Putting the “Social” in social distancing: How we stay connected while social distancing

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Talia Winiarsky, Staff Writer

On any given day at school, Jake Federman (11) hangs out with friends before A period in Olshan Lobby, again during break in Tillinghast Hall, and then eats lunch with them in the cafeteria, he said. In between, he interacts with peers and teachers in the hallways, one of his favorite parts of going to school. Now, however, his social interactions are limited to talking to the same two or three people every day.

Due to COVID-19, students have had to limit social contact. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus can spread “between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet).”

Experts have advised people to adhere to “social distancing,” which means staying six feet away from others and avoiding social contact when possible.

Over spring break, math teacher Ben Kafoglis pursued hobbies that he normally doesn’t have time for, like slow-cooking, since he had to reduce the time he spends outside, he said. However, social distancing has been challenging. “I really like the neighborhood where I live and I miss being able to go to coffee shops, restaurants, and museums,” he said. “I also really miss going to the gym, and I miss being able to teach in person.”

For Louise Kim (9), reading and writing poetry are ways to keep from getting bored and release her stress about the virus, she said. “I think these different methods of relieving stress and making me relaxed let me have a period of time that makes me relaxed and calm. And as a result of that, I’m not very emotionally troubled, but I definitely miss my friends.”

Kim attended an online meeting with the Department of Counseling and Guidance to process her feelings, which helped her feel calmer about the virus, she said. “It helped to talk to someone that I knew was there to understand me, and it just relieved me a lot to hear someone that was there to make me feel better.”

Madhav Menon (11) said that he self-quarantined for 14 days because he thought he may have had the virus, per the CDC’s instructions. Though Menon didn’t get tested and never found out if he had the virus, his mental health deteriorated while he was self-quarantined, he said. “I was getting really sick of seeing the same room over and over and over again,” he said. Menon has made a full recovery, he said.

Being separated from family and friends is challenging because being social is a fundamental human quality, Dr. Daniel Rothstein, Director of Counseling and Guidance, said in an email. “It is an unfortunate situation in that in a time when there is worry and fear, and we need the people we love the most, we need to keep many of them at a distance.”

Technology helped Menon cope with quarantine, and he was able to FaceTime his friends, he said. “I know everyone’s going to get through this rough patch because we have stuff like technology to keep us together and occupy our minds.”

Similarly, Shrey Sahgal (12) maintains contact with his friends online, he said. “I cannot imagine going through this past week without FaceTime, Messenger, Discord. It allows me to be social with my friends without having to see them face to face.”

Students have also been communicating through recently-created Facebook groups. Charlotte Cebula (12) formed a Facebook group for the senior class called “Coron Appetit” in which students could post recipes and pictures of food they made. Katya Arutyunyan (12) created a Facebook group for the entire Upper Division (UD) called “Running From ‘Rona’: Your Entertainment Hub” for students to “post literally anything” about what they’ve been doing so that they could “entertain each other,” according to the group’s description on Facebook. In the group, students have posted memes, TikToks, playlists, and book and movie recommendations.

While Menon does not use the Facebook groups and mostly uses technology to keep in touch with close friends, he was relieved to join a Parliamentary Debate team Zoom call to see that the members of the team were doing well, he said. “Because I’ve only really been talking to my close friends right now, I don’t know as much about how everyone else is doing,” Menon said. “If someone was sick right now, I don’t know how keen they would be to talk about it with everyone.”

To facilitate interactions between students who aren’t close friends, Sahgal and two other seniors formed a Facebook group called “Quarabuddies for Quarateens” to help students not only from Horace Mann but also from other schools make new friends while social distancing, Sahgal said. People who joined the Facebook group would fill out a Google Form to indicate a time when they could talk on the phone. The leaders then made a spreadsheet giving each person who filled out the survey three names to call. The names were arranged so that the students paired did not attend the same schools.

Talking to new people during this crisis was refreshing, Eliza Bender (12) said, who participated in Quarabuddies for Quarateens and was matched up with two people from Maryland. Recently, conversations with her friends have revolved around the virus. When talking to her Quarabuddies, however, she had a conversation about herself and learned about others. “It made me have to vocalize and talk about who I am; you can kind of get really insular during these times,” Bender said.

Students have also been interacting in language chat rooms on Zoom. Julia Robbins (12) and the Spanish Club organized a Spanish chat room on March 20th, while Kim arranged several French chat rooms for later that week. On March 25, six students joined the French chat room, and on March 27, nine students joined. “I think having that kind of place where you can meet other people, especially from different grades is a very important opportunity,” Kim said. “Talking with them through this difficult time and talking about things that we like in a language that we like to speak I think has strengthened my relationships with them.”

However, students still haven’t been socializing online as much as they would if they saw each other in person, Sahgal said. “You have to make such a concerted effort to talk to someone over FaceTime, whereas when you’re at school, you interact with a lot more people than just your friends. So there are a lot of people who I’m so used to seeing, but I’m not so close to them that I would make the effort to FaceTime,” he said.

Although Federman frequently spends time with his friends online, he would rather see everyone at school, he said. “I miss interacting with my teachers; I miss interacting with people that I am not necessarily close with.”

Jordan Ferdman (11) FaceTimes with her friends often, but that doesn’t allow for the freedom and authenticity of real-life interactions, she said. “At a certain point, it’s not the same, and it’s lonely.”

On FaceTime, there’s less privacy between people because they’re speaking from their homes in close proximity to their families, Ferdman said. Furthermore, face-to-face interactions allow for more honesty than those over FaceTime, which feel less personal, she said.

Kafoglis tries to call his family members every day, but interacting on Zoom can be tiring, he said. “Not being able to hug people hello, or pick up on small social cues, or having to wait to see if you can talk or not can make conversation a little disjointed,” he said. “It’s weird to see my own face while I’m talking with other people.”

Menon said that technology and social media groups are not effective in bringing the community together because most of the students are too preoccupied to make friends, whether it be over health, standardized tests, or college decisions.

In an email to the UD on March 19th, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly acknowledged that students are worried about the virus and may feel anxious as their routines change. “While I’m confident that everyone is in good hands and well cared for now and in the weeks to come, please bring those questions to, and share those feelings with, the adults who care for you both at home and at school,” he wrote. “We want to hear from you if something is wrong—that’s never going to change.”