School adapts stricter COVID protocols in response to Omicron variant

School+adapts+stricter+COVID+protocols+in+response+to+Omicron+variant

Hannah Katzke and Samantha Matays

Despite the recent spike in COVID cases, students and faculty returned to in-person school after winter break on Tuesday. “For now, and until the data says otherwise, the best place for our students – your children – to be is in school,” Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly wrote in an email to parents on January 3.

Kelly has instated new COVID protocols to ensure the safety of all students and faculty. However, because of the continuous rise in COVID cases, students should be prepared to switch to HM Online 2.0 at any time, Dean of Students Michael Dalo wrote in an email to students. 

While determining whether to open for in-person learning, the school looked at the information and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local public health authorities, Nurse DeAnna Cooper said. The school also reviewed the number of cases in the community, in addition to common symptoms present for people who have the Omicron variant, Cooper said. 

Continuing in-person instruction was the right decision as the benefits outweigh the risks, Cooper said. “We’re all working together to keep everyone safe, and everyone’s vaccinated, with the very, very few exemptions that we have,” she said. 

Eliza Becker (12) was worried about the decision to return to school in person because so many students currently have or have had COVID, she said. “At the same time, I also really trust Dr. Kelly, and I think he has been doing a great job handling COVID.”

Upon returning to the school, English teacher Sarah McIntyre observed that students and faculty were taking the renewed efforts and protocols seriously, she said. “I saw how willing our campus seemed to be to take seriously the rising cases,” she said. “I felt reassured that it was going to be alright.” 

Likewise, Head of the Upper Division (UD) Jessica Levenstein congratulated UD students. “I was blown away by how seriously [UD students] took our mask rules and by the spirit and energy [UD students] brought to campus today,” she wrote in an email to students on Tuesday.

On December 27, Kelly announced to the parent body that the school would take extra precautions and reopen on Tuesday instead of Monday. He made this decision to allow for students to have an extra day to complete the required COVID testing, he wrote in an email to parents.

Students were required to produce a negative PCR test, rapid antigen test, or an over-the-counter at-home test to return to school on Tuesday, Kelly said. To help students gain access to testing, the school was able to purchase a substantial amount of rapid tests, giving students the option to take a rapid test at the school on Sunday or Monday, he wrote in an email to parents. 

Through the required testing, over 90 percent of students and faculty tested negative, Kelly wrote in an email to parents. Over 60 students are attending school remotely due to quarantining and close contact tracing this week, Levenstein said.

While Dalo has no health concerns about being at school, he is also worried for students who are learning remotely, he said. “My biggest concern about the current situation just as a teacher is how we can best teach our classes and meet the needs of students who are in person and also students who are at home.” 

In response to rising cases, students can only eat in the cafeteria, under a tent, or outside, Dalo wrote in an email to students. “If students are eating all over campus, it’s much harder for us to supervise those spaces, and it’s important for us to be supervising where students are not going to be wearing masks because that helps us ensure compliance with the rules,” he said.

As a result of the cold weather, many students are now eating in the cafeteria. Brody Grossman (9), who ate in Lutnick before the policy change, is worried about this as it increases the risk of exposure while eating inside, he said. “The dividers in the cafeteria do not make me feel safer since all it does is block the people who I would already be exposed to,” he said.

Limiting the ability to eat in Lutnick and other indoor spaces creates anxiety for Molly Goldsmith (10), as the cafeteria has been extremely crowded since the new protocols began, she said. “It changes my typical lunch routine because I used to eat in a variety of areas,” she said. “I would eat outside when there was nicer weather, as well as the cafeteria when it’s colder, and Lutnick sometimes with friends.”

While the decision disrupts Becker’s lunch routine, she still supports the decision to prohibit eating in Lutnick, she said. “[The rule] makes sense because people were abusing where you can eat and not always being super safe with where they were eating.” 

The school also suspended off-campus and food delivery privileges that were recently granted to upperclassmen in an attempt to limit the unnecessary risk of exposure, Dalo wrote in an email to students.

Riya Daga (11) supports the school’s decision to suspend off-campus privileges and appreciates that the school is taking as many precautions as possible, she said. 

Similarly, Becker does not mind the decision to suspend off-campus privileges, she said. “We had it suspended before when the virus was on the rise, so it makes sense now when [COVID] is back on the rise.”

In addition, the school suspended assemblies for the entire month of January. “As we get closer to the end of the month, we will reevaluate where we are with COVID numbers and whether or not we are comfortable with having everyone together in such a large gathering space,” Dalo said.

Guest speakers that were supposed to present in January are now rescheduling and will speak later in the year, Director of Student Activities Caroline Bartels said. Hosting guest speakers virtually last year was difficult, which is why assemblies are not shifting into a virtual format this January, she said. 

Grossman said the suspension of assemblies will be beneficial to the health of all students and faculty. Typically during the assemblies, Gross Theater overflows with people, which makes Grossman feel unsafe, he said.

Although Goldsmith finds it upsetting to no longer have assemblies in person, see performances, and hear guest speakers, she believes the decision was a good one, she said. Suspending in-person assemblies decreases crowding and the risk of exposure, therefore creating a safer community, she said.

Due to the risk of added exposure from people outside of the school’s community, the school has suspended all field trips outside of school, including all trips to Dorr, Dalo said. 

Although in-person Dorr trips are suspended, the Dorr faculty are finding ways to continue their activities, specifically for the “Bronx-based 8th grade program,” Head of Dorr Nick DePreter said. With the new COVID policies instated, Dorr is likely to remain at the Bronx campus, he said. Although there is not a substitute for activities like free time on the fields at Dorr, the Dorr faculty is working together to create a program centralized around the Bronx campus with a different perspective, he said.  

“As we once again enter uncharted waters during this pandemic, please be assured that if at any time, the safety of our students and employees is at risk, we will move to remote instruction,” Kelly wrote in an email to parents.

To determine whether or not the school needs to switch into remote learning, the school will observe the transmission rates of COVID in the community, along with any problems in staffing, Cooper said. “If we [have] issues with a significant number of teachers not being able to be here because they are obligated to isolate, then we may have to go online.”

If the school transitions to remote learning, instruction in the UD will be the same as last school year’s HM Online 2.0, Dalo said.

Grossman prefers in-person school over online school because classes would be less frequent during remote learning, he said.

Goldsmith also prefers that school remains in-person as she finds online learning challenging, she said. “Personally, I struggle a little bit with HM online because I have trouble focusing during Zooms, and I find it’s way harder to motivate myself to do work.”

While McIntyre is prepared to switch to HM Online 2.0 if necessary, she believes that having in-person school is an understandable risk, she said. “I know that the benefits for in-person school go beyond just academic learning,” she said. “I know that social-emotional health for students is more important than we can even measure, and from that standpoint, it looks to me that we should take whatever measures we can safely take to be together.”

McIntyre is glad that the school’s administration is carefully following the science with COVID, she said. “I have trust that they are going to make good decisions in our best interests.”