Stuttering Into School

On November 3, after fairly consistent messaging about its expectation to return some time in early 2021, the GDS administration announced that the HS would be reopening two weeks later, on November 19. In the ensuing weeks, the faculty feverishly prepared to return, students and staff were divided into groups and tested and the high school gradually began to hum into life again. In spite of minor adjustments and technological hiccups, the two first days back seemed to go off without a hitch: Group A students were able to attend classes in person for the first time since March while group B students participated from home.

Then, on November 21, Head of School Russel Shaw followed up with another email: “Dear GDS community,” it read, “last night we learned that a GDS employee tested positive for COVID-19.” This meant the school could no longer proceed in person, and would not be able to return the week after Thanksgiving break as previously planned due to the recommended two-week quarantine period following a positive COVID-19 test.

The abrupt change left many GDS students and teachers disheartened. Some students, such as junior Aden Shiengold, wondered if it was a good idea for GDS to have opened at all. “The fact that we had to close after two days,” he said, “it speaks to that.” He added that the decision “seems like a 180,” and that conditions in the surrounding community, such as transmission rates, had not improved.

The abortive attempt to return in-person, however, should not be considered a failure. It succeeded on a variety of important counts, including making students and staff comfortable with hy-flex learning and instilling a stronger sense of community in a school that has been apart for too long.

The most essential success of the brief period of in-person learning was that teachers were able to acclimate to the style of education which could dominate the school until the end of the year, if not longer. The technology in each classroom, along with the challenges of managing two sets of students in entirely different settings at once, is difficult to manage. Teachers faced and overcame many technological hiccups similar to the ones they experienced when transitioning to distance learning for the first time. 

In such a difficult environment to adapt to, every single day counts. “The learning curve is incredibly steep right now, pretty much with everything but certainly with hy-flex teaching,” history teacher Julie Stein said. “I think each day that I do this I’m gonna get better at it, and each day that our faculty does we’ll be improving.” Having even two days to become more comfortable with the new teaching style allows teachers to more easily transition as it becomes safe to return to campus.

A secondary success of the return is a partially rejuvenated social scene among students. Although many students were able to see each other at a distance on their own, it can be difficult to foster a sense of community without in-person school. 

High School Principal Katie Gibson said “the athletics had more success than some of the social gatherings; it was really hard to talk and get to know each other when you’re sitting six to ten feet away from other people.” Gibson acknowledged that the social aspects of the return have had some difficulties. “What’s hard about it is what would normally be down social time for people to interact still feels really rigid,” she said. But “it’s sort of the new normal of trying to figure out how to get back to some sense of community.”

Additionally, new freshmen can have trouble meeting students if they don’t share classes or didn’t go to the same middle school. The return provides an opportunity for them to meet their new classmates in-person for the first time. Stein said, “I felt like the excitement of ninth grade students was really palpable” because they were seeing each other for the first time.

Another important thing to consider is the fact that, even after consulting numerous health-care professionals from a variety of fields, there is rarely a way to be certain about what will happen. The return to school was almost guaranteed to be a fitful process. 

Stein said that “bouncing in and out of in-person is actually part of the plan. I think it can feel like a failure… but in my mind that’s actually the way that it works, the only way you go back in a pandemic.” In this case, the hammer simply fell much earlier than we were expecting.

Stein argues that we should have returned in the fall: “It would have made sense to go back in September or October when numbers were as low as they have been” but that “in the fall, that felt unthinkable for so many different reasons.” Now, there is no way of knowing how that would have gone, and we can only take what we have learned. 

Since the fall, we have also learned more about how the virus spreads and what the most concerning risks actually are. Some students complained about the apparent disregard for regional trends when we returned in November: “Cases are not going in the right direction right now,” Shiengold said. He added that “Now is not the right time to start going in.” It’s true that infection rates had already begun to rise when the decision was made, and by November 19, D.C. was clearly trending upwards. 

However, the HS administration had learned a thing or two and had updated the factors for returning to school. 

“What we knew in March about how it spreads and how to protect ourselves and what it means was different than what we knew in September and is different than what we are learning now,” Gibson said. Recent research that the administration has taken under consideration indicates that opening schools does not cause additional secondary transmission, indicating that transmission rates in schools are relatively low. Because community COVID rates were low, returning appeared to be the best course of action.

At the end of the day, it is up to students, parents and teachers to decide what level of contact they are comfortable with and make the decision for themselves whether or not to return. The only thing GDS can do is continue ensuring that the classrooms are as safe as possible and allow the community to decide whether or not to take advantage of the opportunities they offer.

Adam Leff ’22