Earlier this semester, many students at the school where I teach in Los Angeles confessed to me and each other that, on more than one occasion, they’ve faked results for the COVID tests they are required to take each week. They do this by converting the PDF of their results to a Word document and then changing the dates. When I asked why, one student just shrugged and said, “It’s less of a hassle.” I suppose this explains why the COVID testing sites on campus are seldom crowded (even though students are required to be tested regardless of vaccination status) and the school’s COVID updates remain stagnant.
I tried this scam myself weeks ago. When I approached the security guard at the entrance kiosk where students and teachers are checked for symptoms and test results, I felt like I was hiding a ticking bomb — not a doctored test result ― in my briefcase (though maybe it’s the same thing). The guard glanced quickly at the document and waved me through. It was that easy. I do, in fact, get tested every week for COVID ― because I care about the health and safety of the people I work with and teach ― but I’ve frequently shown altered test results over the past several weeks to see if I’d ever get stopped. It’s never happened and, as far as I know, no one else has ever been stopped either.
Am I happy about this? Hell no! I contacted the administration at my school but, as far as I can tell, there have been no changes to procedures and tests are still being doctored. As Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do bad things, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” Meanwhile, in California, COVID cases for those 17 and under have surpassed cases reported for those over 65.
According to our union representative, approximately 65% of our student body is vaccinated. Because of that, I teach gripped by fear — fear of the five or six unvaccinated students in each class of 35 to 40 students sitting less than 2 feet from each other; fear of the reckless students who blatantly and constantly let their masks slip off their faces; fear of the untested students; fear of the students who are doctoring their test results; and fear for the exhausted teachers and other school employees who have to deal with this on a daily basis.
Sadly, this fear now informs how I teach. I can be in the middle of a lecture on Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and right in the middle of discussing the labyrinth of circles and sub-circles in the “Inferno,” I will spot a transgressor.
He sits five seats to my left with his nose poking out of his mask. He’s just inches away from the student in front of him. Rather than concentrating on divine justice and the punishment measured for hell’s many sinners, I’m focused on a sinner right here with me and I transform into Minos seated at the entrance of the second circle of hell.
“Because of that, I teach gripped by fear — fear of the five or six unvaccinated students in each class of 35 to 40 students sitting less than 2 feet from each other; fear of the reckless students who blatantly and constantly let their masks slip off their faces; fear of the untested students.”
“Can you please pull up your mask and cover your nose?” I growl like a beast, fire spewing from the sides of my KN95 mask.
There’s not much else I can do. Until the district’s vaccine mandate for all students over 12 goes into effect in January, my hands and the hands of my fellow teachers are tied. Without the support of our administration, some students will remain untested and continue to provide doctored test results to get into school. The health and safety of everyone in my school ― and I’m guessing many other schools ― will continue to be at risk. And why? Because people are too lazy to get tested? Because the school district doesn’t know how ― or isn’t properly equipped ― to enforce the testing requirements it put in place? Because people still believe that COVID isn’t a big deal or that vaccines are dangerous, despite what we’ve all seen with our own eyes over the last 20 months?
In ”De vulgari eloquentia,” Dante makes it quite clear that in order for any community to successfully work together, communication and listening are paramount. A few days ago, I listened to the chants of anti-mask and anti-vaccine protesters outside our school. I wonder if any of them listened to news about the 88,000 COVID cases in children aged 12 to 17 and the 26,300 deaths due to COVID in Los Angeles alone so far — or the 4.79 million COVID cases and 70,160 COVID deaths in the state of California.
Listening requires courage. Processing what we’ve heard and taking action takes even more courage. Sometimes we hear ugly details ― things we don’t want to hear ― but we must face them for anything to change.
I think Dante would sum up what’s happening at my school by saying that people have “lost the good of intellect.” Without it, people do not have the wherewithal to figure out the right thing to do. Dante, who believed that criticism is necessary for the health of a society, was exiled from his beloved Florence because he challenged power by speaking the truth.
Now, I am doing the same. I tried to call attention to the COVID testing results scam happening in my school and nothing happened. I’ve felt like a frustrated, triple-vaxxed, double-masked observer in the ninth circle of hell ― the one reserved for the kind of sinners who betray their humanity and fail to recognize the deadly toll of this pandemic. But I can’t merely observe any longer. I’m hoping this essay might amplify my voice. I’m hoping someone might finally listen to me and do something.
HuffPost reached out to Nick Melvoin, vice president of the LAUSD School Board, who oversees the West L.A area where the school in question is located, regarding this essay. He replied, “The goal of these testing efforts and other protocols is to keep kids safe, and in the classroom for in-person learning. This can only work when everyone does their part — and we will not tolerate anyone purposely undermining the systems meant to keep their school communities safe.”
Note: Due to concerns regarding privacy and safety, J.S. Heaney is a pseudonym.