Reopening to 50% is ludicrous

The school board could not have picked a worse time to expand its reopening plans

A overhead shot of a very different New Trier

New Trier

A overhead shot of a very different New Trier

When I came in for my first day of hybrid learning, I was generally impressed with the safety measures the school was taking. I liked the plexiglass barriers, the strict adherence to mask wearing, and the strategic ways that classrooms pushed students to maintain social distancing. But deep down, I knew that this was never going to last long at all. Lo and behold, within days of the school reopening its doors to students, the program was forced to shut down because of the infiltration of COVID-19 cases contracted by students. 

That was in October, when the Illinois case rate was only beginning to rise. Now, the state has hit 1 million COVID cases, with the entire country seeing 300,000 new cases per day. 

Now there’s the issue of the new COVID-19 variant that most virologists agree is much more contagious than the strain we’re familiar with. Several states including Indiana, Florida, and Illinois have already reported cases of the new strain. And yet, the New Trier Board of Education still believes that the school should double its capacity of student attendance from what it was before. 

So New Trier is reopening to 50% capacity whilst the nation is seeing a surge in cases and a new version of the virus is spreading like wildfire. What could go wrong?

I have not yet heard a cogent argument as to why schools should continue to expand their in-person operation. The one that I think fuels the reopening push the most is the deterioration of student mental health during quarantine, thanks to the isolation. But I find it interesting that New Trier cares so much about mental health when it comes to their COVID response, but not when it comes to their curriculums which are shown to interfere with student’s sleep schedules and chip away at their mental state.  

The one that seems to hold the most weight on paper, though, is that the saliva test will eliminate the danger. New Trier seems to be under the impression that even with the risk of the new strain and the packing of more students into the school, the RT-Lamp saliva test is the ace in the hole that minimizes the risk. 

Well, it doesn’t minimize the risk nearly enough. According to New Trier’s own board members, the saliva tests are capable of detecting 85-90% of all COVID cases. That sounds like a promising number, but not necessarily the gold standard that would warrant recklessly opening our doors. Due in no small part to the fact that this accuracy approximately translates to 1 or 2 out of every 10 COVID cases slipping right past the tests. Of course, no testing method is absolutely foolproof, but if we’re planning to double our student presence, we need to have some better methods to keep the sick out of New Trier.

Let’s just think for a minute about this as well: what on earth makes people think it’s a good idea to put maintaining public safety into the hands of teenagers? We don’t really entrust them with a lot of responsibilities of the same magnitude as something like this, which is a matter of life and death for several staff members and students. 

In fact, if you recall, the entire reason the school had to temporarily scrap its hybrid model in the first place was because students got COVID-19 from a party in which no one was wearing masks. I’m not saying that none of the students at New Trier have been taking this crisis seriously, but there’s a reason parents impose limits on how long they can be out with their friends or for how long they can use the family wagon. 

I understand the desire to have more people in school; I certainly like the idea of hanging out with my friends whose last names start with A-K. But our current situation is completely incompatible with the notion of putting more students into the building.