, especially at the beginning and end of each day, were packed so tightly that one was often forced to stand shoulder to shoulder with another person.

With the coronavirus pandemic, vivid pictures of these moments in my mind awaken intense anxiety for me as well as my friends. Today, near the end of June, we look toward Governor Whitmer to announce her plan for school reopenings in the fall. 

With only tentative plans from my school district, I’m left anxious and confused about where I will be and what I will be doing in two months. Although Ann Arbor schools’ proposition includes virtual learning, it also includes an in-person return. My anxiety and confusion is only heightened by this possibility. Even if students who are uncomfortable coming to school are given the option to participate online full time, peer pressure and fear of missing out may lead to them attending in person, anyway. 

I’ll be a senior this fall at my high school, which has almost 2,000 students. If an in-person return to school is ultimately allowed, I feel that social distancing will be difficult and could become unsafe if done ineffectively and without supervision. Everyday activities that we are used to doing at school, such as putting our backpacks and books on shared desks and eating lunch with a large group, are now risks for which we will have to scramble to find alternatives.  

Beyond the personal dangers returning to school in person brings, I also worry for my friends and family. Personally, the idea of removing my mask to eat lunch at school feels stressful. I miss my friends, but I don’t want to get them sick anymore than I want to be sick. A possible in-person return to school in the fall also frightens me because of my 87-year-old grandmother, who lives with me. Anything that I will bring home from school runs the risk of infecting her.

My situation isn’t unique. Many of my peers feel the same hesitation when considering their older relatives, some of whom also live with them. Even if the infection rates remain stable into the fall, the number of students at my school make safety measures hard to implement and maintain. We’re afraid that an in-person return to school will be harmful for our loved ones.

High schoolers may have more contact with others during the school day because teenagers are given increased freedom. An average student’s schedule at my school involves six or seven different classrooms. Additionally, many students drive to school with the ability to leave campus during the day. While some leave for lunch, others are required to leave for dual enrollment classes at other high schools or local universities. 

I’ve heard many friends express concern over the distractions and difficulty of online learning. The distractions and difficulty that come with learning in-person under COVID-19 restrictions are also intense though. Wearing a mask for hours, sanitizing desks and hyper awareness over touch I imagine will keep me from being able to fully pay attention in class or focus on assignments. 

The considerations my school will have to address given an in-person return are numerous. To keep students concentrated on their education, breaks for sanitation measures will have to be taken more often. To feel safe in a classroom, I would expect to be given the time to clean my desk and chair. As the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ plan indicates, my peers and I would also anticipate seeing fewer students in the building at once, meaning a staggered schedule with shorter class periods. These are just a few of the many questions that we will all grapple with. 

At the end of the day, the risks of going to school in person with such a high student population may potentially outweigh the troubles of another semester at home. With an in-person learning environment, the door is open for anxiety over personal contact, peer pressure, and overwhelmed and unfocused students trying to learn math or English while ensuring proper sanitation and social distancing practices. 

This fall, it is my hope that students will not have to choose between education and safety.

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Mon, 06/29/2020 - 12:13pm

Then schools need to offer in class teaching to those that want it and let those of you who are scared, stay home and learn from the safety behind your computer screens. Living in fear isn't living. It's merely surviving.

Thu, 07/02/2020 - 7:11pm

Sometimes surviving is the best you can do in the moment. If fear motivates you to run from a grizzly bear, that's a good thing. Once you've done what you need to to survive, that's the time to put the fear away.

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 12:30am

Um, running from a grizzly bear is the last thing you should do. Pointing this out is relevant to the pandemic because it points out the danger of giving in to fear without pausing to think first about whether or not this gut reaction is truly the best response. Running from a grizzly bear says to the bear that you are prey, possibly very tasty prey (and since the bear can outrun a horse, you have no chance). Difficult as it would be, the best thing is to stand your ground and slowly move away from the bear, and dropping to the ground if it comes after you. This means not giving in to your fear. For some people who are at high risk, staying home and avoiding as much contact as possible is the best course of action. For most of the rest of us, it is not a long-term solution. Our businesses need to be able to survive, we can find safe ways to get back into more normal routines, and we must remember that life has never been, and never will be, risk-free. I choose to use common sense, so I'm not an anti-masker, but I choose not to give in to fear and cower in my house until someone tells me it's safe to go outside.

Fri, 07/03/2020 - 12:01am

This is temporary, we're not talking for the rest of our lives. We don't want to catch the virus. We don't want to die or have the long lasting effects from it. That's not living!! A few more months isn't going hurt anyone, just make us safer. Buying time for a vaccine. Maybe you don't care about your family and friends, but I do, and clearly so does the author if the opinion piece!

Mon, 07/13/2020 - 10:05pm

Actually, fear is one mechanism, among many, that the human species uses to gather information upon which to determine action.
It has helped the human species survive through thousands of years. In addition to the example of the grizzly bear, consider an early human's first encounter with a saber tooth tiger. At first, the human might be apprehensive or merely curious. However, if the tiger acted to eat the human for lunch, the human will perhaps remember the tawny flash of color, the low growling sound, or the smell of the animal as it pounced at the beginning of the attack. Maybe his hunting partner or mate helped in repelling the attack and the human survived. The next time the human ventures out--fear will help him make decisions about his behavior around the tiger or areas in which the tiger may lurk.
If a third member of the hunting party witnessed the attack, he may have learned that the tiger is dangerous and is something to look out for--something that could kill him. Others, having been told the story of the tiger attack may learn the same, even though they didn't see either the tiger or the attack. This is one way humans obtain information about their environment and their ability to survive in it. If another member of the tribe does not experience fear, or ignores the fear, that member may behave in a manner in which he may easily fall victim to the hungry tiger the next day.
Ms. Gupta is attempting to determine her actions based upon hearing the story of the virus, upon hearing that the virus has serious effects upon many in her grandmother's age group and other bits of knowledge humans have obtained about it. She is using fear to determine her actions to help both her grandmother and herself to survive.
No one can live or experience living, if one does not first survive.

Gabriel labadie
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 10:23pm

Wow Madeline! A truly inspiring opinion piece!