A state-mandated lockdown of high schools and sports had a tragic impact on one student

ProPublica published a story today that is legitimately heartbreaking. It’s about lockdowns and the teens who are struggling and sometimes unable to deal with it. The story takes place in Hobbs, New Mexico, a small city that sits right up against the border with Texas. When the pandemic swept through the country last year, Texas was quick to reopen schools while New Mexico shut down schools and sports.

Texas’s response to the coronavirus was freewheeling. Most notably, it gave local school districts leeway in deciding whether to open for in-person instruction in August, and in conservative West Texas, many districts seized the opportunity to do so, for all grades, all the way up through high school. Students wore masks in the hallways and administrators did contact tracing for positive cases of coronavirus, but everything else went pretty much as usual, including sports. On Friday nights, high schools still played football, with fans in the stands.

New Mexico’s response last year was the opposite. The state, led by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, took one of the most aggressive lockdown stances in the country, and issued stringent guidelines for school reopening, so stringent that Hobbs was allowed to bring back only a sliver of its students for in-person instruction.

For high school junior Kooper Davis that made all the difference in the world. He was a straight-A student and the quarterback for the Hobbs high school football team. He was hoping his grades and his performance on the field would be enough to get him into a good college. He was thinking about Stanford because it was a top academic school with a good football team.

As the story points out, the junior year is critical for students hoping to get admission to a good school based on sports. Davis planned to put together a highlight real of his games which he’d use to attract attention. But New Mexico schools and team sports didn’t start up in the fall thanks to strict state regulations:

After initially barring any schools from reopening in August, the state released “gating criteria” for districts that wanted to resume in-person instruction in the fall. They were among the strictest in the country. They allowed only for elementary-school instruction, and required a district to stay below an average of eight new cases per day per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. For Hobbs and the rest of Lea County, population 70,000, that meant no more than five new cases per day in the whole county…

Statewide in New Mexico, the restrictions resulted in zero high schools or middle schools reopening anywhere in the state. This confounded Hobbs school officials, especially because they could see open schools across the border in Texas. “We’ve got districts 30 miles away doing it safely,” associate superintendent Gene Strickland said. “I get the fear level, but we see models that show it can be done. Allow us that opportunity.”

Kooper Davis “hated” online school and he really hated that there was no football his junior year. Initially, practices with up to 9 kids were allowed, which meant they could do some drills, but in October, the state reduced that to four students per coach. That meant all they could really do was lift weights:

Kooper was despondent. “Man, this sucks,” he told his teammates. “We need to be back on the field.” He missed football so much that, on some Friday evenings, he headed across the state line to Texas to watch a game.

Just a few miles away in Texas, students were back in school and teams were playing a full season of games. A group of students from Hobbs, including Kooper, held a rally at the football stadium to call for the reopening of school. He spoke at the event, telling people “I just believe we should be here at school and we should be here playing football. It’s crazy to think that just down the road, they’re playing a football season — they’re almost done with their football season. It’s honestly ridiculous. And I’m willing to keep my teammate and classmates in line, minding whatever rules, just so I can be back here doing the stuff I love.”

But at some point in ways that weren’t evident to those around him, Kooper was overwhelmed. On Dec. 7, 2020, the sharp, successful kid with a bright future took his own life.

I reached Justin Davis on the phone that Saturday, after learning of Kooper’s death from a mother in northwestern New Mexico whose daughter had also struggled with the absence of school and sports. Justin, as I would soon learn, is a large and taciturn man, but he was eager to talk, and urged me to come to New Mexico to learn more about what Kooper and his friends had been through. He was at a loss over what he and Heather might have missed. “I had an open relationship with my son,” he said. “It’s baffling to us to figure out why he didn’t come to us.”

Suicide is ultimately an unfathomable act, but Justin said he was sure of one thing. “No doubt, if my son had been in school on Monday this wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “He would’ve had an adult standing next to him, a coach saying, ‘Kooper, quit being a dummy.’”

It’s hard to imagine the pain this family is dealing with and the questions about what they might have done differently that will probably be with them for the rest of their lives. And unfortunately the Davis family is not alone even in Hobbs, New Mexico. Last summer the town was in the news when a despondent 11-year-old who had loved school and sports had killed himself. His parents also believed social isolation played a role in his death:

“I think the big question we all have is why, and we will never know the reason why,” said Katrina. “The only thing that I was able to find was in his journal was that he had wrote that he was going mad from staying at home all the time and that he just wanted to be able to go to school and play outside with his friends. So that was the only thing that I can imagine what was going through his head at that time. If I had read that before, I wouldn’t have thought that he was planning on taking his own life because I think we’re all feeling a little crazy right now.”

James’ parents said there were no obvious signs that their son was struggling.

Kids have been paying a big price for the lockdowns and for some kids it’s just too much to handle. The best thing we can do is to get them back to classrooms. There’s no reason parents should put up with any further delays.