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Hillsborough Class of 2021 warns against easing up in fight against COVID-19

Beating the pandemic was the topic of the annual Tribune scholars essay competition. More than 150 of Hillsborough County’s top high school seniors took part.
Here are the winners in the 2021 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune scholars essay contest. From left: Alisha Bhatia, Freedom High School; Emara Saez, Academy of the Holy Names; Ellen Jannereth, Carrollwood Day School; and Valerie Muzyka, Sickles High School.
Here are the winners in the 2021 R.F. "Red" Pittman Tribune scholars essay contest. From left: Alisha Bhatia, Freedom High School; Emara Saez, Academy of the Holy Names; Ellen Jannereth, Carrollwood Day School; and Valerie Muzyka, Sickles High School. [ Courtesy of the students ]
Published May 19, 2021|Updated May 24, 2021

How can we finally bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic?

Through policies and messages that are clear and consistent, delivered by authorities in government and business.

That’s the theme that runs through many of the essays written by 155 of the top graduating seniors in Hillsborough County’s Class of 2021. The students submitted their work through the annual R.F. “Red” Pittman Tribune Scholars program, named for a publisher of the former Tampa Tribune newspaper and now sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times.

Related: See all the scholars' profiles and essays, school by school

The competition was open to the top 3 percent by grade point average of seniors in Hillsborough’s public and private high schools. Four essay winners will be awarded scholarships of $1,300 each: Alisha Bhatia, Freedom High School; Ellen Jannereth, Carrollwood Day School; Emara Saez, Academy of the Holy Names; and Valerie Muzyka, Sickles High School, all in Tampa.

In arguments that mirror the pandemic discussion worldwide, some students said public authorities have wrongfully inserted themselves for too long into decisions that should be left to individuals. It’s a point of view expressed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 3 when he ordered local COVID-19 restrictions suspended, speaking of a lingering “yoke of some serious restrictions and lockdowns.”

“It seems the difference between the past and now, is now we depend on the government to be our parents,” said essay writer Cadence Kinsey, a senior at Kids Community College Charter High School in Riverview. “Eating hot soup, using as many tissues as needed, and using steamers are all ways that help suppress sickness. To cease COVID-19, the important thing to do would be to go back to our roots, what has always helped us while we were sick, and do those things.”

Reopen a society that’s been under lockdown for too long, advised Jake Parker of Wharton High School in New Tampa.

“It’s simple, we need to get people back out into the real world and transition into our normal lives once again,” Parker said. “We cannot wait until it ‘gets better’ because the harsh reality is that coronavirus will never be completely eradicated.”

Most students, though, argued for a strong government hand in the continuing fight against COVID-19. Some want to see a region-by-region approach while others favor a federal response that brings consistency to policies fragmented at the state and local levels.

“Our country cannot afford to have the federal government’s efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus undermined by local governments,” said Alejandro Rodriguez of Plant High School in Tampa. “One state opening up prematurely can easily cause a new wave of contagion, which will bring down the whole country with it.”

One key to eliminating the coronavirus, some of the essay-writers said, is for authorities to get their stories straight and aggressively push back against dangerous information about vaccines.

“By transferring power from politicians to scientists, educating the masses, and ensuring unbiased reporting, we can successfully stymie the spread of COVID-19,” said Srikar Parsi of Strawberry Crest.

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Other students said that only by eliminating the virus across the world can people in the United States rest easy.

“Variants arise like a whack-a-mole game,” said Bhatia, the scholarship winner, “and open border policy combined with the fact that many nations won’t begin vaccinations until 2023 due to scarcity means that we can only beat this virus when the globe beats it.”

Here are other highlights from the student essays.

Ciara Garza, Gaither High School. One challenge to increasing the amount of people who receive the vaccine is the population’s mistrust in the government. If additional reputable medical professionals and public figures, maybe ones that are normally known to disagree on other issues, could come together and speak out in support of the vaccine, that will influence a lot more people to be pro-vaccination and limit their fears of possible side-effects.

Loren Miranda, Brooks–DeBartolo Collegiate High School. Some pop-up clinics I have researched do not require ID to receive the vaccine but most federal sites do. This is an unnecessary barrier; both the federal and state governments should be more concerned with getting the pandemic under control rather than restricting access to at-risk populations.

Laura Newman, Durant High School. Misinformation spews from the mouths of millions as they underestimate the power of this disease. Anti-maskers scream in germ-filled bouts of ignorance over the medical professionals. There is only one way to gain clarity. Listen to the medical professionals. Heed their advice. Try to understand that if you are not at a substantial risk, some of your brothers and sisters are.

Jared Dimsdale, Newsome High School. I acknowledge the importance of mental health, job security, and other daily tasks that require us to be in public, but public safety and health is still an utmost priority. ... It is unacceptable to let ourselves loosen the restrictions until it is completely safe to do so.

Jack Stoddard, Blake High School. In my opinion, if the federal government took charge earlier, the pandemic would already be over. We need federal mask mandates that couldn’t be overturned by local governments. We also need a national vaccination campaign to encourage administration amongst especially skeptical peoples.

JaChé Bell, Durant High School. Going back to what we learned in elementary school of washing our hands, to disinfecting more regularly, and simply staying home when you don’t feel well. Such simple steps can create an influential change in reducing the spread.

Samuel Glickman, Steinbrenner High School. I believe the way to effectively handle this is through private businesses. When businesses implement these same guidelines, there’s much less backlash. This is because entering a business is a choice. Those who see the laws as an issue of freedom are now given the freedom to choose following the policies versus shopping elsewhere.

Haley Vandal, Sickles High School. Many of the solutions put into place cannot function unless we as a society are willing to put others first, but the sad reality is that — when left to their own devices — humans can’t be trusted to be selfless.

Amanda Lam, Tampa Catholic High School. When less scientifically educated individuals are bombarded with varying opinions, it can be especially difficult to differentiate accuracy and inaccuracy ... By allowing different regions to make new changes over others based on severity levels, the government can slowly effectuate change that allows our nation to become normal again, one region at a time.

Angelina Krinos, Robinson High School: COVID-19 robbed us of many things: our families and friends, concerts and graduations, birthday parties and weddings. Yet, even amidst the chaos and grief of the pandemic, there are still small victories ... beautiful interdisciplinary collaboration; talented professionals ... who otherwise never would’ve crossed paths have converged for the greater good.

Marijus Maksvytis, Gaither High School: We need to take this COVID-19 pandemic and see it as a steppingstone. Not something that will bring us further from one another, but in fact closer. Until we can rid ourselves of the fear that surrounds us we cannot hope for a brighter future.