Returning to Campus in the Age of Coronavirus

Sitting at computers each day for hours on end, GDS students and faculty couldn’t help but wonder when we would be able to come back to school. After seven months of distance learning, the GDS high school will make the transition to in-person schooling starting on November 19.

With COVID-19 cases rising in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, the community’s level of comfort and concern are crucial to decisions that the school has already made and will continue to make regarding reopening. However, the precautions taken by every person in the GDS community will play the largest role in determining how fast school can regain a sense of normalcy, according to community leaders.

For senior Hannah Mikhail, the idea of reopening is definitely something to be excited about. Because this is her last year at GDS, she wants to make the most of it. “I have six more months with the people in my grade before we part ways for the rest of our lives,” Mikhail said. “So I just want to be able to spend as much time with all of them as I can.”

The decision to return to school has given the GDS community a lot to consider. Reopening presents students with an opportunity that they haven’t had in months: being in classrooms with their peers. While the initial thought of being back in school is exciting, junior Maddie Feldman expressed that she thinks it’s important to take this exciting possibility “with a grain of salt.” Since students haven’t yet returned, there is no way to know how well the reopening plan will work. 

“Creating a comprehensive and safe solution is very difficult, and much more so in the high school, where no one person has the same schedule,” Feldman reflected. “So a part of me is wondering, is it really worth it to potentially risk my safety?”

Adherence to community standards and safe behavior outside of campus are large worries for GDS. In his email that announced the school’s reopening, Head of School Russell Shaw emphasized that students need to refrain from potentially dangerous activities, such as gathering in groups without masks. While there is no real way to ensure the community’s cooperation until we return to campus and testing begins, individual precautions are arguably the most important fact in keeping cases down. As Shaw said, “the health and wellness of our entire community rest in your hands.” 

With the limitations GDS has in place, the question becomes whether students are willing to stick to the guidelines. “Students’ families definitely vary in their adherence to these rules,” said Feldman. “So I’m a little worried about—even if these restrictions are in place—will students and families stay faithful to those and adhere to them? And what happens if they don’t?”

Freshman Julian Montes-Sharp has chosen to opt out of the first session of in-person learning and will make a decision about going back later in the year. “I know that I’ve seen people not taking the precautions they should be outside of school,” he said. “If I knew everybody was acting the way they should be and being careful in every way possible, maybe I’d be more willing to go [back].”

“I think in theory [reopening] is a good idea,” freshman Claire Simon reflected. “But I feel like at the end of the day [our safety] is up to the kids. With that said, I’m cautiously optimistic that this step can get us closer to going back full time, which would be really great.”

GDS has a detailed Decision Making Matrix that provides the factors the school is taking into account, which include COVID-19 at GDS, COVID-19 at other schools, the spread in the area and cases in the DMV region. It also includes the criteria for school closure in each of these categories and their current status. 

GDS is taking into consideration statistics on the severity of COVID-19 in the DMV from CHOP on cases and testing information and trends from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. While cases in the DMV are relatively low compared to the rest of the country right now, cases are currently on the rise. Additionally, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas and, according to a Johns Hopkins study, colder weather may cause an even larger increase in cases. 

This likelihood of spike in cases is causing many community members to question the timing of GDS’ reopening decision. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of returning given the current conditions. “Any time where you do gatherings indoors,” Montes-Sharp said, “it’s always a risk, no matter how many precautions you’re taking.” 

“I think that there was a lot of pressure for [GDS] to open up,” said Simon, who is doubtful of the reopening plan’s success. “The timing to me seems a little weird because it’s right before Thanksgiving break, and around late fall and winter is when people are expecting cases to rise, so I think it’s very likely that [in-person schooling] doesn’t go for that long and just gets shut down again.” 

In addition to the worries of families and students, GDS has to navigate the concerns of teachers. Before the reopening, history teacher Ricardo Carmona said, “I would be comfortable returning to school without vaccines if we are able to conduct classes in a safe environment,” citing precautions such as mask-wearing and classrooms at 50 percent capacity that the school is currently taking. He added that his willingness to come in “of course would depend on local COVID numbers.” While he would love to go back given the current precautions, Carmona will not be returning to campus because his wife is pregnant, placing her at higher risk for complications from the virus.  

Math department chair Lee Goldman stated before GDS announced its reopening plans that she would want to be vaccinated before coming back to campus. However, since then, her opinion has changed. “I feel like we know more about how the disease is transmitted,” she said. She cited increased trust in strict mask use as well as GDS’ vigorous testing program as main reasons for her return. 

However, Goldman also voiced doubts about the reasons behind her decision. “I can’t rule out that my change of heart doesn’t have to do with the fact that I’m tired of doing [distance learning],” she said. She also mentioned having concerns about college students returning home, students eating in the building and social distancing. 

Goldman believes that many other teachers who are returning “are really nervous about it. They might believe that the school is doing its best, but they also know that it is a financial decision.”

The development of a vaccine could drastically change GDS’s reopening decisions and potentially alleviate the concerns of many. According to The New York Times, there are twelve vaccines in the final stages of testing worldwide, and Pfizer has just released data showing that its vaccine is over 90 percent effective. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, a vaccine will take at least 12-18 months to develop in total, meaning that a vaccine would not be ready before February or March. Yet even if a vaccine is developed, distribution, the willingness of the public to take it and financial considerations could all dampen its effectiveness. 

“Of course we’d be thrilled if there is an effective vaccine developed,” Russell Shaw explained. “We also understand that this may take some time, and that we need to make plans in the interim.”

With so many changing factors, it is impossible to say for sure whether this reopening decision will go as planned. However, for many students, going back to campus is marked by excitement. 

“I think this is a necessary step towards getting us back in school full time, and being able to start immersing ourselves in the campus,” Simon concluded.

In the end, how in-person learning pans out will determine what going to school means for the rest of the year: walking into a COVID-safe building or clicking onto yet another calendar invitation.

Madeleine Popofsky ’22 and Anna Shesol ’24

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