Coronavirus spreads across the globe, touches down in Western Mass., changes ‘our whole lifestyle’

A Centers for Disease Control test kit for COVID-19.Photo: wikimedia commons

In the week leading up to Amherst High School’s three week closure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Amherst College, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke all announced that they’d be shutting down their respective colleges for the remainder of the semester. 

The reason? To avoid students leaving campus, traveling all over the country (and the world) on spring break, and returning back to campus, possibly after contact with people who had the coronavirus.

UMass soon followed suit, closing for the year. 

By Friday, March 13, ARHS was closed too, until at least April 7, due to a similar desire to reduce contact with and the spread of COVID-19. But by then, I had already spent over two weeks speaking to students and staff about their thoughts about the coronavirus. 

In the beginning, there was a lot of uncertainty about how the virus would affect people in our area.

That said, Dean of Students Mary Custard understood the gravity of the situation right away. “I think it’s pretty scary that it’s spreading so quickly worldwide and that we don’t have a vaccine for it,” she said, in early March. “Especially because it affects the elderly and people who already have more severe health issues.” 

Despite her awareness of its seriousness, she thought people’s impulse to stockpile was amusing. “Honestly the things people are stockpiling I already have in my home,” she said. “So I don’t need to run out and buy a whole bunch of cleaning and disinfecting products. Your home is probably the most safe place [anyway]. I’m more concerned about leaving my home.” 

She didn’t think any state would be immune to COVID-19.

ARHS Principal Gene Jones expressed his belief that we should all take necessary precautions and then wait it out. “At this point, [one proactive thing] we can do is clean the building,” he said in early March. “We’ve installed extra hand sanitizer dispensers in the building, we do extra cleaning between bells, and of course, if any students are suspected of having the virus, we’d handle it the right way.”

While ARHS Nurse Robbin Suprenant knew that the virus was a “big public health concern and becoming a worldwide pandemic” she also encouraged students and staff to just “be smart with their health.”

“Get a lot of rest, get a lot of fluid, and wash your hands,” she said. “It’s probably the biggest thing you can do [other than to] use hand sanitizer. It’s in short supply right now, but you can actually make your own, using rubbing alcohol if needed.”

Right before closure, JJ Block took stock of the movement of the virus closer to home. “It’s pretty scary,” he said, “You see it happening in places you wouldn’t expect and [it’s hard to realize] it could happen here.”

As ARHS prepared to shutter its doors, the losses started to roll in. A big one: cancellation of the musical, Spring Awakening, with the exception of one performance on March 13, for a small, socially-distanced, in-person audience; other interested viewers watched online. 

The spring sports season was pushed back, as well, and now will not resume until, at the earliest, April 27.

On a large scale, Broadway went dark, the NBA and NCAA cancelled their seasons, millions cancelled plane travel, and employees all over the nation were forced out of work. 

As states like California, New York, and Illinois locked down, asking residents only to leave home for necessary supplies like food and medicine, schools in Kansas closed for the year.

In Massachusetts, by March 16, the Boston Globe reported that exposure to the coronavirus at a Biogen conference at the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel in Boston had led to 197 out of what would be close to 400 positive COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts.

Keith O’Connor, a spokesperson for Baystate Health, told 22News that as of March 20, they had tested 377 people, among whom 17 had tested positive for COVID-19. So far, 147 of those tested had been negative, while 213 cases were still pending.

“I think the main eye opener early on was the fact that people were comparing this to the Spanish flu of 1918,” said paraeducator Stephen Bechtold. 

“I’m [currently] worried about people who have compromised immune systems like babies and small children. Tens of thousands of people die from the flu every year and this is worse,” said Alyssa Ranker of the Academic Achievement Center.

While many students and teachers admitted enjoying the break from school, sleeping in, and finding a chance to connect to family, others found themselves surprised to be missing school and also having a hard time with “social distancing.” Many parents forced their kids to stay home and cut off ties to their children’s contact with peers for a while.

The coronavirus has left many scared, confused, and fearful for the future. 

I even spoke with my grandma, in Syracuse, New York, Kathy Nicholson-Collins, who was baffled by the situation. “I could never imagine in a million years with the technology and the medical expertise we have in the country that we couldn’t combat this issue,” she said. “And I’m concerned for the future. [This has] changed our whole lifestyle in a matter of days and all the things you like to do are extremely limited.” 

ARHS football coach Chris Ehorn Jr. has a lot of family in Florence, Italy, and he lived there for two years. “I feel so bad for Italy right now. I love that country and I can’t wait for it to be over with so we can go out there and see everyone,” he said.

Although Ehorn is worried about the situation, he said, “My wife and I do the worrying in private [because we have three kids]. It’s important to remain calm and prepare for the worst while doing all you can to keep a positive attitude.” 

To keep the kids active, Ehorn has been teaching them PE and cooking at home. “My wife teaches everything else,” he said. 

As a member of the class of 2020 there’s a common uncertainty about what happens next. Senior Caileb Camphor said that he’s been “stressing about school and thinking about how this whole situation is going to affect prom and graduation.” 

“My Playstation 4 hasn’t been off since I’ve been out of school,” said Camphor. “At this point, I’m just trying to get my mind off COVID-19.”