A return to normal?: COVID-19 policies change in the new year

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Ayesha Sen, Staff Writer

All students, faculty, and staff members will return for in-person schooling during the 2021-2022 school year with more than 99% of eligible individuals vaccinated and no option for continuous remote instruction, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly wrote in an email to the school community. As of now, students and faculty members will be permitted to join classes over Zoom only if they are symptomatic and awaiting test results, test positive, or are required to quarantine by the school or a local health agency.

However, due to the ongoing battle with the pandemic and the rise of the Delta variant, the school will continue to enforce various COVID-19 safety protocols in the fall and possibly beyond, Kelly wrote. Many of last year’s protocols will remain, but due to the transitory nature of the pandemic, some logistics will change.

 

MASKS

All employees and students, regardless of vaccination status, will be required to wear face coverings on campus, Kelly wrote. The only exceptions to this requirement will be during certain athletic activities, during meals, or in outdoor settings in which people are separated by at least three feet.

Face coverings will also be required for anyone riding public transportation or a school bus to and from the school and for orientation programs such as Upper Division Orientation, a program at Dorr that is designed to ease the transition for incoming Upper Division (UD) students, Kelly wrote.

Although he is optimistic about the effectiveness of the school’s COVID-19 safety policies, Kelly believes that masks will likely remain mandatory throughout the school year. “While I would love to see an opportunity to teach and learn without masks, I think that possibility is a long way off and will be dictated by either the CDC or local data,” he wrote.

Brianna Wells (9) believes that maintaining the face covering mandate is wise for the overall wellbeing of the school community, she said. “We don’t spend enough time outside during the school day for me to be completely comfortable with my mask off full-time,” she said. “Especially since younger students, like sixth graders, are still under 12 and cannot be vaccinated, there is still a significant risk of spreading the virus, especially in enclosed spaces.”

Another benefit of masks is that they can protect against the general spread of germs beyond COVID-19, Eleanor Woodruff (11) said. “In past years, Horace Mann has had to deep clean the campus because of too many cases of the common cold or the flu, but with masks, cases have been pretty rare,” she said. “I definitely don’t want to wear masks forever, but having to worry about other outbreaks on top of a pandemic would have been very difficult for schools, families, and individuals.” 

 

TESTING & QUARANTINES

The school is planning on testing each student and employee multiple times within the first few weeks of the school year, regardless of vaccination status, Kelly wrote. The first batch of testing will take place on the first and second days of school, and the second will take place within the second and third weeks of school, he wrote. Middle Division (MD) and UD students who returned to campus prior to the first day for preseason athletics or orientation programs were already tested upon their return for those programs, rather than during the first two days of school. 

The school asks any students who are traveling domestically or internationally to follow the CDC guidelines for travel, Cooper said. Vaccinated individuals will need to be tested 3-5 days after arrival and submit the test results to the appropriate nurse. For unvaccinated individuals, there is a 7 or 10-day self-quarantine period required after travel, along with a test 3-5 days after arrival. For travel-related quarantine, remote schooling will not be available.

This year, the school’s weekly testing program will function in a different manner, Kelly said at the town hall. The program will have three separate groups – A, B, and C– that will switch off for testing each week. These groups will be randomized and will include both students and staff members. Although parents and guardians can occasionally request for their child to skip testing, no one is exempt from the program entirely.

This year, if a person tests positive, their close contacts will only need to quarantine if they are symptomatic, Kelly wrote. In this circumstance, remote instruction will be offered to both the person who tested positive and their symptomatic close contacts.

The guidelines for quarantine are set by the NYC Department of Health (DOH), Cooper said. Currently, they advise against quarantining fully vaccinated individuals if they are asymptomatic. This is because full vaccination lowers the risk of transmission, and quarantining tends to be disruptive to education, as students saw last year, she said.

As a result of this new quarantine policy and the discontinuation of remote instruction, the number of virtual students in classrooms should be limited, Kelly wrote. “Unless a substantial number of students in a single class have tested positive, we should not see entire classes online.”

While the new quarantining policy presents a greater risk, English teacher Vernon Wilson believes that it will ultimately assist teachers in instruction, he said. “There were various difficulties in learning in the situation that we were in last year, and it all got hairy very quickly,” he said. “So this year, to have a much less reduced, if not totally eliminated use of Zoom for educational purposes, is another example of my thinking that this year’s policies are very well thought out.”

As a student, Woodruff believes that having everyone learning through the same environment is essential, she said. “I remember having to be one of the few students on Zoom at some point last year, and it was an extremely tiring and frustrating process,” she said. “I think the moment of realization for me was when I took a test on Zoom when my classmates were in person – it made me realize that my classmates’ presence, especially during stressful environments like testing, makes me feel a lot more at ease.”

 

CLASSROOM SETUPS

Like last year, there will be tents and outdoor learning spaces on campus for both instruction and leisure this school year, Cooper said. Indoors, administrators decided that it was safe to return Harkness tables to classrooms in the departments that rely on them as part of their instructional method. Dividers have also been removed from all classrooms as per CDC recommendations, Cooper said.

Wilson thinks that the new classroom setups for the upcoming school year will help the school gradually return to normalcy, he said. “I was a little fearful, given how contagious Delta is, that we would stick with partitions like we had last year,” he said. “This is an example of thoughtfulness – how Dr. Kelly and others have said [partitions] are really not going to stop the spread, it’s more important to have people vaccinated, masked, and to have the ventilation in place.”

Steve Yang (11) is looking forward to learning without dividers because he hopes it will enhance his learning experience by allowing him to connect more with his peers and teachers during discussions. “Especially for English and History classes, the dividers made discussions awkward at times,” he said. “For example, I couldn’t make true eye contact with someone when they were speaking.”

As an English teacher, Wilson is especially excited to have the Harkness tables back in learning environments, he said. Even conceptually, having a round table facilitates discussions by making the group feel more like a whole, Wilson said. “[Not having the tables] meant that for every classroom discussion, rather than being focused on the group, everyone was focused on me,” he said. “It meant that we as English teachers were swimming upstream and trying to battle that, trying to recenter and throw the hot potato back at the students.”

 

DAILY SYMPTOM CHECK

Based on the various guidelines in place for the upcoming school year, such as the vaccine mandate, neither the CDC nor the state has recommended the use of a daily symptom check (DSC), Kelly wrote. So, unlike last year, students and faculty members will no longer be required to submit the Daily Symptom Check before entering campus, Kelly said at a town hall for parents on August 24th.

Regardless, students and staff members are always advised to be on the lookout for symptoms of the virus, Cooper said. In general, parents and guardians are asked to keep their children home for the day if they have chills, a fever over 100℉, a new or worsening cough, a recent decrease in sense of smell or taste, known exposure to COVID-19 or a recent positive COVID-19 test result. In these circumstances, students should remain home until their parents or guardians speak to a school nurse for further instructions.

All visitors, including parents and guardians, will still be required to complete the DSC, which can be found on the school’s main website, Kelly wrote.

While Nikki Pande (9) believes that the DSC was effective in identifying symptoms of the virus, she is glad that it will not be used anymore as it tends to be unreliable, she said. “People who don’t have enough time in the morning or just don’t care about Covid tend to lie on it, which lowers its value.”

On the other hand, Ashleigh Conner (11) believes that it is necessary to fill out the DSC, she said. “It serves as a constant reminder to check your temperature and actively think about potential symptoms of the virus,” she said. “Without the form, it’s pretty easy to forget about all of these aspects.”

 

ATHLETICS & CO-CURRICULARS

Students will once again be required to change for Physical Education classes, Physical Education Department Chair Amy Mojica said. T-shirts and sweatshirt uniforms will be redistributed at the start of the year.

Like last year, PE classes will be held both indoors and outdoors depending on the weather, Mojica said. This year, however, the PE rotations will include a wider variety of activities, such as aquatics, she said.

Athletic teams will resume interscholastic competition as opposed to last year’s intramural play, which only included competition amongst students within the school, Director of Athletics Robert Annunziata said. However, athletic teams will exclusively compete against schools with vaccinated athletes.

Due to the school’s vaccination mandate and other safety measures, policies for athletics and co-curriculars will be slightly more relaxed this year, Cooper said.

In general, masks will be required outdoors when athletes are involved in passive activity and at all times in indoor situations, except when in the water, Annunziata said. Athletes will be permitted to remove masks outdoors when engaged in competition or strenuous activities.

Due to the return of athletics and co-curricular activities, the late bus will be available to students, but with certain conditions, Kelly wrote. Students will be eligible to ride the late bus if they are registered with the school’s bussing service, Selby Transportation, for the regular dismissal bus. Because the school’s Westchester and Connecticut families are spread out, unlike in Manhattan and New Jersey, students who live in Westchester or Connecticut will need to pay an additional fee to take the late bus. Assuming there is room on the bus of interest, students who do not typically ride the bus can still ride the late bus if they buy a day-pass.

 

CAFETERIA

While glass dividers have been removed from the majority of campus, the one place where they remain is in the Cohen Dining Commons, where students will be unmasked and eating, Nurse Nancy Jensen said.

The food options in the cafeteria will become more diverse this year, similar to the pre-COVID options, Cooper said. For instance, the salad bar with personalization options will be open again.

Like last year, students will not be permitted to eat in classrooms or the library, Cooper said. However, a large selection of grab-and-go items will remain in spite of the cafeteria’s return to regular service, giving students the opportunity to eat lunch or a snack in between class periods, Kelly wrote.

 

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Overall, Wilson is confident that the school’s COVID-19 policies will help keep the community safe. “No policies would be perfect, but given that as a ground rule, I think that these are very good, thorough policies,” he said. “Dr. Kelly, the board, and the admin council have been super thoughtful about which policies will keep our school community, students, teachers, staff, and even parents the safest.”

While everyone wishes to return to normalcy, the school’s COVID-19 policies are for the wellbeing of the school community, Kelly wrote. “Let’s make the best of what we need to do for another exceptional year at Horace Mann School for the children we share and adore,” he wrote. “This will be another year of compromise as we navigate the continued presence of the pandemic on campus and in our community.”