Commentary, COVID-19

Duke law student with COVID-19 in open letter to the community: Take caution, hold onto hope

Dear Community,

On Monday, I became around the 41st Durhamite and 300th North Carolinian to officially test positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, I’m one of the lucky ones: I’m young and healthy, have experienced only mild symptoms so far, and will probably be just fine riding out the next week or two in isolation. I write today to share two brief messages: one of caution, and one of hope.

First, let me join the growing chorus of voices telling all people, especially young people, to proceed with diligence and caution in these coming days and weeks. Just one seemingly small decision to Facetime with a friend instead of meeting up, to cook or order-in instead of making an extra trip to the store, or to video conference instead of going to the office can serve as the vital broken link that prevents entire swaths of our community from catching the virus, including people who might be at a greater risk of serious illness than you are.

It’s a rare moment when you can fulfill a noteworthy civic duty by sitting on your couch, eating frozen pizza, and catching up on that Netflix show your friends have been telling you about (or the 2017 UNC National Championship) – let’s take advantage of it. Believe me: It is easy to catch (and spread) the novel coronavirus even while being careful, so let’s be extra careful. You’ll never know exactly how many illnesses you prevented by staying socially distant, but don’t let that stop you from patting yourself on the back or stealing an extra Thin Mint from the freezer before bed.

Second, I write with hope. In a time of great uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, let me remind you, even if momentarily, of the inherent goodness in our community, our state, and yes, our nation, that has shined particularly bright in this last trying week.

Although our headlines and social media timelines are feeding us scary predictions, widespread cancellations, and rising infection rates, pulling back the curtains a bit will reveal incredible acts of bravery and kindness happening all around us.

Take, for instance, the hazmat-suited nurse who performed my drive-through COVID-19 test, who smiled and said “I’ve got a fun birthday gift for you honey!” before jamming a stick ungodly far up my nose after she realized that I was being tested on my birthday. Or my teacher friends, who already miss their students dearly (much to the surprise of my homeschooling-parent friends) and are hard at work planning amazing online lessons for the coming weeks. Or even my neighbor Ben, who like a middle school crush threw pebbles at my second-floor window until I opened it up to talk from a distance when he heard that I was sick.

All around us, our friends and neighbors are stepping up in ways big and small to meet the challenges of these times, if only we have the

Maureen Joy Charter School where Kaplan taught fifth grade.

courage to open up our eyes and see them. But let’s not just see them, let’s appreciate them. Shoot, let’s not just appreciate them, let’s be them. Because ultimately, each one of us – young or old, trained or untrained, and yes, healthy or sick – has a role to play in both halting the spread of the virus and furthering the spread of compassion.

Indeed, you don’t need to have gone to med school or nursing school to do what your kindergarten teacher told you all along: be kind to everyone, follow directions the first time, and keep your hands to yourself.

I don’t know when I’ll be better, when we’ll be better, or when all of this will just be a crazy, mixed-up memory. But until then, I know that we already have everything it takes within our society and within ourselves to day by day, moment by moment, do right by our community. So let’s get better together.

Most Sincerely,

Zack Kaplan

Zack Kaplan is a proud Durhamite, second-year student at Duke Law School and former elementary school teacher. Last December, he authored an essay for Policy Watch on the Leandro report and the future of public education in North Carolina.


  1. Rob K

    March 27, 2020 at 12:56 pm

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful insight and message of hope!

  2. Ken

    March 27, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    Appreciate this wisdom. Well said! Get well soon.

  3. William (Buck) Deal

    March 29, 2020 at 6:03 pm

    Sorry to hear about your illness …. hope you have a speedy recovery !

    It is so coincidental that I have just been trying to get in touch with you to discuss our local school situation here in Caldwell County and your wisdom & insights into the implications of the Leandro litigation decision.
    If you wish to, you may text/call me at 828-496-7566 or email

    Thanks & Best Wishes for a safe, rapid Recovery …. William (Buck) Deal

  4. Janse Haywood

    March 30, 2020 at 11:05 am

    Zach, I very much appreciated and enjoyed your letter! Messages we need to hear. I hope you are feeling better.
    Janse Haywood, Duke Law Alumni & Development Office

  5. Ebony Bryant

    April 2, 2020 at 10:18 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Zach! Sending thoughts, prayers and a good wifi signal!

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