Very few songs have reached #1 on the Billboard charts after the death of the artist. Otis Redding’s (Sittin‘ On) The Dock of the Bay in 1968 was the first to do so. Then came Janis Joplin’s cover of Me and Bobby McGee in 1971, followed by Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle in 1973. My favorite, though, is the one from 1980 that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since the last school year ended: John Lennon’s (Just Like) Starting Over.
This week at MICDS marked a return to universal in-person learning not seen on our campus since March 13, 2020—522 days before we began the new school year on Tuesday—and it has been a joyful homecoming. I have loved attending enthusiastic introductory meetings of all four Middle School grade levels in Eliot Chapel, visiting with our 2nd graders over French toast in the Beasley lunchroom (who doesn’t love breakfast for lunch?), and emceeing a current events “Clash of Classes” contest during an Upper School assembly from which the seniors emerged victorious.
I have also loved reconnecting with students individually and in small groups to discuss all manner of topics: summer jobs, summer travel, the revised Middle and Upper School daily schedule, excitement about their classes this semester, and hopes for the new year. My conversations with our youngest students tend to follow a different logic, of course, and often begin with declarations, such as “My sister knows you!” and “My mask matches my backpack!” and “I have a dog!” The questions, when they do come, aren’t always easy ones. On Thursday one child asked me, “When are you going to make COVID stop?”
The writer Sarah Zhang observed in The Atlantic earlier this week that a future in which COVID-19 is endemic—“recurrent but largely unremarkable”—is “hard to imagine with intensive-care units filling up yet again” in recent weeks. “But the pandemic will end,” she notes. “One way or another, it will end.” Signals of that ending are already in evidence. Notwithstanding the present deluge of reporting on the rise of breakthrough cases of COVID-19, serious infections in vaccinated persons remain remarkably rare. The CDC reports only 7,608 hospitalizations and 1,587 deaths among the 169.6 million fully vaccinated Americans—or approximately 4.5 hospitalizations per 100,000 and 0.9 deaths per 100,000. By comparison, rates of hospitalization and death per 100,000 adults due to influenza in 2018-19 were 177.4 and 1.8, respectively, according to CDC and population estimates. The COVID-19 vaccination, in other words—as has already been well established—is incredibly effective.
The recent rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among children, most of whom by contrast have no access to a vaccine, is also being heavily reported, but the broader data continues to be encouraging. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association report 17,865 cumulative hospitalizations among 75.3 million children in the United States, or 23.7 per 100,000. This rate is favorable relative to CDC estimates of the frequency of hospitalization of school-age children due to influenza in 2018-19 (39.2 per 100,000) but is unfavorable relative to the incidence noted above of hospitalization among persons vaccinated against COVID-19. The general resistance of children to serious COVID-19 infections, in other words, continues to be demonstrated, but this resistance is no substitute for the protection conferred by vaccination. At MICDS, we look forward to the approval of a vaccine for the students under 12 years of age—349 of them as of today—who are in our care.
In view of such promising data, why persist, then, with masking and distancing in congregate environments like schools? Sarah Zhang’s Atlantic article provides some perspective. “If the confusion around the CDC dropping mask recommendations for the vaccinated earlier this summer is any indication,” she writes, “this transition to endemicity might be psychologically rocky. With the flu, we as a society generally agree on the risk we are willing to tolerate. With COVID-19, we do not yet agree.”
Facts and feelings are not always on the same page. Several years ago, I noticed during a particularly bumpy flight that the passenger next to me was even more nervous than I was. I could not tell whether he was relieved or simply surprised when we finally landed safely, but knowing that misery loves company in any case, I turned to him and said, “Human beings will never fly.” My fears about air travel—my feelings about it—are, of course, irrationally defiant of the facts that prove its safety. Knowing this about myself, how can I then judge another person’s choice to wear a mask outdoors after being vaccinated, even though the evidence suggests that doing so is unnecessary? For that matter, how can I judge someone’s choice not to be vaccinated when the evidence suggests that they should be? Maybe you’ve been to different beaches than I have, but I’ve never seen a fearful swimmer suddenly run headlong into the ocean after someone shows them a statistic proving the rarity of shark attacks.
I am reminded of something Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why physics is easy and sociology is hard.” COVID data is easy, COVID policy is hard—and for at least a little while, as we navigate the open road of a new school year at MICDS, both will be taking a back seat to the more immediate work at hand: welcoming our students again in person, reorienting them to the rhythms, opportunities, and responsibilities of life on campus, and continuing to support them in their learning and growth.
Today I saw one of our wonderful Beasley students wearing a mask that said, “Good vibes.” She is making the best of it. We must all make the best of it—and we will—and what a wonderful place to do so. Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you and your families good vibes as we continue on our journey together in this new school year. It’ll be just like starting over.
Head of School