Covid-19: A Year Later–High Risk Households and School

January 21, 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 in the U.S. About 21 million people tested positive following the first official diagnosis on that date.

In the midst of this devastating pandemic, Mike (or K-Wall!) Kowalski and Paul Schmid are two teachers that are members of households that are at high risk.

Their Stories

Vasovagal Syncope is a disorder that, when triggered, causes the heart rate and blood pressure to drop suddenly. It puts Kowalski in a highly vulnerable category, and he has opted to self-quarantine at home.

“The idea of contracting COVID-19 is very scary to me, where I don’t know if I would be able to battle it if I were to contract it,” Kowalski said. “Wearing a mask might be hard, but I’ve been in my house since March. If I can stay in one spot for this long, I’m sure you can still go out to the store with your mask on and wash your hands when you get home to make sure that I’m still here next year to teach math to you guys.” 

He has had recurrent vasovagal attacks, or fainting spells, since he was in middle school, but an episode in 2018 changed his life. His heart stopped beating for six seconds. As a precaution, a Pacemaker, a device that helps regulate heartbeats, had to be implanted into his body. 

“Just having a foreign body inside my human body puts me at higher risk according to my family care doctor,” Kowalski said.

Exposure corresponds to uncertainty, and Kowalski can’t afford to take the risk when it could potentially be fatal.

Schmid is also in a situation where he needs to limit his exposure. Diagnosed at just six years old, Schmid’s twelve-year-old son Frankie has a “particularly malicious” version of Crohn’s disease called Early Onset Crohn’s, which is a rare but very severe autoimmune disease.

“He doesn’t have the immune system to fight off anything like this if he were to get affected,” Schmid said. “He is on two immunosuppressant drug treatments that weaken his immune system.”

To Schmid, empathy is an important trait to have. “The person walking down the street, if they don’t have a mask on, it may not be a danger to them, but if they are carrying anything, they are an extreme danger to my son. Everybody has kind of got to look out for everybody. It’s just not fair for other people to claim ‘I don’t want to wear a mask,’ or ‘I don’t want to be inconvenienced,’ or ‘it’s my constitutional right,’” Schmid said.

A Possible Change in the Structure

On December 9, 2020, Dr. Steve Matthews, the superintendent of the Novi Community School District, sent out an email in which a new hybrid structure is suggested.

“The hybrid option could move to five days per week in-person if the metrics as defined by the Board of Education improve significantly. These metrics will examine at a minimum the case count in both the county and district levels, as well as the percentage of Oakland County residents testing positive. Other factors could also be part of the equation. The focus is on continuing to provide safe learning and working conditions for our students and staff,” Matthews wrote.

Kowalski and Schmid have some concerns regarding the possibility.

Kowalski ideally wants to return to teach in-person.

“It is my goal to be back at school. I would prefer to be teaching in my classroom with my students in front of me instead of this, but it would have to be with health and safety in mind,” he said. “I want to be there, but I also don’t want anybody to take COVID-19 home and give it to somebody else. It would be really disheartening to hear that somebody died or got very very sick because we had school at Novi High School.”

“I know that evidence points to the fact that schools aren’t spreaders, but it makes me very nervous,” Schmid said. “I’m not sure we always recognize where viruses are being transmitted. I’m not sure we always recognize who has come in asymptomatically and may have been spreading the virus the last 2 weeks without anybody noticing.”

Keeping Frankie’s situation in mind, Schmid is grateful he is given a choice.

“I’m not a scientist. I’m not an expert. But I’m in a situation with a son with a compromised immune system and everything makes me nervous,” Schmid said. “I feel very fortunate that Novi has been so supportive of me teaching from home.”

Advantages of Virtual School

School going back to a “pre-COVID” normal for everyone is simply not a definite reality at this moment. Teachers are doing the best they can to face the challenges COVID-19 presents with distance learning.

Schmid and Kowalski have been in a virtual setting since the beginning of the school year and can only speak for themselves, but teaching is going well for them.

In terms of consistency, virtual school seems to have an advantage. Students and teachers know what to expect out of each day.

“I have colleagues who have been a little frustrated with the hybrid system and don’t feel that as much is getting done in the hybrid classrooms, simply because they’re not able to have contact with the kids every day,” Schmid said. “I have no personal experience with it and I feel good about the amount of material we have been able to cover in the virtual classroom.”

“The hybrid option with the days changing, and this is just my opinion, is too many variable pieces. It would be hard for me to remember what is happening on what day. I like the consistency of the virtual option,” Kowalski said.

Life has changed a lot for everyone in the past year. Kowalski and Frankie are real people who might not be able to battle the virus if they were to contract it. Schools reopening are big changes that could affect their lives if transmission rates were to spike. 

With Novi’s in-person students being back full-time, these opportunities for virtual schooling continue to help those who come from immunocompromised households, as seen through Schmid and Kowalski.