Lower and middle school music teacher John Barnes said he’s been “living the dream of quarantine” for a week with his dog and his partner, Tom Smith. Barnes and Smith—the organist and choirmaster of Christ Church, Georgetown—have been in isolation at home since the evening of Sunday, March 8, when they learned that their rector, Reverend Timothy Cole, had tested positive for the viral disease COVID-19.
On Monday, March 9, the couple learned that Smith had also tested positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has spread globally, causing economic decline and more than six thousand deaths. Barnes has not been tested for the virus. He and Smith remain asymptomatic and in good health, Barnes said.
After learning that his partner had tested positive for COVID-19, Barnes said he felt “a lot of conflicting emotions.” He said that GDS faculty and staff, parents and students, as well as members of his church community, “have been so kind” and “loving.” They have offered to bring him groceries and help him in other ways.
While the rest of the GDS community will begin staying home this week, Barnes has already been quarantined at home for a week. As for advice, Barnes said, “It’s important to set a routine.” Being at home is “an opportunity to work at a different pace.” Between his work, he’s fit in time to read and spend time with his dog.
Barnes wanted to be identified to the school community as the teacher whose partner had tested positive in order to take advantage of what he saw as an opportunity to show his students that the virus is “not as scary in real life as they might feel like it was.” He also explained, “I didn’t want there to be rumors or speculation.”
On Thursday and Friday, Barnes taught his music classes through video calls with the help of a substitute teacher in the classroom with his students. He used materials that he had “luckily” brought home with him for the weekend, as well as the piano in his and Smith’s one-bedroom condominium.
“It worked out. He could still teach us, and it wasn’t that bad that he was on Skype,” said sixth grader Henry Wachs, a student in one of Barnes’ music classes. “It started to feel like he was there.”
According to Wachs, Barnes allowed his students to ask him questions about his experience in self-isolation.
This upcoming Wednesday and Thursday, he will not teach with video calls, but rather individual activities online—in line with the school’s plan for asynchronous distance learning.
After Smith tested positive, DC Health assigned him a team of people—epidemiologists tracking the virus’ spread in DC, medical workers, a social worker, and a mental health professional—who have communicated with him frequently through audio and video calls.
The morning after he learned of his partner’s diagnosis, Barnes said, “I woke up to phone calls from The Washington Post on my cell phone.” He was also contacted by national news outlets such as CNN, but has not spoken to members of the media other than the Bit.
Last week, faced with the coronavirus pandemic hitting close to home, Barnes said he needed to learn a lot about the virus in a short amount of time. However, local and federal government guidelines relating to the virus were sometimes “in contradiction with each other,” Barnes said. He felt “frustrated” because of the difficulty of finding “clear-cut” and consistent answers to his questions about the virus.
Barnes doesn’t worry that he’s been infected. “I feel like if I was going to be sick, I would have been sick by now,” he said.
However, Barnes said, “In an ideal world, I would love to be tested.” He has not been tested, though, because he is asymptomatic and due to the limited supply of COVID-19 tests in DC and across the country. The DC Department of Health is making decisions about who should be tested “on a case-by-case basis,” Barnes said.
In considering when to end his self-isolation, Barnes said he will consult with the DC Department of Health for guidance. He would wait for Smith to be “cleared” by DC Health, too. “The most conservative and cautious route would be the route that I would choose to do,” he said.
GDS students and teachers will not return to the halls of the two campuses for at least three weeks. Barnes said, “What is interesting to me is, how are we going to find community in this new time?”
The Christ Church community has found ways to stay connected while in physical isolation—recording and sharing videos of parishioners reading prayers and sharing thoughts using the church community’s new blog. The GDS community will have to discover ways to do the same, Barnes said. “I think we’re just in a new territory, and we’ve got to chart that path together.”
Ethan Wolin ’23