The HM Promise: Do students actually care?

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Hanna Hornfeld, Tuhin Ghosh, and Jade Ciriello

Amidst the recent transition to HM Online 2.0, Jiyon Chatterjee (10) compared making decisions about socializing outside of school to standing in the rain under an umbrella. The person assumes they no longer need the umbrella as it has been keeping them dry, closes the umbrella, and is immediately drenched in water. Similarly, the city is reopening because people adhered to the guidelines, leading people to feel less fearful and follow fewer rules, which may cause the number of cases to go back up, he said. 

With school and the city reopening, members of the community are learning how to balance their desire to socialize closely with the need to keep each other safe. According to an anonymous Record poll conducted this week, 17.5% of the 217 students who completed the poll have not engaged in non-mandatory social situations since the start of the school year, 10.1% have engaged in non-mandatory situations without adhering to any distancing or mask-wearing guidelines, and the rest have followed some safety guidelines while socializing. 

Before school started in September, every family signed the HM Promise, a set of guidelines for on and off-campus behavior that members of the community are expected to follow in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at school. These guidelines include mask wearing, social distancing, and complying with potential quarantines. According to the HM Promise, “Any heightened protective measures we take are only as effective as the behaviors we practice both inside and outside of School.”  

On September 21, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly sent an email to the student body in response to concerns surrounding social media posts depicting behavior that violated the HM Promise. Members of the community had shared pictures of themselves traveling outside of the tri-state area and participating in group situations without adhering to social distancing and mask-wearing rules. 

In his email, Kelly encouraged students to limit their time in social settings outside of school and emphasized the importance of wearing masks to avoid spreading the virus around campus. “So much of our ability to remain open and in-person as a community of learners depends on everyone practicing good hygiene and wearing a mask when outside the home, and especially in the presence of others in a group setting,” Kelly wrote.

When Alexei Le (11) heard about members of the community straying from the guidelines, he felt disappointed and ashamed because they represent the school. “What’s the point of even wearing a mask at school if you’re just going to ignore it outside?” he said. “It’s something that you have to do all the time in order to stay safe.” 

Although Kelly’s email served as a reminder to be safe while socializing, it isn’t possible to control people’s actions outside of school, Willa Davis (10) said. Although frequent email reminders would not be completely pointless, as they might guilt some people into being more careful, many of those who are currently ignoring the rules would continue to do so, Davis said.

Making decisions about how to socialize can be difficult because people have to choose between the essential human need for meaningful social interaction and protecting those around them, psychologist Dr. Ian Pervil said. Studies have found that physical closeness and touch are a critical part of development, so fighting that instinct to comply with distancing guidelines can be a challenge, he said.  

Spending time with friends out of school is important because social interaction is a necessary part of teenage development, Eden Plepler (12) said. “It just doesn’t seem fair to be robbed of that component of high school,” she said. “We lost so many months of being able to see people, so having those connections is crucial to people’s overall wellbeing.”

With all the stress of high school and life in general, Gabe Jaffe (9) spends time with friends to unwind and have fun. The absence of that outlet during the months of quarantine was harmful for many peoples’ mental health, so people are now trying to spend more time with their friends to make up for it, he said. Jaffe has played soccer and basketball with his friends about once a week—outdoors and with masks.

Mekhala Mantravadi (11), who has not seen her friends outside of school, said that while social interaction is important to emotional well-being, socializing in-person out of school is not fundamentally necessary. If students are extremely careful to wear masks at all times and remain six feet apart, they can see each other in person, but constantly keeping those rules in mind can be difficult. To err on the side of caution, students can FaceTime or watch movies together instead, she said. “Do you really have to go out with your friends?” she said. “Ask yourself that question. Is it absolutely necessary?” 

Because social interaction is so important to mental health, if students can trust that one or a few of their friends aren’t likely to be infected, they should spend time with them, Plepler said. Plepler’s boyfriend attends the Dalton School, which is currently fully online. She feels safe spending time with him because she has been his only contact outside of his family and because their families are in “the same bubble,” she said. 

As long as people create such a “bubble” for themselves—a select group of friends who will only spend time with each other—Plepler sees little harm in socializing with others closely, she said. Plepler has seen some of her close friends socially distanced, knowing that they have been honest with each other about their other contacts. Now that school is online, Plepler is no longer in the city and can’t socialize as often, she said.

Nora Balidemaj (12) does not always social distance when she is out with her friends, but she does not spend time with anyone who she does not believe to be generally taking the right precautions. “It’s more of a personal judgement for me,” she said. When it comes to strangers in public spaces, Balidemaj takes every precaution possible to reduce the risk of transmission.

Most weekends, Sophie Gordon (11) has spent time with friends — usually with one friend at a time, and never in a group larger than four. Although they stay outdoors most of the time, Gordon has gone out to eat with her friends, which makes it difficult to maintain a full six feet of distance at all times, she said. Once, Gordon had a friend over at her house without a mask, but she felt safe because they had both recently tested negative for COVID-19 and because she knew her friend was being very careful otherwise.  

Gordon draws a distinction between having fun safely and putting oneself and everybody else at risk. She has seen social media posts of students spending time together in large groups of ten to twenty people, all without masks, especially on the lawn in Central Park. Although this worries her a little bit, Gordon believes that those students are spending time only with each other out of school, which is less dangerous than attending events where they aren’t sure where others have been. “If you’re going to be unsafe, at least be unsafe around people who you know are being careful otherwise,” she said. 

Davis, who has seen similar posts, worries that a small number of careless students could affect the larger school community. Now that school is temporarily online, more students may want to spend time with each other, she said. This may cause enough students to get sick that campus will have to remain closed for longer than originally intended, she said.

Choosing not to adhere to the safety guidelines is “reckless,” Gordon said. “I don’t think they’re thinking about the fact that if they did catch it, they could spread it so fast without knowing,” she said. “You could give [COVID-19] to someone’s grandma or your friend’s cousin’s mom just because you didn’t wear a mask.”

When off campus, students and their families need to be aware of the extremely serious consequences of a potential outbreak at school—students could spread the virus to others’ families, neighborhoods, or larger communities, Mantravadi said. 

“Right now, your friends can wait, because life is on the line,” she said. “It’s putting personal needs over community needs. Even if you might not display symptoms immediately or get seriously ill, you can spread it to people, and that’s even worse. You’re a travelling virus.”

Not wearing a mask around friends is less dangerous than doing the same around complete strangers, because people generally have an idea of where their friends have been, Zach Montbach (9) said. Still, it isn’t possible to know everything about someone else’s potential exposure, so students should always wear masks around other people, he said.

Plepler has found that most people are sensitive to each other’s comfort zones when spending time with each other and are careful not to overstep boundaries, especially when it comes to those worried about at-risk family members. “Everyone has to do what’s safe but also what feels right for their family,” she said. 

However, what people are comfortable with is not necessarily reflective of what is safe, Gordon said. Many students haven’t been careful because, as young people, they aren’t afraid of getting seriously sick. “Everyone knows people are getting sick and dying, but no one thinks it affects them personally until it does,” she said. 

The reason why many people have become more comfortable spending time with each other partly lies within the fact that they have become desensitized to the dangers of the virus, Pervil said. “When we’re in a constant state of fear about something, our alarm level tends to decrease over time,” he said. “So people who were more careful in the beginning may take it less seriously as time passes.”

Between online school and the rising infection rates in certain areas of the city, Jaffe said that students might start being more careful about their behavior and that their parents might be more reluctant to allow them to go out. However, Jaffe still feels safe spending time with his friends, as long as they stay outdoors and distanced, he said.

Mantravadi believes that email reminders about the HM Promise or even the closure of school on Monday due to a coach testing positive will not change the way people have been acting. “The entire pandemic has been a wake up call, and people are still ignoring it,” she said. “If 200,000 people dying is not a wake up call, then what is? The sheer selfishness and refusal to change is so strong that it would be very difficult to change that in people, but as young people and students, we have that ability to change.” 

Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein wrote in an email that between the HM Promise and repeated communication between Kelly and parents, the school has been clear that the community needs to avoid risky behavior when off campus.

Balidemaj said that the message in Kelly’s emails is slightly unrealistic. “[Meeting people] shouldn’t be advertised on social media and in our friend groups as much as it is, but I think it’s a little overblown,” she said. 

Simply trusting that every single person is being safe is not enough, especially when it comes to a life-threatening virus, Gordon said. Even extreme measures such as threats of expulsion or suspension would not ensure honesty from everybody, she said. “They would just stop posting on social media, but there’s no way of knowing who’s been hanging out in big groups and who hasn’t,” she said. “No matter how many kids you catch, there are going to be ten more that you don’t.”

As a result, Gordon believes that it is inevitable that at least one student will catch the virus and spread it to others if school reopens. Although learning in person is more enjoyable, the only way to prevent a school-wide breakout is to permanently move to HM Online 2.0 before students start testing positive, she said.

If students want to learn in person as long as possible, they have to be careful outside of school, Kelly wrote. “It’s not only about the adults’ collective desire to see all of you on campus and in classrooms, it’s about our desire to see the HM community do its share in protecting others from possible exposure to COVID-19,” Kelly wrote. “All in, it’s about doing the right thing, and doing the right thing isn’t always easy.”