Members of the administration and Prefect Council worked in conjunction to host a series of optional on-campus social activities from Nov. 10 to Nov. 20 on weeknights. Because of rising coronavirus case numbers following the Thanksgiving holiday, the in-person events were postponed until after winter break, Head of Upper School Beth Slattery announced in an all-school email Dec. 4.
Introduced by members of the administration in mid-October, the initiative was intended to improve students’ mental health in a time of isolation and increased anxiety due to COVID-19. Participants returned to campus from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. to eat individually packaged dinners and play socially-distanced games, such as ‘Mafia,’ charades and Among Us, with their classmates on Ted Slavin Field.
A Head Prefect explains the work that went into organizing the event
Approximately 100 students from each grade signed up to participate in the activities, and around 50 to 80 students arrived each night, Head Prefect Jonathan Cosgrove ’21 said. Prefect Council members arranged the attendees into “pods” of about eight people in order to foster connections between students who otherwise would not have interacted.
“We tried to keep sports teams and friend groups together, but we made sure each group has people you’re not necessarily friends with,” Cosgrove said. “One part [of the online experience] that’s missing is the peer-to-peer interaction [with] people that aren’t your closest friends but that you still enjoy seeing in the hallways.”
Head of Communications and Strategic Initiatives Ari Engelberg said students were required to follow strict protocols before participating. After completing a self-certified health screening online, attendees had their temperature taken, switched their masks with school-issued KN95s and filled out a second survey once they arrived on campus. Slattery said she felt the school was prepared to host students on campus.
“I really feel like we are protecting people,” Slattery said. “The main reason we’re doing it now is that you guys are doing remote learning amazingly, but I don’t know how much longer you can do it if you don’t have some outlet. It feels like if the school can safely provide some outlet, it should.”
Some students felt they were safe returning to school
Some students raised concerns about gathering on campus and eating without masks. According to a report published by the Center for Disease Control on Sept. 11, individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 were two times more likely to have reported eating at a restaurant than those who tested negative. In response to these concerns, Slattery said the school will not serve dinner in the future but may provide small snacks, such as cookies and hot chocolate.
“I don’t think dinner is the draw,” Slattery said. “We thought that that’s what you needed to do in order to get kids on campus, since they wouldn’t have eaten necessarily, but now I’m not sure that [the dinners] will continue.”
Of 124 upper school students polled in a Chronicle survey, 74.2% said they believed the administration’s decision to host on-campus social activities was wise and responsible. Eli Friedman ’21 said the events allowed him to reconnect with his friends in a safe environment.
“I definitely appreciate this more as a senior than I would have in my past two years,” Friedman said. “It is sort of sad sometimes when you think about [the fact] that we might not even all be on campus again when we leave Harvard-Westlake.”
Mathematics teacher Joshua Helston, one of 40 faculty members who signed up to oversee the event, said he was willing to return to campus to supervise students after winter break because he trusted the administration’s guidance.
“Harvard-Westlake is doing a very good job of making sure that their first priority is being as safe as possible,” Helston said. “As long as [the administrators] say it’s okay, I’m on board.”
Others felt more apprehensive about returning
At the time the events were held, however, the COVID-19 transmission rate in L.A. increased from 0.95 to 1.02, and over 2,200 new cases were reported daily, according to NBC News Los Angeles. Mia Hutchinson ’21, who lives at home with her grandmother, said she felt the decision to hold the on-campus activities was ill-advised. She believes the administration’s decision only emboldened students who were already violating social distancing rules outside of school.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh, man, I wish I could [return to campus],’” Hutchinson said. “But I can’t because it’s dangerous.
I feel like it’s more important to care about physical health and not be encouraging this type of behavior. Harvard-Westlake kids are just going to keep throwing more parties and keep not caring because the school is endorsing [in-person gatherings] in my opinion.”
Science teacher Heather Audesirk said she did not want to risk her physical health, especially with the winter months approaching.
“The idea of having more gatherings made me slightly nervous [because] I personally have a slightly compromised immune system,” Audesirk said. “There’s a need for the social interaction that [on-campus activities] provide, […] but it’s really hard to know what safety precautions are good enough for me.”
The administration speaks about their future plans
Despite rising case numbers, Engelberg said he felt the initiative was safe due to greater knowledge about the nature of the transmission of COVID-19, as well as the school’s extensive health resources.
“We feel comfortable having students on campus as long as they’re in that controlled environment,” Engelberg said. “[We hosted the events in November because of the] greater sense of urgency [and awareness of the severity of COVID-19] among students and the need for social programming; a greater understanding of how the virus is spread and how to protect ourselves; [and] the investments that the school has made in personal protective equipment.”
Overall, Engelberg and Slattery stressed that the activities were optional and that families should decide for themselves whether returning was worth the risk.
Though on-campus social activities have been suspended until the new year, Associate Head of School Laura Ross said the school plans to allow students with learning accommodations to return to campus for their classes in accordance with LADPH regulations.