“Room for improvement, but for now, I’m fine”: All students return to Walls amid pandemic
There were long security lines, new Kids Ride Free cards, morning advisory meetings, and crowds waiting for class schedules — in other words, an average first day of school.
But there were also clear differences: Everyone wore masks. All classes had assigned seats. The all-school assembly was on Microsoft Teams.
On August 30th, School Without Walls and other DCPS high schools opened their doors to all students for the first time in 18 months. Administrators have instituted a number of COVID-19 prevention protocols: DCPS is requiring random asymptomatic testing of 20 percent of enrolled students every week; all teachers and staff must be vaccinated; and masks are required on all school property. Consistent with updated Centers for Disease Control (CDC) school guidelines issued earlier this year, students must only be three feet apart in classrooms, though administrators have instructed teachers to remain at least six feet from students.
If someone in a school building tests positive for coronavirus — as has already happened multiple times at Walls since the school year started — the entire school is notified, but only that individual must quarantine for 10 days, as well as any narrowly-defined “close contacts.” There are technically none of these in a classroom: According to city guidelines, if students “are consistently wearing well-fitting masks,” they cannot be close contacts. This stands in stark contrast to last school year, when an entire classroom would have to quarantine if a single case was reported.
Teachers upload classroom seating charts to Aspen, the DCPS grading portal, to support contact tracing efforts. Contact tracing gets more complicated when it comes to lunch, where there are no assigned seats; students must scan QR codes with cell phones during breakfast and lunch if they eat inside the school building and fill out a survey using their Microsoft account, Principal Sylvia Isaac said. Other schools, including Wilson High School, have also implemented the QR code policy.
“The reopening of School Without Walls in-person learning is off to a good start,” said Principal Isaac, citing the club fair and the resumption of extracurricular athletics programs. “We have shared safety protocols with the school community and students are adhering to safety guidelines.”
Students, however, are not all satisfied. “I’m a little nervous,” Sydny Horge, a junior at Walls, said of returning to school. “It depends [if] we’re in crowds in the hallways. Actually sitting in class, or outside at lunch, I’m not as nervous.”
Some students raised concerns about people taking off their masks to eat and drink indoors outside the lunch period. “Some people are eating in class, or taking their masks off in the hallways,” said Malia Weedon, a Walls student. “It only takes one person to ruin it for those who are following [protocols].”
Principal Isaac said that COVID cases have been limited, and that appropriate measures were taken. “[Walls] has reported two COVID cases between August and September,” she said. “Administration followed DCPS COVID-19 protocols and letters [were] emailed to impacted individuals and close contacts in the school community.” One of the COVID cases at Walls was reported before students arrived at school, and one more case was reported to families after the interview with Principal Isaac was conducted.
Unlike teachers, eligible students are not required to be vaccinated, though Principal Isaac said that the school “continues to encourage families” to vaccinate students. Students age 12 or older must be fully vaccinated to participate in school athletics programs. Nearly 100 percent of respondents to a tentative poll conducted by the Walls Home and School Association in mid-September reported that their students were vaccinated, although the poll reached families representing less than half of the Walls student body.
Many students agreed that crowds in the hallways and at dismissal made for a less safe environment. Administrators could “stagger dismissal times slightly, or be a bit more clear on which routes to take between classes,” to help reduce some of the crowds, Weedon said.
But mostly, students thought the COVID situation at Walls was sustainable. “I feel like there’s room for improvement, but for now, I’m fine,” Horge said. “Everyone’s been wearing masks, and people don’t really eat in class that much, so I’m good.”
“We haven’t had any COVID situations, except for one person that first week,” said Raphael Udemba, another Walls student. “So I’m pretty happy with what they’ve done.”