Fire Drill, COVID-Style
“Just because things aren’t actually ‘normal’ right now, doesn’t mean we’re going to jeopardize your safety,” the principal’s voice said over the speaker. He had the desperately forced cheerfulness of a man who has said “Six weeks from now, tops” for over a year and counting.
“Remember, if we change even one thing about our routine, then the virus has won. Now, everyone get ready for our fire drill.”
The video ended. Jesse closed it and went back to his homeroom’s Teams window. Hissy the cat continued to snooze on his lap.
“You heard the principal,” Mrs. Phelps said. “Fire drill.” She was 58 and if her tone of voice could be visualized, it would have been a countdown clock until retirement. “Remember, we all need to leave the ‘building’ in two minutes. I’m starting the doohickey now.”
The icon for a program called FireSim came on the screen, apparently made by a company called HotStuf. Jesse wasn’t sure if it was a typo. A first-person view of a badly-rendered classroom appeared. The principal had explained they were having an virtual fire drill but hadn’t explained anything more, saying it would be unrealistic to tell them too much.
“So what do we do n—” one of the students asked but she was interrupted by the screaming blare of a fire alarm. Hissy woke up with a yowl and streaked out of the room.
“Go,” Mrs. Phelps said, sounding like she was playing Candy Crush in another window.
Jesse tried to move with the mouse. Nothing.
“How do you move?” someone shouted.
“Use the arrow keys,” someone else said.
“No, it should be WASD.”
Jesse started mashing keys. In the simulator, he moved sluggishly to the front of the room and climbed on the teacher’s desk. Now he noticed a timer in one corner. In another was a thermometer. The temperature was already 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Hey, if you hit F5, you can pick things up!” Jesse’s best friend Kyle said. Jesse managed to get his avatar to shamble around enough to see a student’s avatar—presumably Kyle’s—holding a desk over its head. Jesse hit F5. He saw hands reach out and to his horror, pick up the teacher’s avatar.
“Um, excuse me? What just happened?” Mrs. Phelps said in the Teams room. “I seem to be looking at the ceiling now.”
The temperature was now 110F. The students had slowly begun to figure out the controls and the crude figures lurched through the door and out into the hallway.
“How do we put things down?” Jesse asked Kyle through Teams.
“No idea,” Kyle said, “but check this out.” He sent Jesse a screenshot of Jesse’s avatar standing on the teacher’s desk, holding Mrs. Phelps’s avatar over his head like King Kong on top of the Empire State Building.
The temperature was now 120 degrees. He and Kyle (and Mrs. Phelps) were the only ones still in the simulation classroom. Jesse tried to move through the door but he couldn’t fit holding Mrs. Phelps over his head. Kyle was still holding the desk and had the same problem.
“Maybe I’ve fallen down,” Mrs. Phelps said. “Does anyone know the command to stand up? We didn’t go over that in the training webinar.”
“What are you guys still doing inside?” someone else said. “We’re all outside. The sky’s green, by the way.”
“Push Y for yeet,” someone else said. Jesse hit Enter. His avatar stopped, dropped and rolled around.
“How are you still holding Mrs. Phelps?” Kyle asked.
* * *
“Thank you all for your cooperation,” the principal said later. “Our first virtual fire drill was an overall success. All students got out of the building in less than five minutes, except for two boys in the eighth grade, who took a little longer.”
There was tittering. Everyone had seen the screenshots of Jesse lumbering around holding Mrs. Phelps. It had taken them 15 minutes to figure out the controls and get out the room.
“We will have another fire drill next month,” the principal said. “In other news, our planned virtual active shooter drill has been cancelled.”