Us vs Them: An Inside Look at Schools in Different States During a Pandemic

By Wesley Gilbride, Staff Writer

States across America look completely different, ranging from beach, to mountain, to desert, to forest, to plains. Political views also range in this same way. Red and blue states are viewed very differently, Covid-19 protocols differ as well as how school looks for students and teachers.

According to the Covid-19 map by New York Times in Deschutes County, 1 in 40 people have reported a case of Covid-19, while 1 in 10 people have reported a case in Davidson County (Nashville), Tennessee. However, Oregon has chosen to partake in a distanced learning model, while Tennessee has not.

Back in October, I visited my family in Nashville where all of my cousins are back to in-person school. Out of jealousy and boredom, I managed to finagle my way into spending a day at Montgomery Bell Academy (MBA), an all-boys private school, to get a feel for what going to school in a red state as well as during a pandemic is like. 

The school took use of very strict Covid-19 protocols. To check in, I had to get my temperature taken and fill out a wellness questionnaire. In addition, lunch was outside, everyone wore masks, there were one-way hallways and desks were spread apart. The experience was eye opening, causing me to dive deeper into looking at other schools and how they’re handling the pandemic. 

The Bend LaPine school district has yet to attempt returning to in-person classes, even during times that case numbers were relatively low. Now that cases are at the highest they’ve been, Summit has announced the commencement of a hybrid schedule for the second semester. Compared to Nashville, the Bend community has a leg up in the hybrid schedule. Deschutes County has a much lower case count, a more liberal community—more likely to handle coronavirus strictly—and a thorough plan to tackle in-person school safely. All considered, Nashville hasn’t seen a huge spread of cases inside schools, despite higher numbers and a more conservative political affiliation. 

From an outside perspective, one might assume that red states generally believe coronavirus is a hoax. However, red states aren’t as twisted as they are perceived. They look about the same as any other state, a lot of red states in the south have a statewide ordered mask mandate, and the few that don’t—including Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and South Carolina—urge people to wear masks and follow health guidelines. In addition, many places without mask mandates in their state have them in their counties. In Tennessee, 70% of the population has a local mask mandate, according to Andy Markowitz, “State-by-State Guide to Face Mask Requirements” on AARP.

“You have to remember that Nashville/Davidson County is blue while much of the rest of our state is very red,” said Clark Harwell, an English teacher at Harpeth Hall, an all-girls private school in Nashville. “I for sure know people who are more liberal when it comes to following CDC guidelines, but I don’t think I have actually met anyone who thinks it’s a hoax.” 

However, political alignment does not dictate the severity at which most regard the pandemic. Some high school students don’t always use as many precautions as they should.

“We are numb to the idea. Everyone knows well over 10 people that have had it [Covid-19] including elderly and thankfully no one has died so people don’t see it as a threat,” said Thomas McRae, senior at MBA. This seems to be a commonality across the country for the younger generation, regardless of if you live in a blue state or a red state.

Outside of cities, smaller communities seem to take the pandemic less seriously. “It really depends on your area. I live 30 minutes from where I go to school, and the differences between the two places are astonishing,” said Liz Napier, sophomore at BGA, a private school in Franklin, Tennessee. “There isn’t a mask mandate in the area where I go to school, I know a girl who went into a clothing store, and the owner said ‘oh you don’t have to wear a mask in here we are normal’.”

Overall, it seems that the stigma of the south and their dealing with coronavirus is over exaggerated. Yes, it runs true in some areas of the state, however, the state of Oregon would look the same way. Portland, Bend, Salem and other larger cities follow CDC guidelines, but places like Crook County, Prineville and Burns generally don’t believe in them as much due to typically conservative political associations.

As for protocols for in-person school, Nashville seems to have done a good job regulating spreading the virus. With required masks, plexiglass shields between desks, 6 foot spacings between desks, one-way hallways, outside lunch and great contact tracing, schools are avoiding breakouts of Covid-19.

Some may assume that high school students would not follow all the rules that schools put in place, whether that is out of political association and beliefs or general lack of concern.

“I bet there’s going to be kids who wear their mask under their nose and I also feel like even if there is a social distance rule, people will still find a way to be elbow to elbow with their friends,” said Summit junior Thalia Tarkwon. 

Surprisingly, schools in Nashville have found just the opposite.

“The seniors in our grade seem very determined to keep the rules in-forced because we don’t want to be sitting at home our last year. At school I rarely see kids improperly wearing a mask,” McRae said.

Zooming in locally, Summit’s admin team took a field trip to Crook County high school, an area known to be more conservative than Bend, and saw similar results.

“They haven’t had any problems, they’ve made it very clear to the kids that if you want to be in school, you have to follow protocols, there’s no room for argument, and if you don’t want to do those things you can go online,” said Kristy Knoll, dean of students and assistant principal at Summit. This seems to be a silver lining for those who are concerned to be returning to normal school, and cases are spread much more outside of school. 

With Summit beginning a hybrid schedule on February 8th, the fantasy of returning to school has turned reality. Schools in the Nashville area have been in school since the fall and, despite a high case count in the area, Covid-19 has barely spread within the schools. 

“I would love to get back to school and I think many are in the same boat,” said Jake Epple, junior at Summit. “Regardless of if you have personally struggled with the content of online school, we all need the social aspects of being in person. That being said, I wouldn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable or worried about going back and so I think we need to practice safe protocols.” 

With schools in Nashville setting an example, Summit can attend school safely if protocols are followed 100% of the time, no exceptions. With diligent cooperation, the storm can get back to a semi-normal schedule. 

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