Open Campus Is Back, With New Perk: Freedom from COVID Rules

Students have returned to shopping at Tenleytown stores. Photo by Catherine Dooley.

This fall, the GDS high school returned to its open campus policy, loosening the stricter limits placed on students’ movement last school year. Students are once again buying food and eating lunch off campus, where they have greater freedom outside the bounds of the school’s on-campus COVID policies. 

GDS’ current restrictions require people who eat indoors at school to remain six feet apart and silent while unmasked. Off campus, however, students may decide for themselves what precautions, if any, to take, Assistant Principal for School Life Quinn Killy told the Bit. All five students interviewed by the Bit said that students eating indoors at nearby restaurants talk with each other in close proximity.

“Just like I can’t follow you home and police other things, we can’t go off campus and police what you’re doing,” Killy said. “We’re hoping students are following the CDC guidelines and rules, but we can’t control what you guys do off campus.” 

The distinct guidelines for schools and restaurants are grounded in the CDC’s public health guidance, Killy said. For schools, the federal agency recommends wearing masks at all times while indoors, remaining at least three feet apart and “maximizing physical distance as much as possible” during mealtimes, “especially indoors,” according to its website. In restaurants, the CDC recommends limiting close contact between customers of different parties and remaining masked when not eating or drinking. 

Several students said they have gone to Tenleytown restaurants for lunch and observed GDS peers exercising their freedom to eat indoors without adhering to the school’s official on-campus policies.

Sophomore Ollie Alfonso-Frank recently walked with friends to Seoul Spice, where he saw “a bunch of GDS students huddled behind us indoors and unmasked.”

Junior Arjun Pathiyal said he, too, has taken advantage of the open campus to go off campus for lunch. “I’ve seen a ton of people indoors together eating way closer than six feet apart, touching and all that stuff,” he said.

High School Principal Katie Gibson told the Bit she believes risk is inevitable. “Teenagers are human,” she said, “and everybody has different choices they might make. But in general I trust this population of kids to do their best to do right for the community and keep people safe even off campus.”

Killy said that students have several options to avoid the official obligation to distance and stay silent while eating inside. “No one has to sit inside the building and eat,” he said. “You can sit outside to eat, go on the porch to eat and you can even go off campus to eat and the same rules won’t apply there.” 

In addition to offering students independence from GDS’ policies, the return to an open campus has benefitted local businesses that have seen fewer student customers since the start of the pandemic. Last month, Tenleytown Main Street, an organization that promotes the neighborhood’s economy, relaunched its Tenley Tuesdays promotional program, which provides discounts to students.  

Gabriela Quintanilla, a manager at District Taco, said in an interview with the Bit, “Especially for lunch time, with kids coming back, it really helps the business. It’s really beneficial for us.” 

Although none of the GDS students interviewed said Tenley Tuesdays had specifically motivated them to go out for lunch, Quintanilla said the program has “gotten us a lot of business” from students at GDS, Wilson High School and American University.

The open campus has long been a hallmark of the GDS high school. Gibson said reestablishing the policy this school year allows the high school to experience a measure of normalcy. “We wanted to do whatever we could to get back to the most normal version of school,” she said.

Senior Ken Bailey said he was “definitely excited” to be able to move freely off campus once again. “The open campus is a defining characteristic of GDS that almost no other high school gets,” he said.

Although the school’s COVID-safety restrictions are not in effect off campus, Gibson said she believes the open campus could in fact reduce some risks. “Open campus gets more kids and faculty out of the campus during lunch, which is kind of the least safe time to be on the campus, unmasked, eating,” she said. “So this is actually safer.”

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