Cluster of Virus Cases Unnerves High School As Winter Break Begins

Students in the Forum on Thursday, Dec. 16. Photo by Reid Alexander.

Multiple positive COVID-19 tests among high school students ruffled the GDS high school community just as it neared winter break after a semester of almost normal operations. GDS remained open even as other local private schools reverted to virtual school this week due to new virus infections but canceled plans for a Christmas assembly with the whole school in the Forum. Rumors of an outbreak caused some students to stay home from school on Friday.

Three GDS high school students confirmed to the Bit that they had tested positive for COVID. GDS’ virus webpage reported on Friday morning that 14 community members—including a freshman, a junior and “several” sophomores—had received positive results from on- or off-campus testing during the school week. 

The school announced in an email to parents on Thursday evening that it would require students to test negative before returning to campus after break.

Junior Ishan Dohrmann learned he had contracted the virus after taking a rapid COVID test when he came home from school on Thursday. “I just heard a lot of people were getting tested positive,” he said in an interview. “So I thought that I should get tested just to be safe.”

Dohrmann is feeling mild symptoms and spent Friday isolated from his family in his basement. 

The positive tests in the high school came just days after Georgetown Preparatory School and Sidwell Friends School transitioned to virtual classes following school-wide outbreaks. Sidwell’s head of school, Bryan Garman, announced in an email to Sidwell parents on Wednesday that seven high school students had tested positive and that school would not happen in person before winter break began on Friday.

The email to GDS parents on Thursday, signed by the “GDS Risk Response Team,” signaled that GDS is less inclined to return to virtual school given the format’s harm to students’ mental health. “We understand that even as there are risks from contracting COVID,” the email read, “there are also very real risks when children are unable to attend school in person.” 

On Thursday, rumors about widespread infection of freshmen, and possible school closure, ran rampant among students.

Assistant Principal for School Life Quinn Killy said he was approached by a student in the Forum who claimed to have heard that school on Friday would be called off. “I was like, ‘Why would we not come to school tomorrow?’” Killy said. “They’re like, ‘I heard like 15 ninth graders have COVID.’ I was like, ‘No, 15 do not have COVID.’”

Following the news of the other schools’ closures and rumors of positive tests in the community, many GDS students were hesitant to return to school for Friday’s half day. 

Sophomore Claire Simon said she did not go to school on Friday, citing the numerous rumors about COVID at GDS and the heightened risk of contracting the new Omicron variant. “I have people over winter break that I really need to not infect, ” Simon said on Thursday, adding that she did not have any significant classwork to do.  “I was kind of just like, ‘What’s the point of going?’”

Math teacher Tom Spilsbury told the Bit that only two of the nine students in his second-period UL Multivariable Calculus attended class on Friday. It was unclear whether the seven absent students missed school due to virus concerns.

Sophomore Rachel Schneider said she was nervous about coming to school on Friday but decided to come, with her family’s input, because she was scheduled to perform in the Christmas assembly. Still, she said being at school with an uncertain virus situation was “a little bit scary.”

Killy said the annual Christmas assembly had been planned to be the first high school gathering since the start of the pandemic to take place in the Forum in front of the whole school. Killy said he and others involved in planning the assembly decided on Friday morning, due to the increase in cases, to change it to be watched on Zoom in paired advisory groups.

Killy also cited students’ recent mask-wearing practices as a reason the assembly could not be held with the full high school community together. “I wouldn’t say our behavior in masking has been the best over the last week,” he said. “People were starting to get a little relaxed.”

The shift Killy observed coincided with the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. In D.C., for example, daily counts of new cases quadrupled from Dec. 10 to Dec. 14, according to statistics compiled by The New York Times.

Killy said that the plans for GDS’ COVID precautions after break are up in the air. If administrators decide to implement new restrictions, Killy said, athletics would likely be canceled and lunchtime limitations put in place first. “I’m sure we’ll probably have meetings or discussions over break about what’s going to have to happen and if anything has to change or not,” he said. 

Amelia Oscherwitz contributed reporting.