School remains vigilant in face of COVID-19 uptick


Sophie Rukin, Staff Writer

Mandatory testing after Thanksgiving Break revealed a slight increase in COVID cases at the school, with five cases in the Upper Division (UD). The increase, coupled with the new Omicron variant, has led to increased anxiety for some members in the community. “The thing I don’t want anybody to do is panic. There’s really no cause for panic right now,” Head of UD Dr. Jessica Levenstein said.

While the school will not implement any new protocols at the moment, some community members choose to be cautious in their own ways, whether that means more mask wearing or getting the booster shot if eligible. 

“I’ve definitely felt an extreme increase in fear, almost similar to the start of the pandemic,” Krish Gandhi (10) said. Gandhi and his family have begun to take extra precaution such as wiping down their food deliveries and staying out of restaurants, he said. 

Other students have also initiated new precautions into their routines. Chloe Trentalancia (11) has decided to double mask out of concern for possible infection, she said. Trentalancia is also concerned for her upcoming international travel over winter break, she said.

The rise has led to a shift in the community’s atmosphere, Sammie Pruzan (10) said. “Everyone’s a bit tenser and a little bit more worried, especially with winter break coming up.” 

William Woodruff (9) has also felt an atmospheric change regarding precautions, he said. He has noticed more people washing their hands and wearing masks. However, the new increase of COVID has not harmed relationships between peers and faculty, he said.

In addition to the community’s positive cases, the new Omicron variant has been a source of fear for some after data was released by the CDC last month. Though first detected in South Africa, the variant has spread to the United States and New York, causing some community members to question how it might impact the school community. “All the news is kind of like a reminder of what March [2020] was,” Joelle Maddan (12) said.

Maddan has felt some increased fear and worry with the rising cases both in the school community and the greater world, she said. “We just got back to being more open and free, and now it feels like we might have to lock down again, which is scary.”

While some members of the school have elevated fears in light of the rising cases and new variant, others remain calm. Ian Acharjee (9) said that his fear level for COVID has not changed. “Everybody’s getting tested and everybody’s wearing masks, so I think we’re all going to be fine,” he said.

Michelle Orloff (10) has not had additional concerns due to COVID either, she said. “I feel fear if I know that I’m going to be in a large group of people where no one is really wearing masks, but otherwise I haven’t really had that many worries since I got vaccinated.”

Orloff was not surprised to hear the statistics on rising cases in the UD, because students have a lot of siblings, friends, and family members at other schools. Though she expected it, she considers the rise in cases to be unfortunate, especially since COVID numbers were getting better in the beginning of the year, she said.

The numbers also do not worry Spanish teacher Diego Argibay, he said. “We just came back from vacation, where there was a very large number of exposure, but the number of students is not a very large number.”

Argibay has a young daughter in public school who had four cases in her grade alone, so by comparison, the school’s numbers seem miniscule, he said. “I do think there is rising concern with the whole Omicron variant, but I just need to keep an eye on it and be hopeful.”

Last Friday, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly required testing for every student and faculty member at the school. Levenstein said this testing was planned to happen regardless of the Omicron variant. 

One reason the administration planned to test was because there tends to be more interpersonal contact amongst family and friends during the holidays, which can lead to potential exposure, UD Dean of Students Michael Dalo said.

While the cases in the UD have increased slightly, they still remain relatively low, Levenstein said. However, there have been reports of students and faculty members who have a family member ill with COVID, she said.

There are many potential reasons for the increase in cases, Levenstein said. “I’m not a scientist, but if I were to guess it would have to do with the fact that the weather is colder, we’re moving indoors, and as we know being indoors with less air circulation definitely increases spread,” Dalo said.

MD and UD Nurse Deanna Cooper said that the rise in cases was expected. There is an increase in cases in New York City right now, including some breakthrough cases with vaccinated people, so it makes sense that this increase would be reflected in the school’s data, she said.

Levenstein said one of the big causes of rising cases was students traveling over Thanksgiving break. “From what I understand, people really traveled a lot and that creates a lot of potential exposure,” she said. “They saw a lot of people they were eager to see, so it’s hard to stay vigilant with masks under those circumstances.”

While there are no new protocols going into place, there will be more outdoor dining options available, Levenstein said. This update includes more areas to eat outside as well as partitioning between seats under the tents.

Cooper said the school is currently continuing to put in significant effort towards cleaning, sanitizing and wearing masks. “There is always the possibility that if the numbers go way up, that we will reinstitute wearing masks outside,” she said. Kelly lifted the outdoor mask mandate on Monday, October 11 and in the present moment the school is alright with taking a step back by allowing students to take a break from wearing masks outdoors, Cooper said.

English teacher Dr. Adam Casdin feels as if overall, the school — and specifically Kelly —  is doing a great job at handling COVID precautions, he said. “[Dr. Kelly] really did thread the needle at one of the most difficult situations that any institution has ever faced, and I felt confident all the way through that he was informed and up to date and serious about the approaching difficulty,” he said.

Casdin is a strong believer that masks work. Like Trentalancia, he uses the double mask technique, and has been doing so since we first went back in person. “We spent a year in school, I met directly with students who tested positively the next day and never got sick,” he said. “There was no transmission in any of my classes, so I am not worried. I actually feel pretty confident with the way the school is handling it.”

Trentalancia, on the other hand, was disappointed that the school did not put more precautions in place. It would be beneficial to instate more frequent testing, possibly even daily testing, she said.

Maddan said it makes sense for the school to keep restrictions to a minimum. It is important that the community maintains a “positive vibe” at the school as people go through the testing weeks, she said. 

However, Maddan said it is possible that after break the school might impose some stricter restrictions. While these restrictions would be bothersome, Maddan understands that they may be necessary. 

Neeva Patel (10) was one of the five positive cases discovered through the community testing last Friday. Patel does not know how she got sick and thinks that in general everybody needs to be more cautious. “When you’re eating short snacks, your mask shouldn’t be off for long,” Patel said. Patel also said that with cases rising the school should reinstate masking outdoors.

It is also super important for people to get tested when they are asked to, she said. “I know a lot of people forget, and then you might just be walking around with COVID, and you had the opportunity to test and didn’t.” Patel is appreciative that the school had mandatory testing last Friday, because otherwise she would not have figured out she had COVID.

Many faculty members and senior students over the age of 18 have also decided to get their booster shot as an additional precautionary measure against the virus. The school does not track booster shots unless a parent provides the vaccine record with the booster to the school, as it does not currently mandate them, Cooper said. However Cooper would appreciate it if more parents would send in this data, she said.

“I have no knowledge of who has received the booster at this point in time,” Dalo said. “I know that I have gotten a booster and many people in the Dean’s office have gotten their booster.” However, Dalo has heard some conversation around the dean’s office about mandating the booster shot down the line, he said.

Argibay has also gotten the booster, in part because his daughter was not fully vaccinated at the time, he said. That fact, coupled with the possibility of exposure at school, made him inclined to get the shot. “I chose to get the shot out of an abundance of caution more than anything else,” he said.

Some seniors, such as Maddan, are under the age threshold to get the booster shot. However, Maddan plans to get it once she turns 18. Her family is at a somewhat high risk for COVID and she does not want to make them worry, she said. “Getting an extra shot won’t hurt.”

On the other hand, some faculty members, though eligible, have not yet received the booster shot. Physical Education Coach RJ Harmon did not take the booster primarily because of a lack of time. He plans to get it over break and is hoping to feel even more secure after the shot, he said.

ICIE Program Associate Jaquan Shaw has not gotten his booster yet either, but plans to get one. “When I did look into getting [a booster], I thought the information that was given wasn’t really direct about how to get one,” he said. Even though he has not yet gotten his booster, Shaw feels safe since he has not gotten COVID since being vaccinated and everyone around him is vaccinated as well, he said.

The school recently made the first two doses of the COVID vaccine available for the newly eligible members of the community. This included people between the ages of five to eleven. If the school chooses to mandate the booster, it is very probable that they would administer boosters on campus, Cooper said.

Along with the increasing COVID cases, the winter flu is on the rise. Patel said she is not concerned about the flu, as she is about COVID, since people know how the flu spreads and how to stop it, with tactics such as washing your hands and not touching your face, she said.

Patel said that if a student feels sick it is important to stay home. “A lot of people, since they know that they can’t go remote when they are sick, just choose to come to school sick and that’s how it spreads, because they don’t want to miss school — especially during testing week.”

The increase in cases has caused some members of the community to feel nervous towards others with COVID, especially if they are considered a close contact. 

Having COVID was a learning experience for Patel. “I think there’s a stigma against people with COVID,” Patel said. Upon testing positive she realized people were quick to judge and polarize people who have COVID. It is important for people to be careful when they are contact-traced but also to handle it appropriately, she said.

As the community continues to get sick with a combination of COVID and the flu, Levenstein stresses the importance of balancing vigilant mask wearing and maintaining a normal school life, she said.

However, students and faculty need to realize that they have a responsibility towards everybody else in the community, and that they all must be a part of the collective effort, Levenstein said. “We have to imagine that the person next to you has an immunocompromised family member, so you can treat that person with care. And in your own actions, you need to protect yourself as much as possible.”