Labor Day Weekend travels: COVID hotspots?


A map of COVID-19 hotspots, as identified by the Chicago government

Leading into Labor Day weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, urged Americans to stay socially distant and wear masks over the holiday. In a nationally released video, Dr. Fauci warned America, saying,“We don’t want to see a surge under any circumstances, but particularly as we go on the other side of Labor Day and enter into the fall. We want to go into that with a running start in the right direction. We don’t want to go into that with another surge that we have to turn around again.”

The threat of Labor Day weekend was apparent for two reasons: the fear of large social gatherings and extensive national travel. With Latin’s Middle School starting as of September 8, and as the Upper School approaches its first set of cohort days, any heightened student exposure puts the school at risk. In a recent survey with 164 responses, 22% of students said they traveled over the long weekend, with only 1% going into a state hotspot.

Currently, Latin’s way of regulating a student’s risk of exposure is through a trust-regulated pledge. When asked if Latin was taking any other steps to regulate said pledge, Upper School Director Kirk Greer responded, “It is only the pledge. We are not actively spot-checking beyond the pledge.”

But is the pledge working? When senior Emily Hesby was asked if she believes students are actively following the pledge’s restrictions, she said, “No. People can lie. There’s nothing stopping people from lying.” She then added, “It’s hard because, realistically, I don’t think there’s any way of stopping [students from breaking the pledge] unless Latin is giving out harsh punishments, but I also think giving out harsh punishments for kids hanging out with their friends is a tad extreme.”

In addition to the students’ self-regulation of the pledge, the restrictions themselves are broad; it asks students only to obey state regulations such as group number maximums and travel bans in hotspot states. Even so, Mr. Greer defended the pledge’s broadness. “In shaping the pledge we wanted to rely on state policy,” he said. “We didn’t want to position ourselves as public health experts. It’s not our expertise; we wouldn’t pretend that it is.” In addition, Mr. Greer commented on the freedom for Roman families to use air travel. “The CDC says that it can be done safely… I don’t think it’s incumbent on us to claim more health understanding or stigmatize families that need to use airline travel. … If any family is looking at where they want to travel, then they look at it in a finer-grained way beyond the state situation.”

While a mere 10% of students who traveled flew on an airplane, Emily said, “It’s not just putting yourself at risk. It’s putting a lot of other people at risk, especially people who are doing sports.” She also detailed the personal responsibility that comes with air travel. “I wouldn’t want to go on an airplane because I feel like there are so many risks. I also would not feel comfortable seeing other people after that, so I wouldn’t want to travel, and I don’t really understand why other people want to travel.” Emily said she has traveled via airplane during the pandemic, but she followed a specific safety protocol after doing so. “Unless you’re gonna come home and quarantine for two weeks, it just seems too risky,” she said.

Additionally, junior Isabel Gortner said, “I believe that if kids travel, they should have to wait 14 days before coming into cohort days. When you think about it, that only means missing one or two cohort days for the greater good of the community.”

Coming out of the weekend, there is guaranteed to be a delay before new COVID-19 case numbers are verified, but Mr. Greer said he is hopeful about travel risks. Still, he warned, “I personally haven’t fielded anything yet, but there have been other staff members who have fielded some stories of students that aren’t abiding by the pledge, not related to travel, but more so in the size of their social gatherings and masking.”

The poll found that 18% of students had been with a group larger than 10 people over the long weekend. Socializing and traveling carry equal severity in the return-to-school pledge. Emily said she disagrees with this standard. “The difference between socializing and traveling is that when you’re traveling, you’re exposing yourself to so many random people who have been god-knows-where, but with my friends, we can make a bubble. Socializing right now is a balancing act, because it’s fine to hang out with a small group of people, but when it becomes a big group, and when you don’t know where they’ve been it becomes risky.”

Isabel Gortner, shocked by the statistic of 18% of people socializing in a group larger than 10, said, “That makes me a lot more reluctant to [come in on cohort days] because I don’t know who the people breaking the rules are.” This raises the question of how effective the pledge will really be. “If people aren’t taking the pledge seriously, despite Latin’s precautions, the risk of coming in isn’t worth it,” Gortner said.

Mr. Greer outlined his vision of a successful year: “Families are communicating with one another and helping hold one another accountable. Ultimately that’s going to be the way that this works. The community as a whole makes a decision to prioritize safety.”

The safety of our school is not something that can be mandated into existence. As Mr. Greer put it, “It’s going to have to be a bottom-up community initiative.”