Stick to the Course, GDS

Students participate in a mental health–related workshop on Jan. 6. Photo by Olivia Brown.

In recent weeks, even as coronavirus cases surged in the D.C. area, GDS administrators have maintained a reassuring message: We will do our darndest to keep school—that is, in-person school—open. 

On Dec. 16, as the high school experienced a spike in COVID infections, the school’s “Risk Response Team” told families in an email that it recognized the “very real risks when children are unable to attend school in person.” 

In his Dec. 30 email to families, Head of School Russell Shaw reiterated the school’s position: “We understand that the risks to keeping children out of school are numerous and can be long-lasting, especially from a mental health perspective, so we will do our best to keep students in school.”

And in a note to the high school community the following day, Principal Katie Gibson explained that GDS would not offer hybrid learning, but rather provide quarantined students the individual support normally given to all sick or absent ones.

Some parents, students and teachers will no doubt continue to question GDS’ approach, as they should, and to call for a return to virtual learning. But administrators ought to stick to their guns and strongly err on the side of maintaining in-person classes, in the interest of not only the community’s wellbeing but also GDS’ proper functioning as a school.

The virus’s prevalence in our region and our school community will change. As it does, it will be up to public health officials and administrators to evaluate whether the way they run GDS must change, too. 

But one thing will not change, a fact that should continue to bear heavily on those decisions: Virtual school is, put simply, bad. It is bad for students’ social lives, it is bad for our activities and athletics and, perhaps most central to GDS’ purpose as an institution, it is bad for our education.

If month after month of distance learning in 2020 left any doubt about that in our minds, last semester was proof of the comparative goodness of being together at 4200 Davenport Street. Following months of online slog last school year, Augur Bit staffers, for example, found renewed energy from being able to meet in one room, edit articles side by side and speak with sources face to face.

Juniors’ paradoxically virtual days devoted mainly to college counseling seminars presented a reminder of the badness of Zoom. The programming on Jan. 6 began with a series of technical hiccups, including over five minutes of an unintelligible robotic drone during the introduction to the mental health keynote speaker.

Later, during a college counseling session, some juniors were reintroduced to the awkwardness of breakout-room conversations, in which the virtual format alone squelched dialogue that flows freely when—in a classroom, or the library, or the Forum—students simply talk.

Under the setup we propose keeping, people who test positive are subjected to at-home isolation, an unenviable interruption to classes, activities and even social interaction. However, staying home for ten days—and enjoying a next-to-normal on-campus experience for all the other school days—beats a demoralizing reversion to daylong Zoom vortices.

In the meantime, both GDS policymakers and students should focus on taking all the available precautions that least hinder our school experience. Perhaps most critical among them is COVID testing.

By the rules set forth in Shaw’s Dec. 30 email, teachers and non-athlete high schoolers must get tested at school only every other week. But the email contains a fittingly formatted clarification: “ANY STUDENT OR STAFF MEMBER who prefers to do so may test more frequently.”

If GDS is allowing seemingly unlimited PCR tests while many Americans are struggling to find out whether they have COVID, community members should take the school up on the generous offer. Why not test weekly, or even more? 

And if the apprehension associated with voluntarily submitting oneself to the distinct possibility of mandated isolation deters students from ambling by choice down to the high school’s sub-basement, administrators should once again require weekly testing at a minimum.

A regime of robust testing and fully in-person school would incentivize students to take their COVID safety into their own hands—to wear a high-quality mask well, to submit to GDS’ QR-code contact tracing system, to behave with caution in their personal lives. The risk of contracting the virus is impossible to eliminate, but steps like those allow individuals to protect themselves, out of a desire not to have COVID-19 when a fateful swab wriggles up their nostrils. 

Still, administrators have accepted the inevitability of some transmission. “We anticipate that individuals in our community will continue to contract COVID-19,” Shaw wrote in the Dec. 30 email, “especially given the highly contagious nature of the Omicron variant. “

The rest of the community should also come to terms with the fact that students and teachers will continue to get COVID. And when they do, for the foreseeable future, they will remain home for a period of quarantine. And while they quarantine, they may do homework, or email teachers, or speak with classmates and friends. 

And when their quarantine is up, they will, as things stand, return to campus. And they will be glad to have a lively, safe campus to which to return.

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