Would I Die For My Country? That's The Risk You're Asking Teachers And Students To Take

by Maria Diaz
Michael Loccisano/Getty

I must start this with a disclaimer: I am not unbiased. I am an independent school teacher and I had COVID-19 during the height of New York’s crisis. For two months, I heard the sound of ambulance sirens day and night as my neighbors and friends were rushed to hospitals. I saw my community destroyed by an illness that was undoubtedly already circulating among us in silence. I, too, fell victim to this illness — diagnosed clinically as someone with a “mild” case. Despite that, I developed pneumonia, which was treated via telehealth with antibiotics. We may not all be doctors but we can certainly acknowledge that in normal times, there is nothing mild about pneumonia.

I left work a week before my school would formally close, with a 105 degree fever, in early March. I have the distinct privilege of working for a school concerned with the safety and health of all of its community members. Removing myself from the school setting meant reducing the transmission risk for everyone within my school community. It meant protecting the parents and grandparents of the students with whom I work and it meant protecting the lives of my older and immuno-compromised colleagues.

As a 31 year old woman in fairly good health, I realize that my own personal risk is not as high as it is for other members of my school community. But I still felt like I was dying. While ill, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I was simultaneously drowning and choking. Instead of calling 911, I called an Uber — because I feared I would be sent to a local hospital that ended up in the Times just a few days later, for its inability to adequately handle the patients entering its doors.

I spent most of March and April in isolation, febrile for a total of 61 days. I developed what I can only describe as temporary asthma so bad that I started needing an inhaler. I had never had asthma before, but suddenly, I was occasionally struggling to breathe. I developed tachycardia that had my heart beating up to 257 beats per minute. Until late June, I had a resting heart rate in the 150s/160s. And I was considered a “mild case,” in part because I did not need hospitalization.

Now imagine how many more times you would hear this story if schools had remained open and how much worse it would be if I were immunocompromised or much older. Think about the domino effect this would have caused and the pain and suffering that could have resulted from this. Through the end of the school year, I sat behind a computer screen and delivered instruction via camera to students, many of whom had left New York City. What happens when the droves of people who have left decide to come back? How do we protect ourselves — and them — from the risk of transmissibility? How do we prevent clusters?

When COVID-19 first started circulating, we thought my school would be at highest risk because of how connected our community was to international travel. But that wasn’t reality — our community members fled, seeking respite in country homes in an attempt to escape a global pandemic. (Spoiler alert: there is no way to escape a global pandemic.)

Unfortunately, this selfishness is partially what caused such widespread illness across the state and region. While they fled, the local community was plagued by a disaster not even Nostradamus could have predicted. Black and Latino New Yorkers were dying at alarming rates. Local politicians tried to calm constituents by saying that the deaths were tied to people with pre-existing conditions. They tried to justify disparity across racial and ethnic groups by telling us the percentage of people who had illnesses such as diabetes or asthma (both of which are more common in Black and Latinx people in NYC).

Does that make their deaths more justifiable?

(Side note: I did a COVID19 clinical study in early May and I was identified as someone with a preexisting condition. I have very well managed Celiac Disease. The “cure” is a gluten free diet which I have abided by for over a decade. It would be dangerous to claim that I was more susceptible because of an autoimmune disease that is fully under control.)

I have seen the argument from other communities with a lower per capita infection rate claim that no child has died in their region. In New York City, 13 children have died from COVID19. 11 had preexisting conditions.

Does that make their deaths more justifiable?

What would that number be if schools had remained open this spring?

Are you really willing to sacrifice a child or a teacher’s life so that you don’t have to get a babysitter?

Nobody thinks remote or virtual schooling is ideal, but we can’t let that be the reason that we put all of our lives at risk. We have been given a summer to think about and plan for every possible scenario this fall. We can’t fall back on live classrooms just because we haven’t figured out a way to maximize virtual schooling.

By June 22nd, the New York City Department of Education had lost 79 active employees (the number is likely higher now). How much higher would that number be if schools hadn’t closed in March? How much higher would that number be if they opened up in September? How much higher would that number be if we counted private and charter school employees?

Schools are perfect breeding grounds for illnesses. Every winter, we see large groups of students miss class because of a bug that we claim is “just going around.” As teachers, we make every effort to come to work, regardless of how ill we are, because we realize that a day out means loss of routine for our students. When I decided to pursue this profession, I did not imagine that I would regularly have to consider whether or not I should die for my country. I did not sign an oath committing myself to dying from either a highly transmissible illness or a school shooting.

In pushing for reopening, you are asking me to exponentially increase my risk of death by exposing me to the possibility of both scenarios. How will we maintain social distancing as we practice lockdown drills? How will we explain to a five-year-old why he can’t play closely with his classmates? How will we protect our older colleagues from the inherent risk of constant exposure?

The answer to all of these questions is: we can’t. The only reasonable thing any state can do at this time is to keep schools closed.

There are many proposed solutions that seem good in theory but impractical once considered. If schools keep students in one classroom and have teachers rotate among them, the teacher is still exposed to every student he or she sees throughout the day. Each student is exposed to this teacher who has been circulating from classroom to classroom. Every student and teacher then goes home and continues to come in contact with other people. Those people are put at risk, even if the child is an asymptomatic carrier, because of their proximity to this child.

Some are functioning under the assumption that antibodies confer lifelong immunity, and that people who have these antibodies can reasonably return to work. The present data is too recent to make any general statements, but recent studies suggest that antibodies wane after several months. By September, it is quite possible I will no longer have these antibodies that developed in response to my illness. That’s a scary thought given that the dialogue around antibody testing centers around sending antibody positive people back to physical workplaces.

Although there is no general consensus yet about how long or if these antibodies can prevent reinfection, one thing is clear: we have no idea about anything having to do about this novel virus . We can not function under the guise of understanding epidemiology when even the best doctors in the world can not give us clarity on the inherent risks associated with COVID-19.

The New York Times Editorial Board published a piece championing the reopening of schools. Unsurprisingly, one of its initial arguments is that parents need public schools, in part because they need help raising their children and because they need to work. I’d like to think that the health and safety of these children is more important than that. While American schooling has certainly become de facto childcare for many families, it does not have to be. We have been given a unique opportunity to re-envision education so that we can provide more equitable opportunities for all children and families, not just for those who can access it.

I work for a private school with a sprawling 28-acre campus in New York City. Should we need physical distance, we have the space and resources in order to do this adequately. Our risk is reduced because of the wealth and prosperity of our community. Many of us drive to work, avoiding the exposure that would undoubtedly come from accessing public transit. This is not reality for most public schools — and certainly not true even for most of our peer independent schools in New York City.

I attended P.S. 19Q in Corona, Queens, a behemoth of a school that occupies an entire city block, in the 1990s. It continues to be one of the largest public schools in the entire country. 88% of students who attend qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indicator often used to measure poverty. Today, the majority Latino public school has over 1,800 students — and sits right at the epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic. The neighborhood has the highest number of deaths (and one of the highest– but not the highest — death rates) of any zip code in New York City and continues to have one of the highest positive test rates in the state.

P.S. 19 sits right under the 7 train, near the busy Junction Blvd stop. When New York City “shut down,” almost every train station — including this one — went virtually unoccupied. What were once busy platforms where people had little personal space became ghost towns (six feet?! you were lucky if you could have 6 inches of distance). In New York, MTA ridership has decreased tenfold since schools closed in March. Reopening schools means sending a massive number of students and tens of thousands of teachers to ride public transit.

We might not know a lot about COVID-19, but we do know that density and closeness are linked with spread. That’s inevitable if schools reopen and the trains and buses are packed like cans of sardines.

Any major metropolitan area that relies on public transit has to reflect on how ridership will impact spread. Each school board, mayor, and chancellor needs to think about how to mitigate risk when they can’t control anything outside of their environments.

When we say schools need to reopen, we forget that while our privilege would likely protect us, our neighbors do not have those same benefits. We center ourselves in conversations that are really not about us. The people at highest risk of dying from COVID-19 are lower-income Black and Latino people, many of whom do not get adequate healthcare in time to access appropriate intervention.

While many schools think about how to reduce the number of students on a bus or how to change lunch so that students aren’t congregating in the cafeteria, I think about the value of life.

Would I die for my country? Yes.

Should we expect children to take that same risk?

Should I have to? No.