Back to School Plans Are Leaving Some Immunocompromised Students Behind (Originally Published in Teen Vogue)

"MEC Bheki Ntuli monitors Covid-19 guidelines at Dlambula Primary School in Durban" by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

We here at JRNOLA are extremely pleased to announce that Isabella Brown was published today (9/1/20) in Teen Vogue. The following is that article, verbatim.

Jack Bryan’s family has been wary of getting him sick ever since he was born. Long before the pandemic, they were practicing hand hygiene and self-isolation when they got sick. This is because Jack, a 13-year-old from New Orleans, has hypoplastic left heart syndrome and was born without his left ventricle.

Jack has had numerous cardiac surgeries to make his heart function with missing chambers. His condition makes exposure to the novel coronavirus—not to mention any other diseases — a much greater risk. In the first grade, one of Jack’s classmates had a respiratory infection and managed to get him sick. Jack soon came down with pneumonia and was ill for eight weeks, missing so much school that he had to repeat a grade.

Healthy teens may not be concerned with severe complications of COVID-19 given the relatively low rate of death in young people from the disease. (It should be noted that young people do die from COVID-19, and for those who don’t, many experience complications. But for immunocompromised teens, the disease can be even more serious than it is in healthy people, prompting them to take extreme precautions—in some cases, they can’t leave their houses at all. So, as schools reopen this fall, many immunocompromised teens are taking school online.


Ever since self-isolation was recommended by the CDC, Jack has barely left his house, only going out for the first time to get a haircut in May. In order to protect him from the threat of COVID-19, his family also rarely leaves the house, except for the occasional trip to the grocery store.

“I’m happy that some states are allowing people to go out in public,” Jack said. “Because being stuck in quarantine is boring.” His mother Tracey Bryan, on the other hand, feels some state reopenings have been “dangerous and reckless.”

Both Bryan and her son are relieved that Jack’s school is strictly online for now. “Based on the current case count in Louisiana, I think that it’s the only option at this time and that schools should continue to be online until there’s less active disease in our community,” Bryan said.

Madeline Moss, a 20-year-old going into her sophomore year of college, was born premature at 27 weeks with scar tissue in her lungs and developed asthma. Her respiratory illness makes Moss particularly susceptible to the novel coronavirus. Even so, her quarantine experience hasn’t been drastically different from that of her friends. She only goes out in public when needed, wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer. When she’s feeling extra cautious, she’ll take a shower when she gets home.

This fall, Moss plans to transfer from the University of Lafayette to Louisiana State University. However, she is perturbed by LSU’s approach to reopening. While teaching will remain at least partially online, LSU is urging their students to return to their dorms. “If I’m up there by myself, my parents can’t come get me,” Moss said. “I have to figure it out on my own and if I get sick then I’ll be in the hospital for a month or however long and I can’t risk that.” Additionally, Moss expressed concern with living on campus given Louisiana’s current case count.

Anni Heinicke is a sophomore at Durango High School in Colorado and has been homebound since March 13, just before the state announced its stay-at-home order. She was born with a genetic disease called cystic fibrosis which, according to Heinicke, causes a “disgustingly excessive amount” of mucus to build up in her lungs. As a result, Heinicke has had recurring lung infections as well as other respiratory issues.

Despite Colorado’s “safer at home” order, Heinicke said she has seen many of her peers completely disregard it, posting pictures of themselves on social media in groups of six or more packed into a car or having a barbecue. “While I’m stuck at home having to listen to Taylor Swift on repeat just completely bored and alone,” Heinicke said.

This fall, her school is offering the choice to either attend school entirely in person or just online. Heinicke is choosing to attend online and expressed concern over the fact that her school is letting students go back to school in person. She doesn’t think they’ll be able to control whether or not students wear masks and socially distance.

Anabelle Franz, a 17-year-old at K-12 International, an online school, expressed the same concern over the approach that her old, in-person school has taken to reopening. Unlike many students this summer, Franz hasn’t had to worry about what her school year would look like because she has been homeschooled since January. This is because Franz has POTS, a circulation-based disease that can impact her breathing. Her condition makes her easily fatigued and getting through a full day of school was just too hard.

According to Franz, her old school is teaching in person to some extent, with half the student body physically attending school one day and the other half attending in person the other, all while practicing wearing masks and social distancing. “Even though I have friends that I know weren’t social distancing at school the other day,” Franz said.

Franz thinks schools should offer both virtual and in-person teaching, and not just for immunocompromised teens. “My brother is autistic,” Franz said. “And he has been given the option to stay home or go to school because he’s refusing to wear a mask, not because he’s anti-mask just because it’s hard for him to deal with that on his face all day because he has sensory issues.”

In Heinicke’s experience, not everyone acknowledges that there are young people like herself who are seriously at risk.

“When I see the girl who is beyond privileged continuously going against the stay-at-home guidelines,” Heinicke said, “it makes me so angry because it’s just this completely selfish and ignorant carelessness that makes my skin crawl. It hurts me personally because it’s putting me at risk.”

In late April, groups of Americans mounted protests against government-mandated quarantine, with some protesters even bringing weapons to their state capitals. Heinicke finds herself frustrated with the risks protestors’ demands may pose, which could harm herself and others. “People don’t have to die,” she said. “I’m almost 16. I don’t want to die from this virus. I want to get married. I want to have kids.”

While signs of reopening may provide relief for some people, it doesn’t necessarily get immunocompromised teens’ hopes up.

“A lot of people have only acknowledged the elderly and specifically immunocompromised people as at risk,” Heinicke said, inferring that people believe teens can’t be immunocompromised. “I feel kind of undermined by the people.”

Isabella Brown is a member of the New Orleans Junior Journalism Program, an organization providing free help to high school students to gain real-world journalism experience. Find out more about the organization here.