Community weighs COVID concerns over winter break travel

Allison Markman and Spencer Kolker

In preparation for winter break, students and their families are evaluating whether traveling is safe as COVID-19 cases increase. Many families will travel and take safety precautions.

Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly sent emails to all families that outlined the school’s travel requirements, which are the same as the CDC’s. As per CDC guidelines, the school recommends that families who aren’t fully vaccinated test before and after traveling, as well as quarantine for seven days once they return. Vaccinated families should follow airline requirements if they are flying and wear masks on any public transport they take. Upon return, they should monitor symptoms and self-isolate if symptoms arise, but testing is not mandatory.

With the emergence of the Omicron variant, Loren Pretsfelder (11) is nervous about a rise in cases after winter break. “I do think that there will be a spike when we return from break because many people do not feel obligated to take COVID seriously,” she said.

All the school’s families signed the HM Promise, a document that outlines COVID requirements that students and their families must follow, Dean of Students Michael Dalo said. “Families are promising that they are going to do everything possible to protect themselves and protect our community, so we would expect that they are adhering to that promise.”

COVID was a significant factor in the Pretsfelders’ consideration of winter vacation plans, she said. They are renting a house upstate and made sure everyone had negative tests before gathering. They also chose a location within a drivable distance to avoid crowds at airports. “We had to make sure that it would be safe for all of us to be together this year,” Pretsfelder said.

Over break, Maya Westra (11) plans to fly to Aruba and will be seeing only members of her immediate family. “Since we are traveling internationally, we wanted to try to be as safe as possible,” she said. “We are getting tested before and after, as well as staying at an Airbnb rather than a hotel.”

Westra believes that it is safe to travel this year as everyone in her family is fully vaccinated and many airlines require their patrons to be vaccinated as well. As long as people make smart decisions to wear their masks in crowded locations and practice social distancing, traveling safely is possible this winter, she said.

Conversely, Steve Yang (11) decided not to travel because of the Omicron variant, but he is worried about a spike of cases within the community since many are traveling. “As the Thanksgiving break has shown us, I do expect — though I hope not — that there will be a spike in positive cases once we return from winter break. I hope everyone follows safety precautions not only for their own health but for the health of the HM community at-large.”

Upper Division Library Department Chair Carloline Bartels has been cautious throughout the pandemic and believes that as long as people wear masks and follow precautions, people can return to a form of normalcy. “We’re at a point in our lives with the pandemic where we need to figure out how to find the balance between living and being safe,” she said. 

Though Bartels will be nervous if she sees someone with their mask below their nose on her train to Washington D.C., she believes that safety is possible while resuming normal activities, she said.

Miller Harris (11) is somewhat nervous to travel, but his brother attends college in Europe so Miller has had to travel to visit him. He always double masks and gets tested multiple times, he said.

This year, Harris thinks traveling is safe if people are careful, since breakthrough cases are rare. “The school has outlined the rules that we must follow over break,” he said “They have been made by the CDC and health experts and I believe we should listen to experts.”

After many years of being unable to travel, Alexa Schwartz (11) is excited to take a break from the stresses of school. “I feel safe enough to see my family, and I think getting out of New York will provide a good mental health break after the first semester.” ” 

Schwartz is also getting her booster shot this week. With all of her family being boosted before they go away, she feels like she has an extra layer of protection, she said. She also feels more comfortable knowing that the airplanes she will be on have vaccine requirements.

COVID infection rates were a lot lower when Emily Grant (10) planned her trip. As they have risen, she is more hesitant but still excited to travel. “With the new variant, I am starting to get more worried about traveling but I’m excited to go away and if we wear our masks, hopefully we will be fine.”

Grant’s biggest concern when traveling is getting Covid in another state or country and having to quarantine there, she said. “I am also worried about bringing Covid back and spreading it to my extended family and friends, mostly my grandparents.”

Grant attributes her safety when traveling to all of the safety measures put in place by the airlines and hotels, she said. “There are so many more forms and precautions in the airports now than there were before.”

Some families changed their travel plans because of new COVID variants and restrictions in certain destinations. Ben Rafal (10) and his family were planning to go to London for break, but decided against it when the restrictions got too tight and they became worried about testing and lockdowns. Instead, he will visit Costa Rica. Though he is excited, he still has concerns about medical measures outside the U.S. “There’s always the worry that the healthcare will not be as good as it is in America.”

Rafal hopes that all students who travel wear masks and follow the rules over break to prevent positive cases upon return. “If the community is vigilant about preventing the spread of COVID, break can be an opportunity for students to get much deserved rest.”