By Noah Bergam (V), Justin Li (V), and Aneesh Karuppur (V)
June 18, 2020
On the evening of June 11, the Pingry community received an email from Head of School Matt Levinson and the Board of Trustees confirming that Mr. Jake Ross was fired from The Pingry School. A few hours earlier, an apology email which Mr. Ross had sent to the baseball team earlier in the week began to circulate around the student body, and gained more public visibility as a result of an email from Alexandra Weber ‘20 sent to juniors and seniors; in her email, Weber stated that Mr. Ross had been barred by “the administration” from sending his apology to the whole school. The next day, a group of students, backed by over 600 petition signatures, sent an email to the Board of Trustees asking them to reinstate Mr. Ross.
Here is how we interpret the situation, according to the content and rhetoric of the Board’s June 11 termination letter, Mr. Ross’ apology letter, and the students’ June 12 letter to the Board.
On the week of June 8, an Instagram account operated by Pingry parents known as “_bigbluebaseball_” posted a picture of Mr Ross and the seniors on the boys’ baseball team, holding a banner that read “Everything Matters.” Some Pingry students thought the timing of this banner was in bad taste, since it resembled the slogan “All Lives Matter,” which is used as a protest against the Black Lives Matter movement.
If the June 11 letter from the Board answered one thing directly, it was that Mr. Ross was not fired for the Instagram post itself. Rather, he was fired for disrespectful conduct towards “school administrators,” including Mr. Levinson, when they attempted to “engage the community in dialogue” about the post and its impact.
Why was Mr. Ross disrespectful? Rather than providing any direct insight into the context of his frustration, or affirming the confidentiality of such context, the June 11 letter expounds on the idea that the conduct was part of a longer pattern of bad behavior: “This is also not the first instance in which he has demonstrated poor judgment and disrespect. We have learned there have been other instances that have resulted in a demotion of leadership responsibilities.” These words attack Ross’ character in past, possibly unrelated incidents rather than shedding light on the moment that actually caused him to get fired.
Moreover, the vocabulary describing Mr. Ross in this email is much harsher than that used to describe Mr. Graig Peterson in the August 27, 2019 email which announced Peterson’s firing in the wake of his use of “extensive, non-school-related electronic communication with several Upper School students.” In the August 27 email, written by Mr. Levinson and Upper School Director Ms. Chatterji, the only directly negative word used to describe Peterson’s behavior was “inappropriate,” whereas the June 11 email condemns Ross’ behavior with phrases such “unprofessional and inappropriate,” “unacceptable and antithetical to our values,” and “poor judgment and disrespect.” The June 12 petition letter pointed out the “usually strong terms used to characterize this incident,” going so far as to say that “the Dean Ross you described is not the Dean Ross we all know and love.”
The June 11 letter props up the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, treating Ross’ termination as a stepping stone towards that goal. The letter begins by quoting Mr. Levinson (or, as the letter colloquially refers to him, “Matt”) about his determination to uphold Pingry’s “inclusivity, honor, respect, and civic engagement” and ends with actions the school will take towards making a more inclusive educational environment. The aforementioned, overtly negative depiction of Ross, bookended by positive descriptions of the inclusive mission of the Board and Mr. Levinson in particular, implies that Mr. Ross personally stood in the way of this mission, and moreover that his termination contributed to the school’s goals of diversity and inclusion: “This letter and the actions below are only the first step.”
In his apology letter, Ross takes on a very different style from the Board; while the June 11 letter is self-promoting and, with 29 authors, profoundly impersonal, Ross’ letter establishes a voice that acknowledges mistakes and commits to personal change: “I clearly missed this one, but I will learn. I will be better.” Ross’ language is perhaps not as professional and self-assured as the Board’s (“The emotional rage and hurt I feel each time I think about what it must be like to be a black person in America, is not something I can convey in an email”) yet it embodies his open, relatable style as a leader, which the June 12 petition letter from students defends as a quality that allowed him, as a dean, to contribute to diversity and inclusion at Pingry with “sensitivity, dignity, and swiftness.”
The June 12 petition letter takes a sharp stance against the rhetoric of the June 11 message, stating that the “vagueness of the statements in the letter we received has also done little to assuage our concerns about the handling of this incident.” It implies that the June 11 email increased the very “deepening polarity” it pointed out and may have broken the Honor Code principle of “confidentiality in disciplinary proceedings” considering how it “so readily and publicly humiliate[d] a colleague.” Ultimately, the letter makes a bold request to the Board: “rectify your mistake by reinstating him.”
As of June 19, The Board of Trustees and Mr. Levinson have yet to respond.
We do not know much about the situation surrounding Mr. Ross’ misconduct: neither its severity nor its source. What we do know is that, between the language that the Board and Mr. Levinson used to describe Ross, and the language used by students and Ross himself, we have two very different pictures of the former dean––one depicting a disrespectful figure who stood in the way of diversity and inclusion, and the other depicting a crucial part of the Pingry community who actively supported the endeavour.
The first night my dad came home from treating COVID-19 patients at Newark Beth-Israel Hospital, I asked him what the situation looked like.
His immediate response: “No one knows anything.”
Ground zero, according to him, was a welter of confusion. In the midst of a growing influx of cases and a narrowing supply of masks and ventilators, it made sense: no one working there had seen or been prepared for this kind of situation before.
The situation at the hospital has since improved, but confusion has continued to sweep the entire population as we realize the power of our quarantine, and the fact that, if we break it, we risk restarting a vicious battle on the front lines.
We have a long road ahead of us, and we’re all looking forward to the day when we can walk away from this pandemic. But when will that day be? How do we reach it? And how do we make sure this never happens again?
These are the core questions I seek to address in this investigation.
To truly put down the virus at this point, we have to reach a status called herd immunity.
Herd immunity occurs when a significant majority of the population (about 70%) have been exposed to the virus, developed antibodies, and reached a point where they are no longer contagious. This creates a situation where those who cannot survive the virus (i.e. the immunocompromised) are surrounded by a “herd” who can act as a buffer from outbreaks. Life can then go on as normal.
Herd immunity can either happen naturally or artificially (i.e. through a vaccine). According to the WHO, “there is not enough evidence” to suggest that surviving COVID-19 will naturally grant long-lasting immunity. But even with that assumption, the death rates we have seen so far suggest that it might take well into 2021 and over half a million American deaths before we reach that point, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
And then there is a vaccine––a scalable treatment that can give someone a “dumbed down” version of the virus and allow their immune system to develop the necessary antibodies to protect themselves. If we develop a vaccine, it can accelerate us to herd immunity with much more certainty than the natural route.
The vaccine time-table we have been hearing from government officials, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, is 12 to 18 months, which would have us waiting through mid-2021 … but there’s no guarantee that we will remotely follow this timeline, or that we will even be able to develop one. And if we do, we will have to develop a much stronger global supply chain to satisfy an exceptional demand.
In any case, we have a long road ahead of us. But that doesn’t mean we won’t progress. Reopening the economy can happen in steps; Governor Murphy has outlined a six-part plan that includes gradual reopening of specific businesses, as well as significant expansion of contact tracing and testing.
Beating Future Outbreaks
The position we find ourselves in reflects what I like to call the Fundamental Theorem of Public Health: the fact that ad hoc treatment is a more expensive and more painful alternative to prevention.
Keyword is prevention. How do we prevent a virus from wreaking this kind of havoc in the years to come?
To get answers, I talked to my sister Scarlett Bergam, a candidate for a Master’s Degree in Public Health with a concentration in Global Infectious Disease at Brown University.
One of the main things she stressed was quicker action. When asked what contributed most to the situation at hand, Scarlett pointed to a lack of testing and the ramifications thereafter. “While this was not completely in our control, it led to many people infecting others without knowing. To combat the inevitability of not knowing who was infected, we should have shut down our economy much sooner.“
It’s important to understand that testing alone is not enough––those who test positive need to immediately be isolated from the general population, as well as those who they came into contact with in the meantime. Hence, contact tracing: a tool that, if used on a wide enough scale, can turn a virus’ growth rate upside down.
According to Scarlett, “This would be incredibly efficient if people consented to it. However, ethically, there is always a fear of giving up one’s data.” She acknowledged the fact that most contact tracing would probably have to include GPS information, and that tracking of people’s locations could discourage signups (mandatory contact tracing, of course, would invoke some hefty constitutional issues).
However, she expressed some faith that a partnership between local government and the private tech industry could maximize both the effectiveness and the appeal of contact tracing. (Additionally, I found in my own research some clever methods of contact tracing that wouldn’t impede privacy.)
In terms of what we need to do to make these systems a reality, Bergam stated that “policy definitely has the biggest impact—new laws and funding allocation have the power to save mass amounts of lives, much more efficiently than any one doctor can.” Ultimately, making these kinds of long-term investments can save a lot of money and life down the line, and if there’s one good thing that COVID-19 has given us, it’s the amount of incentive we now have to follow through.
It’s incredibly scary to not know when life will go back to normal.
We can rest assured that one day it will. But in order to reach that day, we need solutions, widespread cooperation, and, perhaps most importantly, knowledge. “No one knows anything” is a scary prospect in the hospital but also in the general population––we need to understand the science and the policy surrounding this pandemic. We cannot afford to fall for misinformation, political understatements, or the illusion of blissful ignorance.
We are living in a time of historical proportions, with historical mistakes that will be studied for decades and centuries to come.
So let’s be clear on our situation, and the solutions at hand. Let’s face this world head on and come back to our changed world, not defeated by this present suffering, but empowered by the future in our hands.
As the growth rate of the coronavirus begins to flatline, Americans grow tired of a virus that has ravaged this nation for far longer – the racially charged murder of innocent black Americans, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, by a systematically flawed criminal justice system.
Since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, thousands have taken to the streets across the country in frustration. These protests have called for murder charges against the policemen who killed Floyd, as well as concrete legislative reform to end these homicides. The former request was fulfilled on June 3, when the Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced a second-degree murder charge (upgraded from third-degree) for Derek Chauvin, who asphyxiated Floyd by kneeling on his neck for over 8 minutes, as well as aiding and abetting charges for the three former policemen who allowed Chauvin to do so. In terms of broader reforms, protesters are calling for divestment from police forces, an end to the Qualified Immunity (which make it extremely difficult for officers to be found guilty), and a ban on choke and knee holds.
Within the Pingry community, many students and alumni have joined in on the activism. Most have been helping spread awareness on allyship and petitions via social media, while others took part in peaceful protests in their communities.
The protests across the country are evidence of a desire and pressing need for change. While most of these protests have remained peaceful, some have turned violent, with police provoking protesters and protesters taking part in arson and vandalism. In the case of the former, it is disturbingly unclear how police are being disciplined for their brutality, especially against peaceful demonstrators. In the case of the latter, there has been confusion over who has been inciting the violence, and debate surrounding the acceptable limits to what protesters should do. Some cite the destruction of private property alone as reason enough to condemn the rioting, while others see the rioting as a tantamount reaction to decades of oppression and police violence.
In the wake of the Floyd shooting, Student Body President Nolan Baynes wanted to see allyship and action from the school’s administration, so on May 28 he emailed Pingry’s top administrators, including Headmaster Matt Levinson, asking Pingry to speak up.
After some back and forth, including further student emails which pressed the school to take more direct action, administrators set up a community-wide Zoom meeting on June 3 to initiate more dialogue about the issue.
During the meeting, which was attended by over 300 students and faculty, participants had an opportunity to voice their opinions and frustrations in hopes of improving Pingry’s future responses and actions against racial injustice. Students were able to offer suggestions to the faculty and the administration, while teachers reflected on “action steps” they could take to better facilitate discussion around race in their classroom and beyond.
On Friday, June 5, the Pingry Allyship Collective (a newly formed coalition of all the affinity groups, student unions, SDLC, and CASE) sent a letter to administrators requesting more transparency between students and faculty involved in diversity and inclusion (inset at bottom left).
Words from a Pingry Protester
Giles Burnett (IV), who took part in peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Somerset, NJ, on May 31, provided a statement on why he chose to protest:
I’ll tell you what my mom told me. ‘Watch your tone around strangers, don’t wear your hoodie in public, never question or talk back to an officer, turn down your music in the car, don’t bike/drive through that neighborhood, you better be home before dark, take your hands out your pocket, walk with a purpose and don’t linger, you don’t get any second chances in this world.’ Or, I can tell you what America told me. ‘Cross the street or clutch your purse when you see me, follow me in the store, slow your car down when you see me, slow down your cop car when you see me, ask me if I’m lost or in the wrong store, ask me where I got that $20 from, ask me if I play football or basketball, ask me if you can say the n-word.’ That is my everyday life, I march so my black brothers and sisters don’t have to answer those questions. I march so innocent black men and women aren’t killed in the streets. I march to fight the systemic racism that plagues our country. This past week has been one of the most painful and exhausting weeks of my life. I’ve cried, reflected, laughed and everything in between. I’ve been able to channel these emotions into action and change. However, there is no change with only 14% of the nation speaking up. We need allies and we need unity. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Stay safe.
The Record’s Statement
We wholly condemn the police brutality present in this country, as well as the silence that has allowed it to viciously persist. As a publication, we stand for improvements in Pingry’s discourse surrounding race relations. We encourage writers of all identities to tackle these difficult subjects, and we are open to civil discussions around the presence of racial injustices in our School, our nation, and our world.
I am sure you have seen on the news and through social media that the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have resulted in mass outrage throughout the country. This is not the first time this will happen, and I doubt it will be the last. Many members of our Pingry community have felt the need to advocate upon social media discussing possible protests, sending out petitions, and even speaking their own emotions. As a school, during times of crisis, this definitively being one of them, we have been able to address issues that are affecting students head-on. To be direct, in the fall, when commenting upon the suicide of nearby students, the administration was very prompt to address the matter, and all hands were focused upon it. It is odd that even with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, I was the only person upon campus to speak out formally. There seems to be some lack of adult input in these situations, and it’s isolating to the students whom it affects daily. From my perspective, the daily micro-aggressions and events at this school go silenced and unnoticed, especially from the administration As a middle school student, I would feel as though I was alone fighting a fight that would never be resolved, and here we are in 2020 dealing with the same issue. Except now, I’m a senior with a legitimate position in our school. As a Student Body President, an active advocate in our community, and most importantly, a Black boy, I’m asking you to speak out on it. Show solidarity with the people who have been affected by systemic racism for over 400 years who attend your school. If you don’t, I, along with other students in your building, will continue to fight the fight that has yet to be resolved in this country. As adults, you have a platform just like I do, and I hope you find a way to advocate for people who look like me and not just turn a blind eye and become shocked when the next murder occurs. Black tears fall upon deaf white ears.
Nolan Baynes II
May 28 Letter from Nolan Baynes II (V) to Pingry Administrators
We are proud to be Pingrians; we wish to discuss diversity-related issues in Pingry because we want this community to become a better, more inclusive place. We started diversity work in Pingry because we either were displeased with the lack of representation in our school or believed that the existing representation is both superficial and trivialized by the students and the staff. However, the goal of PAC is not to point fingers or merely complain about the past wrongs we have observed. Instead, we wish to progress in collaboration with the administration and contribute to the commendable endeavors of our school. In order to do this, however, certain methods of communication and action must be reformed; one of our main concerns is the lack of collaboration and/or transparency between faculty leaders who make diversity-related decisions and the students who feel the result of these decisions (or lack thereof). As a result, we hope that the administration takes our ideas and perspectives seriously.
Excerpt of June 5 Letter from Pingry Allyship Collective to Pingry Administrators
The far-reaching solidarity we see for Black America right now is a rightful cause for hope. However, we – and when I say we, I’m pointing to White people in specific – ought to make sure our energy on this issue does not fall back into familiar patterns of ignorance surrounding police brutality.
In other words, we have to make sure we don’t let this fade into the background of our political perceptions once the media hype dies down. If we want to fight this issue, and be real allies, we have to act and educate ourselves for the long run.
We know media attention alone has not fixed this issue. Even in the most high-profile cases, such as those Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, we have failed to see the policemen found guilty. We have seen the media storms, the rises and falls of #BlackLivesMatter, to little real avail in terms of legislative change.
What makes the George Floyd protests different?
George Floyd’s murder was set in such a context to set off the perfect storm.
His murder came in the context of the coronavirus, which disproportionately hurt African American communities. His murder came after a string of other racist killings, most notably those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. His murder was caught on camera from multiple angles, and was unacceptably gruesome.
The public outrage has rightfully reached a boiling point, and it has already been constructive in a number of ways. The dialogue is more far-reaching than ever. The petitions and donations are growing, and it’s encouraging to see so many people taking part. It’s unfortunate that people are trying to shift the discussion to the destruction of rioting, but ultimately I think many Americans on both sides of the political spectrum see such rioting (and its frequent roots in provocation from the police) as a symptom of a much larger issue that has to be addressed.
However, I’m disappointed to say that these riots were a wakeup call for me. It took this kind of public outrage for me to feel the pain of these injustices and realize how bad it’s been for Black America.
In the wake of the Floyd protests, I reread a certain chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and listened to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Two of my favorite pieces of art, which were about police violence and racism against Black Americans. I thought I knew these works well, but after seeing and hearing what was going on in protests in real life, something new clicked. My heart started beating faster. They suddenly made me stress in ways they never before did, even though I always knew the issues in them were real and ongoing.
The difference was, in the midst of widely recognized tragedy and tangible grief, I was forced to stop internally compartmentalizing and start empathizing. I was forced to realize the stress of being Black in America, and moreover my dangerous ability as a White American to ignore it.
That is why I want to hammer home that Black Lives Matter has to be more than a hashtag, a trend, a meme that rises and falls like any other. Because there aren’t going to be protests on the street forever. People are eventually going to stop posting activist messages on their social media as they hunger for some sense of normalcy.
We’ll get tired, along with the news cycle, which will eventually find another story. That’s the natural reaction. But the crucial thing here is that Black Americans can never really just forget about this. Police brutality is a burden on their community, and it always will be unless we non-Black people help them with this burden for the long haul, to effect real change.
As citizens, this means being an active and precise voter on every level of government. It means contacting legislators and local police systems, amplifying Black voices, taking part in rallies, donating to the right organizations, showing and acting on allyship consistently, treating this as a central political issue even when it isn’t always convenient to do so.
For Pingry it means a change in mindset. A change in curriculum, where we teach the manifestations of systemic racism not only in the 1800s but also in our present day. It means ongoing, uncomfortable, but ultimately educational conversations in the classroom between racial groups about why and how our country has yet to fulfill its social contract.
Ultimately, Black lives shouldn’t just matter now. They shouldn’t just matter when it’s cool to post it on an Instagram story, or necessary to uphold your reputation.
The bipartisan government report on the 2008 Financial Crisis and the Great Recession paraphrased Shakespeare in its analysis: “The fault lies not in the stars, but in us.”
I read parts of this report, as well as numerous other sources, for a history project, and it was really eye-opening how much I learned about the human nature that plays into economics, from perverse incentive to predatory lending to, ultimately, the ethical dilemma of the bailout.
Over the course of my entire childhood which existed in the backdrop of this Recession, I never really understood the event and the different interpretations of it that persist to this day. Talking to some classmates, I realize this gap in knowledge might be more widespread than I thought, and it makes sense; in all our years of coursework, we never had the chance to sit down and actually discuss it.
The economics around me only became more eye-opening when, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, I sought to educate myself on some of the systemic racism in our country. From there I discovered the sheer severity of racial wealth inequality in this country and the covert redlining which contributes to it. This is once again something I knew vaguely, but I wish I could have learned about it in detail in a structured classroom environment. It should not have taken a national crisis to learn this.
On this note I would like to make a request. Pingry should mandate economics education throughout all four years of high school, teaching not only good practices for personal finances but also looking at systemic issues, both past and present, to examine their causes.
In our current system, aside from the one trimester of Financial Literacy in freshman year and the online Financial Literacy coursework in senior year, Pingry students need not think about economics unless they have the interest and the space in their schedules to take a course in it.
That’s not enough.
And look, I know it’s easier said than done to ask Pingry to teach more of this or that. But I think economics as a subject, in the context of the kinds of issues that I brought up, stands out from the crowd of other subjects. I say this not only because of its obvious usefulness for students as future consumers but also its importance right now in terms of intellectual discourse.
Understanding economics is a civic duty. It makes us question policy rather than assume someone else has it all figured out. It can also help us have more fact-based discussions surrounding social issues in America, which may help open students up to discussions of privilege and diversity and inclusion more than our current, opinion-based approaches.
Four years of economics education would make for a continuity that the current system lacks. Additionally, it would not be particularly hard to implement for the sophomore and junior classes, for it should not require new hirings or substantial schedule changes – in fact, it should exist outside the course schedule and be largely asynchronous, with progress marked by quizzes or short responses.
However, for the more curious students, there should be occasional, optional meetings where students can discuss some of the material with an economics teacher and ask questions. Think of it like an addition to our community service requirements. A requirement for the intellectual well-being of Pingry students, and moreover an opportunity for interested students to engage in the subject.
Ultimately, we’re living in history. That should have been evident since 2008, and it is more than evident now. Our financial literacy curriculum, moving forward, should reflect that.
After 41 years at Pingry, beloved Upper School German teacher and former Head of the World Languages Department Norman LaValette is retiring this year. Mr. LaValette (often referred to by students as “Herr LaV” or simply “LaV”) is known for his unorthodox but effective teaching methods, which, as his students can attest to, involve countless mantras, exquisite vocabulary, speed dialogue, and sometimes even jumping on tables.
LaValette is a born teacher, but the way he ended up choosing German and Pingry requires a bit of background.
In terms of the former, the story starts back when he was in 7th grade, when he had the choice at his public school to learn either Latin or German. He liked both languages; Latin piqued his interest in toy soldier collection, while German had interesting connections with his native Dutch. He chose Latin, only to receive his schedule and find it had German on it. Apparently there were not enough signups to fill up a Latin class. “The rest is history;” he studied German through high school, college, and grad school.
When LaVallette entered the teaching world, Pingry was not his debut job. After four years teaching at three separate high schools, LaValette stumbled upon Pingry by a recommendation from a friend. After interviewing for the job, LaV recalled he was “duly allured,” taken aback by “the reverence for scholarship, for ideas” among both students and teachers. Once again, the rest is history.
LaV taught German during a time when the Berlin Wall was thought to be indestructible. He recalled taking students to the country on exchange trips in the late 80s and early 90s––on one trip in specific, his students traded US dollars for medals and belts from Russian soldiers in East Berlin. He recalled thinking: “This is wild.”
Herr LaValette has run Harkness discussions in German since the 1980s, back before it was cool for even high school English classes. He recalled one specific discussion that devolved into fisticuffs––a discussion where he jumped in and ultimately took an accidental punch to the jaw from one of his students. If anything, it was a testament to his sheer dedication to his students, and, of course, the relevance of his class discussions: as LaV put it, “German can push people’s buttons!”
According to German teacher Karsten Niehues, “[LaV] is a living legend. Over the years, more than 1,000 teachers have participated in his workshops and learned from his wisdom. While LaV has a student-centered approach to teaching, he also believes in the value of teachers with strong personalities.” Indeed, LaV’s pedagogy has made huge impacts on the teachers around him. Fellow German teacher Igor Jasinski stated, “Watching [LaV] teach has helped me become a better teacher, as it makes me want to bring to my classes some of that intensity and sense of urgency that is the hallmark of Norm’s teaching style.” Colleague and former German teacher Ann Dickerson said, “He is an innovative, energetic, passionate educator who has never become complacent or cynical about teaching, and comes to school every day as eager to grow and to learn as if he were just starting out.”
This is evident in his own words. When asked what teaching has taught him, LaV responded, “If you’re an ambitious person, if you start a year with a goal, inexorably what’s going to happen, especially if you’re a teacher, is you aren’t going to reach all of them. You’re not ever as good as you think you are. But here’s the cool thing about teaching: most teachers I know, they will get back on the horse, and set up new goals, new ambitions, strive to do what they couldn’t do the year before.”
The first mantra LaV taught me back in sixth grade German was Aller Anfang ist schwer: every beginning is difficult. So too is every ending, especially to a career this amazing. Herr LaV, you will be greatly missed.
In these confusing times there’s a certain sense of power that comes with understanding, or at least trying to understand, the dynamics of disease spread and epidemiology. I certainly felt that as I’ve looked into the mathematics disease modeling over the course of this quarantine––a field that is absolutely fascinating, empowering, and daunting all at once. I recommend checking out Julian Lee’s article on his original disease modeling application, which describes the effects of visiting friends in a quarantine (his application is a randomized agent-based model as opposed to the more top-down mathematical models you’ll see here).
In this article, I present three epidemiology thinking problems, in ascending orders of difficulty, meant to put you in the position of the disease modeler. Have fun!
Fig: A graphical representation of an SIR (Susceptible-Infected-Recovered) Disease Model. The green curve is the curve that our social distancing efforts are “flattening.” This is the classic, top-down disease modeling approach
1) In epidemiology, R0 (“the basic reproductive number” or “r-naught”) is defined as the maximum number of new cases expected per infected person. The R0 of COVID-19 has been estimated to be 2.28 (Zhang, et al). An infected individual is expected to cause ß new cases per day. This is essentially the “birth rate.” Meanwhile, δ is the expected proportion of cases dying on a given day. This is essentially the “death rate.” Describe R0 in terms of ß and δ.
2) Does R0 tend to decrease, increase, or remain the same as a virus grows in an isolated population? Why or why not?
3) Consider the following differential equation to describe the spread of COVID-19, where ß and δ have the same values defined in problem 1.
This is essentially a fancy mathematical way of saying that the rate at which the infection spreads is dependent on the number of people infected as well as the difference between the virus’ birth and death rates. In what ways does this model oversimplify real-life disease spread?
The Pingry tuition for the 2019-20 school year was $42,493. Lunch cost $1,378. Those are significant numbers in my life, numbers that, for over six years, have hovered over my head, acting as a reminder of what doesn’t go to my younger siblings each year.
Those numbers are especially relevant in the era of remote learning. Assuming the very likely scenario that the rest of the school year is remote, it appears students are on track to lose out on both tangible and intangible aspects of an expensive educational experience. This problem, of course, isn’t unique to Pingry. Many universities have issued refunds on room and board and meal plans in the wake of this change. I believe Pingry ought to follow suit and prorate our SAGE Dining meal plans––and while it is unlikely that we could receive a partial refund on the less quantifiable intangibles that we lost this year, it’s a conversation worth opening up … especially if this remote learning situation continues into next fall.
I remember back in seventh grade when some friends and I tried to break down the cost of Pingry life into an hourly rate. It came down to about $30 an hour, and we joked about how much we were getting robbed by DEAR time––but even back then I think we understood this metric wasn’t the end-all-be-all. The years since have only affirmed that for me: in a normal Pingry hour, you’re getting a lot more than what’s on the schedule. In fact, I would argue that most of Pingry’s value comes down to the stuff you don’t expect: the triumphs and the failures, the conversations, the relationships, the journey as a whole. We cannot and should not try to assign dollar values to those kinds of experiences.
Such is the paradox of the educational product: for students, the beneficiaries, Pingry is a priceless experience, but for our parents, the customers, it is a hefty investment with a fairly clear goal: “success” in a high-quality educational environment. In my experience, the student and parent perspectives mix like oil and water––where the external parental perspective sees a clear-cut result, the internal student perspective sees the fruits of a complicated learning process.
The issue we now face critically disrupts the learning process and the experience as a whole, which makes it much easier for students and parents alike to take a critical stance on Pingry as a product. Of course, we are fighting it. We are trying our best to believe in the intangibly valuable educational community, and to an extent, we’re succeeding … but at the end of the day, Google Hangouts can’t replace the little things that make real school real: the fast-paced conversation of class, the small talk with teachers, the time with friends, the work-home separation. A screen can’t project all those priceless dimensions of the Pingry experience.
But can we prorate the priceless? Can we somehow reimburse students for the intangible education that they lost, while still keeping faculty paychecks running? The answer, especially in the wake of this unforeseen disruption, is probably no. Neither universities nor private high schools have even entertained the concept, citing the argument that, despite the drop in quality, they are still doing their best to provide educational resources remotely. That being said, if school is unable to resume in the fall, that changes the game, since tuition adjustment would be an act of foresight on behalf of a “new” product rather than an after-the-fact reaction in the midst of chaotic change.
In any case, there are two requests we as students can and should make, in the event that remote learning extends to the rest of this year and potentially beyond.
For the Board of Trustees: please prorate our Sage Dining meal plans. If we are not receiving a service that our parents paid for, we deserve reimbursement. In addition, please consider the prospect of “prorating the priceless,” for both this semester and, if need be, next semester––even if other institutions have dismissed this idea, it is certainly worth deducing and communicating its viability.
For Mr. Levinson: please address both parents and the student body on this topic. Tuition matters, and in times like this, when the product of Pingry is being tested in unforeseen ways, it ought not to be taboo.
The prospect of refunding some portion of school costs is a matter of goodwill and care for the community. It is the kind of action that recognizes the state of our education not only as a journey in life but as a financial investment that ought to be respected.
Ever since I first watched in sixth grade, I knew I wanted to do LeBow.
From the win of Katie Coyne ‘16 to the two-year reign of Rachel Chen ‘18 to the triumph of Miro Bergam ‘19, I sat anxiously in the audience year after year. I was the nervous yet critical viewer, who, in his endless deification of the stage, kept imagining how he himself might fare or fail in front of 700 academics. Time flew like an arrow, from imagination to reality. In my sophomore year, I took the stage with a speech about memes. And I won.
The aftermath followed a rapid progression from satisfaction to excitement to terror. I achieved what I had dreamed of for years, and I could still look forward to another chance at the stage in 2020. But I also knew I could very easily fail that second chance and fall short of the high expectations.
In preparing for this year’s competition, I believed that the only way to successfully replay the game would be to break it. So I chose to call out the unsettling pattern of universal agreeability that LeBow speeches were developing, a problematic pattern I myself upheld the year before. In this sense the speech was a critical self-reflection––I chose to burn the magic that I had internalized and glorified over the years, and from those ashes construct an argument against the very anti-argument nature of Pingry culture I embraced.
Did I fail? Certainly in the sense of losing the title.
But in retrospect, I got what I asked for. I did not design my speech to maximize likability among a judging panel––I wrote it in order to spark critical thought and disagreement among the broader student community. And in that sense, I think it was a success.
I met two counterarguments that, in the spirit of debate, I want to address.
To reiterate, my thesis is as follows:
“In order to make sure students develop the key skills of political disagreement, we ought to bring timely, wholehearted, messy debates into the classroom––and then we students ought to embrace more of that argumentative style in our own independent endeavors [eg LeBow itself].”
1. My message is NOT that Pingry students lack the capability to have difficult discussions. I can’t speak for what goes on within specific environments like affinity groups. I simply question how far-reaching, especially between identity boundaries, these discussions are. Thus, I assert that the humanities classroom is the best place to make controversial discussions informed and ubiquitous. Otherwise, Pingry students, like most citizens, will naturally flock to echo chambers, and schoolwide communication, especially in assemblies, will continue to favor numbing agreeability and “political correctness.”
2. Yes, I do think teachers should give their personal opinions in class. Obviously, this comes with a two-pronged expectation of maturity. The student should be able to respect the teacher’s opinion without bowing down to it, and the teacher should be able to be subjective with the explicit intent to inform rather than directly convince.
As I defend this thesis, I don’t pretend my speech was perfect. I made plenty of miscalculations, the most obvious of which was the exclamation that “I’m the Big Fish in a Little Pingry Pond!” Yes, that sounds arrogant. I was trying to be ironic, I was trying to make it clear that the concept of a big fish here is a dangerous illusion that limits one’s ability to think outside the scope of this community’s limited discourse. But I suppose using such a phrase as the cornerstone of the speech might have given some pretty negative impressions. So it goes.
It’s over now. Now I will return to the audience for one last year to watch the brilliance of LeBow from a new lens. But I won’t forget the message I crafted. I’ll continue to defend it and live it out, especially in regards to this newspaper.
The theory of the Big Fish was refuted. But defeated? The point was made on stage and proven offstage. So I accept this loss wholeheartedly.