Amid Uptick in Infections, School Loosens Testing Enforcement

At least 52 students and faculty members tested positive for COVID the week of May 8. Photo by Olivia Brown.

Of the 52 new positive COVID cases among students and faculty members between May 8 and May 15 that GDS reported, seven were discovered through on-campus testing. All high school students and teachers who come to campus are expected to take a PCR test at school every other week and to report any positive result from off-campus testing to the school nurses. But the student body is falling short in the first category and, students suggest, the second.

685 students and teachers received on-campus tests during the week of May 1, according to GDS’ COVID dashboard. Over 900 are expected to test each week, based on information from Director of Strategic Programs Vinita Ahuja, who manages much of GDS’ COVID procedure, and the GDS directory.

“One of the things we decided to do is to stop chasing people who didn’t want to get tested,” Ahuja said in an interview with the Bit. While expectations haven’t changed, she said testing is only one part of the mitigation strategy and actively enforcing testing is not the best use of the school’s resources.

Charts by Andrew Mikhail.

In an email to parents on May 1, GDS reported that 19 high school students, six of whom are seniors, tested positive the previous week. Senior Joya Breinholt told the Bit she thought more than six of her peers tested positive in their last week. The Bit verified 13 COVID cases that week in the company of the spring musical Footloose, which was canceled as a result and rescheduled for the following weekend. 

An Instagram post to @gdsmemes on April 19 suggested that seniors had lost count after 12 positive cases; one student commented “16 in [sic] counting” on another related post. But GDS only reported ten positive cases in the senior class that week. 

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Ahuja said when asked about the notion that more seniors had COVID than the dashboard indicated. “I do think the rumor machine runs away with us, and again, I can only speak to the cases that have been reported to us.” 

Ahuja added that students are not simply relied on but required, as per school policy and D.C. Department of Health guidelines, to report positive COVID cases to GDS. If someone is absent and hasn’t explained why, one of the nurses will reach out to determine whether the student has tested positive or has any symptoms, she said. But as with testing, Ahuja emphasized individual responsibility to follow the requirements for self-reporting.

Ahuja said many community members who contracted COVID received testing outside of school because they stayed home or left campus when they first had symptoms or after being notified they had close contact with others who tested positive.

“That means that people are by and large staying home while they aren’t feeling well,” she said.

Ahuja said that in addition to expecting students to report positive off-campus tests, GDS relies on them to get tested on campus every other week, as is required. In past months, students who missed their testing slot would be notified over email and required to find testing off campus in order to come to school. On April 1, Ahuja wrote in an email to all GDS employees and high school students that 500 people who were not exempted due to recently having COVID missed required testing that week.

Now, the school only sends out individual reminders under special circumstances—for instance, if someone has had a close contact. “At a school like GDS, we ask people to take responsibility and do what they’re supposed to do,” Ahuja said. Most weeks, she emails a reminder to high school students and faculty to get tested if they’re supposed to that week.

“We still have the same testing system,” freshman Mara Grace said. “But it’s not being enforced. It just seems kind of pointless.” 

Ahuja said GDS’ current approach is surveillance testing, meant to gauge COVID numbers generally. “If we wanted to keep COVID out of GDS, we’d need to be testing 3 or 4 times a week with rapid tests,” she said. “Many schools are testing a proportion of their school population rather than the whole population.” 

Ahuja said that when COVID cases in D.C. were low in early March, she thought it might be “a good time to pull back on testing” and test less frequently or not at all. But she added that because GDS removed one mitigator by revoking its mask mandate, March would have been a bad time to remove or weaken another.

Sophomore Julian Montes-Sharp said “it might be helpful to pivot to weekly testing” at the high school. Students between pre-K and sixth grade, some of whom are not vaccinated, are currently required to test once a week, according to Ahuja.

Breinholt said that the increase in cases at GDS had an impact on how often she chose to wear her mask. “When the mandate was originally lifted, a bunch of seniors just took their masks off entirely,” she told the Bit in the last days of April. “Now, I at least carry mine around with me and put it on if I really feel the need to.”

Breinholt also said it was unfortunate that many seniors she knows tested positive during their last week of high school, when traditions like senior prank day and Community Day were held. She said she did not want to miss these events but was “very worried about getting COVID.”

Montes-Sharp said his habits didn’t change much when he noticed people in his grade testing positive; he has been masking the entire pandemic to protect a high-risk family member.

While GDS is mask-optional, the school is still implementing measures to minimize the spread of COVID. Ahuja explained that GDS follows masking guidelines consistent with the Department of Health’s recommendations and requires a seven-day quarantine period following a positive COVID test, longer than the CDC’s recommendation of five days “in part because we’ve had a lot of people who’ve been testing positive on day 6 or day 7.” 

Ahuja is unsure if COVID precautions will continue into the next academic year. “It’s really hard to predict the future because there’s variants and there’s seasonality,” she said.