When GDS announced its COVID vaccine mandate in July, administrators suggested in all-school emails that high vaccination rates could allow school to run almost normally. Now—with over 98 percent of high school students vaccinated, according to the school’s latest numbers—GDS has put those plans on pause due to rising numbers of COVID cases and breakthrough infections in the D.C. area.
Instead, assemblies will be held only by grade level and lunch will be socially distanced and silent if indoors, High School Principal Katie Gibson told the Bit before publicizing the policies to students. In addition, vaccinated students will be tested for COVID every two weeks, according to a Sept. 2 email to students from Director of Strategic Programs Vinitia Ahuja, a change from information she shared on Aug. 18.
98.1 percent of high schoolers, 94.1 percent of GDS staff and 86.7 percent of eligible 7th and 8th graders had uploaded their vaccination cards to the school’s database as of Sept. 5, Ahuja told the Bit. Such high rates were meant to pave the way for an end to almost all virus-related restrictions, but local surges of the delta variant, along with evidence of cases among vaccinated people, have derailed some of GDS’ plans.
“If the high school got to the 90 percent rate, our hope was to be able to go back to sort of ‘normal’ school and to have assemblies and gatherings,” Gibson said of administrators’ aspirations earlier in the summer in her interview with the Bit. “That just feels like a risk that’s not worth taking right now,” she added, referring to all–high school assemblies in a jam-packed Forum.
According to Ahuja, a group of administrators met on Aug. 31 to discuss GDS’ plans for reopening. Gibson said they decided to hold off on all–high school assemblies. However, socially-distanced grade-level meetings will take place. And in a major shift from last spring, the high school will return to its open-campus policy, allowing students to leave the building during the day and go to local restaurants for lunch.
Administrators will encourage students eating lunch on campus to do so outside. Those eating indoors will be required to stay silent and six feet apart. Gibson said GDS purchased additional picnic tables and tents to protect outdoor eaters from sun and rain. GDS also added biweekly COVID testing for all vaccinated students, after having originally planned to test only student-athletes and unvaccinated people.
Senior Miles Huh said, “I guess it’s COVID precautions, especially with the more transmissible variants, but I do feel that it is a little bit silly that we still need to be silent while eating.” Huh also said that he is “a little bit bummed” that students have to be tested regularly, but noted that the school is trying to keep everyone healthy.
Shaw announced the school’s vaccine mandate in an email to families on July 30, saying that all faculty and staff and students 12 or older were required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 15. That was a reversal from the school’s previous plan to require vaccinations only after one of the vaccines received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration or was mandated by the government.
Most people at GDS were already getting vaccinated, history teacher Carlos Angulo said in an interview, “but I think it’s important to be 100 percent sure.” He said GDS’ mandate “sends a message that we support science and we support the reality that a lot of people are trying to deny.”
Administrators sent emails urging students to upload their vaccination cards so GDS could reach its goal of having 90 percent of eligible community members vaccinated by the start of school. Assistant Principal for School Life Quinn Killy wrote to students on Aug. 5 that getting the community vaccinated would give the school “a chance” at returning to normal activities. He cautioned, however, that the school’s “ability to come back to ‘normal’ GDS is directly impacted by several factors,” including government public health recommendations and local case rates.
Ahuja noted that “the landscape has changed” because of the rising delta variant since administrators shared optimistic messages earlier in the summer.
Among the modifications to GDS’ COVID mitigants from last school year is the removal of the MyMedBot app in favor of text reminders through GDS’ emergency communications system, One Call Now, every Sunday afternoon. People “just got used to pushing ‘no’ all the time,” Ahuja said in reference to daily MyMedBot symptom checks.
The weekly text message will say: “Reminder: By your children attending GDS this week, you confirm that your family is following our community commitments including students staying home and alerting nurses if they have COVID symptoms or are required to quarantine or are awaiting symptom-related test results.”
Ahuja, Gibson and Shaw each said they have received little or no pushback about the vaccine mandate. GDS offered the opportunity for those seeking medical or religious exemptions to vaccination to submit their applications by Sept. 1. Ahuja told the Bit that five people in the entire community applied for exemptions, but she did not know the status of their applications.