As COVID-19 spreads around the world, schools, universities and other organizations are closing and cancelling events to help keep people safe. (Mia Fares and Laney Chang)
As COVID-19 spreads around the world, schools, universities and other organizations are closing and cancelling events to help keep people safe.

Mia Fares and Laney Chang

COVID-19 closes in on Houston community

March 11, 2020

Update (March 12, 2020): St. John’s is closed from March 13 through March 27 due to COVID-19.

Grace Amandes (’17) was sitting on a bus with her friends, headed towards a famous park in Nara, Japan, on her spring break trip when she received an alarming email from Nanyang Technical University, her study-abroad college in Singapore.

NTU issued a mandatory quarantine to students travelling from Italy, South Korea, China or Iran to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. Students in Japan were told to stop their travels and return to Singapore immediately. While university officials did not specify whether those travelling from Japan would be quarantined, Amandes and her friends interpreted the email as “Japan is next.”

Photo Illustration by Fareen Dhuka
Nanyang Technical University is one of the many colleges to issue a mandatory quarantine for students traveling internationally in hopes of containing COVID-19.

“It was a very stressful moment,” Amandes said. “You’re in small town Japan trying to get home, and not a lot of people around you speak English.”

Luckily, Amandes was able to book a flight soon after receiving the email. Five hours from the nearest airport, the group rushed to make their flight. While they made it back to Singapore safely, Amandes is still dismayed over the abrupt end to her trip.

“It was disappointing in the moment because I had never been to Japan,” Amandes said. “This was actually my first time in Asia.”

The impact of COVID-19 is not limited to countries such as China and Japan. Days after Amandes returned from her trip, a janitor at NTU was diagnosed with the virus, despite Singapore’s strict policies surrounding the outbreaks.

“It’s not really avoidable, no matter where I am,” Amandes said.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19, a new strain of coronavirus, was first detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, in December. Although coronaviruses generally circulate among animals, some of them, including the strain discovered in 2019, can infect humans as well.

Most kids aren’t worried about the coronavirus because it doesn’t seem to affect young people, but, for me, that may not be the case.”

— Marina Ring

The virus is now present on every continent except Antarctica and is directly affecting communities in the United States. 14 documented cases of the virus have been reported in the Greater Houston area, and concerns about the disease’s potential to spread are rising. COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for older adults and those with chronic medical conditions, although everyone is recommended to take precautions due to the disease’s highly contagious nature. 

Senior Marina Ring has Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that requires her to regularly take immunosuppressants that stop her body from attacking itself. While other children her age may recover from illness within a few days, Ring’s recovery period is longer than average and her symptoms can be more severe.

“It does affect me because Houston is a major transportation hub, and the disease is in the US now,” Ring said. “Most kids aren’t worried about the coronavirus because it doesn’t seem to affect young people, but, for me, that may not be the case.

While COVID-19 may not be as dangerous for most students and young adults at St. John’s, many in the community still fear the impact the virus can have on loved ones. 

Sophie Gillard’s (’19) classes at Barnard College in New York were cancelled on Sunday, March 8, so she is returning home at the end of the week. For Gillard, spreading the virus to those around her is one of her main concerns.

“A lot of people [at Barnard and Columbia] are taking precautions around older faculty and vulnerable community members,” she said. “I’m very worried about passing it to my grandmother if I get it.”

School-sponsored events, spring break trips cancelled

COVID-19’s impact on the St. John’s community is already impossible to ignore.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 health situation, all school-sponsored trips over spring break have been cancelled. Last Friday, Columbia University cancelled the Columbia Scholastic Press Association Convention in New York City.

“It was a bit of a shock,” said Assistant Design Editor Grace Randall, one of four editors on The Review who were planning to attend. “I didn’t really expect it because I didn’t know how bad coronavirus was.”

The annual ISAS Arts Festival was also cancelled in light of coronavirus fears. The festival, scheduled to be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, brings together over 3,500 students and faculty from 43 schools.

The worst part is, we don’t know for how long.”

— Eli Maierson

“[ISAS] is always a great time,” senior Julian Westerfield said. “Everyone’s really bummed out about it.” 

Many sports teams were prepared to travel out of state for competitions during spring break—baseball and boys’ lacrosse to Florida and softball and girls’ lacrosse to California. As a result of the cancellations, players worry that team goals such as bonding and playing high-quality opponents from around the nation will not be met.

“We don’t get to go to Austin this year, and I think that state is in Houston, so there isn’t a lot of travel this year,” girls’ lacrosse captain Eliza Holt said. 

Although disappointed at the trip cancellations, teams have adapted by scheduling more local matches during spring break.

“I was bummed that we’re not able to go to Florida and compete,” said Peter Sall, a sophomore starter on the baseball team. “We’re still going to be able to play [in Houston], and what matters is SPC. It doesn’t take anything away from our chances to win SPC.”

In addition to cancelled school-sponsored events and trips, many students have scrapped their spring break trips as the virus continues to spread.

Seniors McKenna Grabowski, Mia Fares and Mira Thakur had planned to spend their week of vacation in Taiwan but scratched their trip approximately a month ago, fearing infection and an inability to return to the United States.

“We just shouldn’t take the risk of not being able to come back,” Grabowski said. “It’s kind of upsetting, because we had planned a lot, and it’s just such a random circumstance.”

Greater Houston area events have also been suspended indefinitely, including the annual Houston rodeo, which authorities called off on March 11.

“I think the coronavirus has taken over spring break,” Randall said.

Tackling xenophobia from COVID-19

The concerns surrounding coronavirus are not limited to the fear of infection. Because the virus originated in Wuhan, China, xenophobia levels towards Asians and Asian-Americans have risen across the US.

To tackle this xenophobia, the East Asian Affinity Group and Unity Council hosted a forum on March 10 during lunch. Director of Community and Inclusion Gene Batiste began the forum by defining xenophobia and addressing its relevance regarding the current COVID-19 pandemic. EAAG officers then played a video from CGTN America addressing the racist attacks directed at Asian-Americans due to misinformation and fear about the virus.

“The blame is put on a certain demographic of people just to help compartmentalize and make things seem easier,” Unity Council representative Carolyn DePinho said. “I’ve seen a lot of videos of people being harassed on the streets, in grocery stores and in malls, and it’s very unsettling to see such explicit discrimination.”

The forum finally opened the discussion up to possible sources of misinformation and how to combat xenophobia in our own communities. According to DePinho, the best way to fight xenophobia is to be conscious of how racialized the coronavirus has become. 

“Be aware that you sometimes read fake news or misinformation, especially from social media,” DePinho said. “Understand that it’s no one’s fault—it’s a virus.” 

Schools nation-wide respond to the pandemic

Responses to the threat of COVID-19 have varied across the country, depending on conditions in various areas. Massachusetts, California and New York, among others, have declared states of emergency, and at least 130 colleges across the country have cancelled in-person classes as of March 10.

“[Amherst College] announced we were being sent home by Monday,” Sophie Caldwell (‘19) said. “We understand why it had to be done, but it’s not the way I wanted to finish out my freshman year.”

As universities across the nation close their doors in an attempt to contain the outbreak, St. John’s is also responding. On the morning of March 9, while students enjoyed an extra hour of sleep, Upper School faculty met to address concerns surrounding the virus and prepare for the possibility of school closure.

“[If necessary], we would create a distance-learning setting for faculty and students and operate off of a modified daily schedule,” Head of Upper School Hollis Amley said. “Faculty would use existing resources such as Google Hangouts and Pear Deck to facilitate classes.”

Some Houston schools, such as St. Thomas’ Episcopal, have already closed campus as a precautionary measure due to COVID-19. Many SJS students, including junior Maya Estrera, believe that online school is a likely and unfortunate possibility.

“A lot of stuff is going to get pushed back,” Estrera said. “Our learning and our progress will be stunted.”

Fareen Dhuka
SJS clubs are taking initiatives to prevent the spread of the virus.

In addition to preparing for possible school closure, St. John’s is taking precautions, including implementing more in depth cleaning regimes, stocking classrooms with sanitizing supplies and emphasizing student hygiene. Spring break travel, especially to severely affected regions such as China and Italy, is also a major concern.

An email sent out by Headmaster Mark Desjardins asked that families who visit these high-threat locations over the break report their plans to the student’s Division Heads and self-quarantine for the duration of the 14-day incubation period. 

Those who alert the school to their travel plans to these areas will receive excused absences during their period of self-quarantine, whereas those who do not inform St. John’s of their plans will not. Many members of the St. John’s community with potential exposure to the virus have already self-quarantined for the duration of the 14-day incubation period, though they currently have remained asymptomatic.

As SJS students continue to keep close communication with peers through grade-wide GroupMe chats, many alumni are finding their way back home. 

“Now, the next 48 hours aren’t about studying for midterms or being with our friends or enjoying this time in our lives,” said Eli Maierson (‘19), who currently attends Amherst College. “It’s about saying goodbye, and the worst part is, we don’t know for how long.”

About the Contributors
Photo of Julia Smith
Julia Smith, Assignments Editor

Julia is a senior, and this is her second year on The Review.

Photo of Russell Li
Russell Li, Assignments Editor

Russell is a junior, and this is his third year on The Review.

Photo of Celine Huang
Celine Huang, Design Editor

Celine is a junior, and this is her third year on The Review.

Photo of Bailey Maierson
Bailey Maierson, Design Editor

Bailey is a senior, and this is her third year on The Review.

Photo of Fareen Dhuka
Fareen Dhuka, Online Editor-in-Chief

Fareen Dhuka is a senior, and this is her fourth year on The Review.

1 Comment

One Response to “COVID-19 closes in on Houston community”

  1. Ingrid Bessette Center on March 12th, 2020 7:51 AM

    Appreciate a very informative and well written article from all of you at SJS. It really is a community working together .

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