Vast majority of THHS students polled fear attending school, spreading disease to those at risk

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Amid the spread of COVID-19, schools and universities nationwide have started to close. Since March 1, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York has surged to more than 600, the second most in the nation. Despite increasing calls from elected officials, parents, and students, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYC Department of Education have refrained from closing all city public schools. This weekend, to discover student thoughts about the controversy, The Classic polled ten percent of the student body, selected at random to participate with an online form. According to the poll, 82% of students expressed that they do not feel safe going to school given the current pandemic, and 91% of students surveyed also feel concerned about transmitting the disease to at-risk people in their lives.

School attendance records appeared to reflect the growing fears. CUNY closed campuses Wednesday as the number of cases reported at colleges began increasing. Attendance at Townsend Harris began to fall after this news. On Wednesday, 95% of students attended. On Thursday, the number fell to 92.8%, and by Friday, 86.8% of students attended. Townsend Harris attendance rates normally are higher on average than city averages, and on Friday, city averages dropped to 68% attendance from a normal average in the high eighties.

The poll indicates that more students plan to stay home this week.

In recent days, Mayor de Blasio closed certain individual public schools based on their unique circumstances. A confirmed case of coronavirus in IS 27 on Staten Island was reported earlier today, but the DOE is hoping to keep the school open tomorrow after a deep cleaning. Students shared concerns about the policy of waiting until schools have confirmed cases to close them.

“I think [the mayor] shouldn’t wait because if someone gets infected first, by the time they catch it and they get tested, they could’ve infected so many other people,” said sophomore Zarif Rahman. “So, I think it’s safe to close it before other people get infected.”

“My concern is that there are probably many cases of coronavirus in many schools but it is my understanding that a lot of people are not getting tested,” said AP Macroeconomics teacher and senior advisor Jaime Baranoff. “The criteria for being tested is you have to have traveled internationally or come into contact with somebody who is known to be sick with coronavirus. I think there’s a real risk that people have it and are sick with all the symptoms but haven’t been tested so it’s an easy way to say ‘Well, we don’t have any confirmed cases,’ but you’re really putting people at risk.”

We surveyed 122 of the 1219 students at THHS. Students from each grade were selected at random and invited to participate.

Townsend Harris’ doors remain open despite Queens College, where the entire senior class takes a humanities course and an elective course, implementing distance learning. Earlier in the week, Queens College President William Tramontano shared with the community that “there have been reports of a few individuals from the college community who may have been exposed to the virus, including one faculty member who is not teaching at the college this semester. Those individuals have been self-quarantined.”

The news of individuals who have potentially been exposed to the virus has worried some students, as, on a daily basis, seniors travel between their college classes and the Townsend Harris building where they interact with underclassmen for the remainder of the day.

The DOE did not respond to requests for comment regarding the QC closure and how it impacts THHS students.

In the poll, a majority of students also shared that they take public transportation “every day.”

Freshman Amelia Ferrel expressed concern, saying, “I don’t feel that safe in school because you never know who is a carrier of the [virus]. There have also been [reports of exposure] in QC and I know that our seniors could have been exposed to those people, putting the rest of the student body at risk.”

“I live in an apartment complex, meaning not only do I return to my family at home, but I am walking into a building with a lot of elders who are at the most risk,” said senior Jacqueline Cho.

In response to QC’s closure, humanities seminar classes have been moved to vacant rooms within the high school building. Seniors must be attentive to online learning for their QC elective. Senior Nicole Luzuriaga said, “Moving [humanities] to Townsend is not going to take away from the fact that I was walking to and from classes daily [for the past few weeks]. If QC closed, why can’t we?”

Despite QC’s closure, some members of the community feel that, realistically, shutting down public schools is not an easy decision to make.

“The DOE situation is, it’s very hard to close schools because many parents can’t afford daycare, especially at the elementary level,” said PTA co-president Bill Rettig.

Senior Elizabeth Katanov also understood the reluctance to close schools. “If you shut down all of the NYC schools, it’s going to have a huge impact on the economy,” she said.

As of now, the DOE has taken measures to “effectively implement social distancing” and has cancelled extracurricular activities including PSAL sports, field trips, and club meetings. Nonetheless, though 100% of students in the poll reported that they are frequently washing their hands, fewer (65%) admitted to reducing physical contact with peers such as shaking hands and hugging upon greeting one another.

The editorial team of The Classic contributed to this story by contacting students throughout the school and city for comment.