Understanding GDS’ Reopening Reversal

Middle schoolers return to in-person leaerning. Source: GDS.

The GDS high school is returning to in-person learning beginning next week, a turnaround from a previous plan for the high school not to reopen until after winter break. The reversal was announced to the community in an email on Nov. 3. 

Students have been split into two large groups to engage in what the school is calling its “HyFlex” model, the first group will begin on-campus classes on Thursday, Nov. 19. Group A will be tested on Nov. 16 and Group B  tested on Nov. 20. After the initial testing, all faculty and half of each group will be tested each week. Mitigants such as COVID-19 testing, physical distancing, masking and sanitizing have been put in place to reduce—but not eliminate—the risk of virus transmission. 

“It was a sudden change, so that was surprising, particularly for faculty and staff, who did not have a voice in the decision-making process,” Yani Aleman, a history and social sciences teacher said, wrote in a statement to The Augur Bit. “Many felt blindsided. Many staff and faculty are very anxious and fearful of having to be at school during the pandemic, even though they love our students and our community.”

Students will be divided into two groups, each attending two days of on-campus classes and two days of virtual learning each week. On Wednesdays, students will continue to attend virtual assemblies and engage in asynchronous work. Students have the option to choose not to attend in-person school and, Aleman wrote, “human resources is making sure faculty and staff with high risk conditions are accommodated.”

As of Nov. 13, 90 percent of lower schoolers, 88 percent of middle schoolers and 80 percent of high schoolers have chosen to opt in for November, according to GDS’ website. 87 percent of high schoolers have chosen to opt in for December. Lower school students in pre-K through 1st grade returned to in-person learning on Oct. 29, and students in grades 2 to 4 returned on Nov. 5. On Nov. 9, grades 5 and 6 began in advisory cohorts for four days of the week, and grades 7 and 8 for two days a week. 

While there may be bumps along the way, students have expressed excitement about going back to in-person learning. Sophomore Jacob Getlan said that although the transition to in-person learning may be difficult, he is excited to see his friends “in the flesh.” Getlan said, “I highly doubt things won’t go well,” but if they don’t, he’ll fall back on the option of entirely virtual learning.

In an email to the community two weeks ago, Shaw explained why the high school is opening now, writing, “A growing body of research from schools locally and nationally, along with our own phased reopening, have made us confident that our High School students can safely be brought back on campus—and that they should be.” 

Aleman wrote, “I understand this is a difficult decision for our leadership, and trust that the school has our community’s best interests at heart.” 

Vinita Ahuja, the director of strategic programs, who has managed the school’s virus response, said, “We have partnered with Children’s National Medical Center for baseline testing before kids and staff come to school. They have a capacity of a maximum of 300 tests a day so we will need to identify an additional or alternate testing partner to provide sufficient testing.” 

“We are looking for somebody who could easily, accurately test students and staff members with minimal interruption to their day so they can be tested while they are on campus,” Ahuja said. “I think that the setup we have [with Children’s] is not necessarily the right one to reduce interruption to the school day because of their set-up requirements.”  

The school will strictly enforce physical distancing guidelines, among other coronavirus mitigants, on students. According to Ahuja, GDS has worked with Green Bench, the construction management company for the new lower/middle school building, to assess the maximum capacity of each room for social distancing. Everyone on campus is required to wear a mask. 

According to Shaw’s email, specialized filters that can trap viruses have been installed in all classrooms and meeting places and have been added to all of the building’s air ducts. High School Principal Katie Gibson said in an interview with the Bit that hand sanitizing and washing will take place every 90 minutes, with the procedure for washing still being planned.

“I did not become an educator to sit at home on my computer and have Zoom class all day, and write lots of long, detailed emails about COVID testing,” Gibson said. “This is not the most joyful experience of being a high school leader, and I miss being in a building with kids and my colleagues and the energy of seeing a place like GDS alive with student–teacher interactions, so I am really excited.” 

GDS continues to work on guidelines for lunch and classes such as band, chorus and theater. Jazz and instrumental music teacher Brad Linde said, “My appeal to the decision-makers is if we can be in-person, the rhythm section instruments that don’t require blowing into a giant cone tube might be able to exist in the band room space apart.” Linde is eager to try everything and is flexible with different ways of teaching his class, such as “isolating horns either in a different space or maybe the idea of partitions [and] bell covers.”

Mitigants at school can only be as effective as the practices of community members when not on campus. GDS has outlined “Community Commitments” that families have to comply with, which include staying home if sick or exposed to COVID-19, completing daily at-home screenings and adhering to physical distancing and mask guidelines outside of school and outside of one’s immediate family, according to GDS’ website. 

But upholding these commitments will be left to families. “I think we want to avoid creating what would feel like a police state within our community because that would feel so anti–who we are,” Gibson said. “It could really take us down paths that don’t feel good, and yet I think because this is such a serious safety issue, we need to rely on people being honest and holding themselves accountable for telling the truth.”

As the COVID-19 crisis is ever-changing, there is always the possibility of returning to virtual learning. According to GDS’ decision-making matrix, as of Nov. 13, the school is looking at six metrics . Ahuja said, “A decision-making metric would be [the] number of cases at school, or our own test positivity rate.” The metrics that are being watched include cases in the D.C. metro area, per hundred thousand people, community spread, COVID-19 in regional schools, how comfortable families feel with in-person learning and how many people in our community are unable to participate in person.

Between the end of Thanksgiving break and the beginning of winter break, the plan is to continue in-person learning, according to Ahuja. GDS’ goal is to test everybody after Thanksgiving and continue that testing through December. 

As of Nov. 9, students who travel to places other than those deemed low-risk by the D.C. Department of Health must choose to either self-isolate for fourteen days, or wait at least 72 hours and then get tested for COVID-19 and receive a negative test. 

Students who have been exposed to COVID-19, who are awaiting test results or experiencing COVID-like symptoms must stay at home until the student has a negative COVID-19 test or is cleared to be released from isolation. 

Gibson said there is an “emotional conflict” associated with reopening for her because she is excited to invite students back on campus but also wants to keep everyone’s physical and emotional wellbeing at the center of her decisions. 

While happy with the virtual option, some students are concerned about teachers having to teach both virtually and in-person simultaneously. Sophomore Ben Stern said, “My main worry other than the safety part is that some people will be online and some in person, so it will be difficult for the online people to be very engaged in the class because the teacher is going to be more focused on the people in person, just naturally.” Stern said he doesn’t plan to return to campus yet for safety reasons. 

Acknowledging that having teachers balance virtual and in-person learning is a real concern, Katie Gibson said that teachers are being trained on the technology and have met with teachers from other independent schools in the D.C. area that have been teaching in a hybrid model to hear about what has worked well.  

Junior Caroline Antonipillai said she has mixed feelings about the school reopening. “It’s obviously going to be very different than school is normally,” she said, concerned that the virus-mitigation protocols would inhibit natural classroom interaction. 

“It’s also sad to think that if this entire year isn’t normal or if we are only back two days a week for most of the year, then we don’t know how next year will go,” Antonipillai said. She fears that her freshman year may have been her only normal year of high school.