Students party through the pandemic

Many students consider disregard for social distancing disrespectful to community


It’s cramped in the house. Shoulders brush shoulders with a mumbled “my bad”. Drinks pass carefully from person to person to avoid spilling. Breath and music hang in the stagnant air. It’s not an abnormal sight for a high school party. 

  But now, its consequences may span far beyond disappointed parents and a headache in the morning. Because teenagers are one of the demographics most responsible for the transmission of COVID-19, their social distancing practices have a direct impact on the numbers in Contra Costa County. Despite wanting to prevent a spike in numbers, the Lafayette police and Acalanes Union High School District administration have had difficulty enacting disciplinary measures for students who violate social distancing guidelines.

The precedent is muddy for discipline outside of school – traditionally, administrators don’t intervene unless the issue affects a student’s experience on campus. 

“What the legal requirements are is if there’s a nexus to school, meaning that someone either did or something happened to them that then impacted them in school, the school would legally be able to step in and take action,” Acalanes Principal Travis Bell said. “So if there’s something that happened on a weekend that then is coming onto the campus and impacting the learning that’s taking place on campus, then we have the authority to step in and make decisions and determinations in order to help make sure that that student can get the education he or she deserves.”

This distinction is typically reserved for instances of assault or harassment that follow a student into the classroom rather than students partying. Since there is little to no legal precedent, the Acalanes district relies on education to prevent large gatherings. 

“The district will focus enforcement on behaviors while on campus and will certainly increase education around off-campus behaviors. Behavior matters. Face coverings and distancing matters. It is our best defense against the pandemic in our pre-vaccine status,” Superintendent John Nickerson said. 

This education focuses on emphasizing how student behavior affects the spread of the virus and what it means to be a good citizen amid the pandemic. 

“The nexus for us to be able to discipline students for having a party on the weekend really isn’t there at this point, but we have the social obligation and ethical requirements to continue to promote critical thinking and science data-backed research on how this virus is spreading and how to help make sure that our students are making the right decisions so that we as a community, both locally and then ultimately nationally and globally can return to whatever normal is going to look like moving forward,” Principal Bell said.

The district continues to work with the Lafayette Police Department, especially in regard to illicit student behavior occurring in the Acalanes parking lot. 

“If we find out who was here and there were things happening on our campus, we certainly can follow up with discipline, but often we get ambiguous wind of what’s happened on the weekends and remnants of something in the parking lot,” Bell said. 

Some college campuses have gone so far as to suspend and expel students who throw parties and violate social distancing guidelines. Syracuse University, a private institution in New York State, recently suspended 23 students for gathering in a large group. 

“The world is watching, and they expect you to fail. Prove them wrong. Be better. Be adults. Think of someone other than yourself. And also, do not test the resolve of this university to take swift action to prioritize the health and well-being of our campus and Central New York community,” Syracuse Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation J. Michael Haynie said in a statement to the community. 

Acalanes district administrators don’t view this level of discipline as realistic because of the wide differences between college and high school. 

“Colleges typically require a compact that students must sign to live or be on campus committing to responsible behavior. The colleges are taking big risks allowing students on campus. These compacts often spell out consequences. While expulsion can seem severe, I think the consequences are usually pretty clear in the agreements,” Nickerson said. 

Acalanes requires no such agreement, because it is a public school with a student body composed almost entirely of minors. This may contribute to the continued prevalence of large parties. 

More than 100 students attended one such party over the weekend of Sept. 12.

“I know that a lot of people went, and that it was mostly upperclassmen. I’m glad I didn’t go, and I will definitely stay away from the people who went. If someone had corona and went to the party it’s very likely a lot of people would have contracted it due to the sharing of bottles and vapes as well as it being extremely crowded, from what I gathered on social media,” said a junior who chose to remain anonymous. 

Most students consider large gatherings like the Sept. 12 party ill-advised. 

“I think that being with a small group of friends — like 10 or so people — in an outdoor environment is fine, but the classic ‘high school party’ is a really bad idea,” senior Ryan Bea said. “When you have a large group of people together it’s nearly impossible to account for everyone and whether or not they have been exposed to the virus.”

News of the party quickly reached Acalanes Athletic Director Randy Takahashi, who notified coaches. 

“I was tipped off by a parent that this had happened, and so immediately I sent an email out to all of the coaches that were running sports camps,” Takahashi said. “I wanted a message sent out to all the families and I wanted them to address this in their camps the next time that the kids came in.”

Coaches then corresponded with their individual teams, urging them not to come to practice if they had attended the party. 

“This is a judgment free zone, but we cannot allow any student who attended this party to participate in the camps until they have been tested,” volleyball coach and social studies teacher Haley Walsh said in a message to the team. “We just want to make sure we are keeping the program safe.”

This isn’t the first time that sports camps have taken precautions. On the weekend of July 4, the boys lacrosse coach took preventative measures to ensure his players’ safety. 

“He knew all of his players were going to be going places and doing things. And he said, ‘You know what, we’re going to cancel for a week. I just want to be safe.’ So our athletic community as a whole has been, I believe, very responsive to the needs of the camps,” Takahashi said. 

Many students consider disregard for social distancing disrespectful to the rest of the community. 

“I do know a lot of people who have continued partying during the pandemic and it is honestly really disappointing. Everybody has a birthday and most people are willing to overlook throwing large celebrations right now in the name of public safety and it’s really foolish that a lot of students think that they are the exception,” senior Emily Ingram said.

While the Acalanes staff understands the difficulties of isolation, it urges students to find alternatives to in-person-gatherings. 

“First, I absolutely know how hard of a situation we are in. But I also know it is temporary and not permanent. I remind myself of that often. There are many alternatives to large group gatherings in person. Take advantage of family time, the social options offered through school, clubs and virtual game nights with friends,” Leadership and Ethnic Studies teacher Katherine Walton said. 

Many students have continued to adhere to county guidelines, electing to gather in small, socially distanced groups. 

“I’ve found a couple of friends that I really trust and I’ve hung out with them, and I’ve connected with people online,” junior Anna Toldi said. 

Although online communities can’t replace in-person gatherings altogether, students have found creative ways to take advantage of social media. The Los Angeles-based organization Subculture Party, which holds youth-centered online raves every week, markets itself as a “COVID-safe way to party.”

“Online raves are typically Zoom calls of around 300 to 500 people. There are sometimes multiple hosts who DJ and other live performers. One of the hosts cycles through Zoom members and pins people’s videos,” Ingram said. “It’s really fun because you can still get ready and do the things you would normally do while at a party, but while in the safety and comfort of your own home with those who you are closest with. It’s also a really cool way to interact with new and different people.”

These alternative social activities help reduce coronavirus numbers in the community and may contribute to the reality of schools reopening with a hybrid model.

“While the data shows adolescents are less at risk, asymptomatic transmission rates between adolescents can be high … and adolescents interact with parents and grandparents who are much more at risk. Do your part. If for no other reason, do it for the adults and older adults in your lives,” Nickerson said.