No national guidelines for the return to school force districts to experiment with safety measures

Carolyn Langford

The contrast is stark. A dozen students sit around an indoor restaurant table in Houston, collaborating and eating with no masks on. Meanwhile, many students in Washington State haven’t seen each other since March. 

With no national guidelines in place, schools across the country have responded to COVID-19 with a wide array of approaches. According to CNN, 74 percent of states have no order, leaving it up to the discretion of the district to decide how students may return. Decisions by district can determine the safety and academic success of students in many circumstances. 

“I think it’s bizarre that we are all just left to our own devices,” yearbook adviser at Inglemoor High School in Washington State Zane Mills said. “The intensity of [the differentiation in response] is interesting. I have not seen anyone at all since the beginning of March unless I bump into someone at the grocery store.”

Mills’ city, Kenmore, Washington, was among the first in America to be impacted severely by COVID-19. Their school immediately scrambled to begin remote learning and has not looked back. 

“It’s definitely disappointing, but I feel like, especially because we’ve been on lockdown a lot longer than other states, I’m kind of used to it at this point,” yearbook Editor-in-Chief at Inglemoor High School Rhiannon Rogers said. “It’s kind of just become a routine, and yes, it’s disappointing, but I feel like right now, it’s kind of the right thing to do until it gets a little more contained. I would say the majority of kids that go to our school have their little friend groups that they only see.”

“It’s really sad that everybody across the country is experimenting with something different because nobody knows.”

Zane Mills,
Yearbook adviser at Inglemoor High School, Washington State

But not all students practice the discipline of following safety guidelines outside of school. Kingwood High School, located in Houston, Texas, has measures in place similar to those of ESD but stops themselves from interfering with what students choose to do outside of school.

“In school, we generally follow CDC guidelines, but out of school, we don’t,” Kingwood High School student Jenna Simpson said. “The school doesn’t have any say as to what happens off campus, so people generally don’t follow guidelines. Large functions like football games can get out of hand. Our first football game was huge.”

Kingwood High School teacher Michelle Valenzuela recognizes that safety measures should be implemented but also believes some restrictions should be lifted to afford group opportunities. Despite spikes of the virus amongst their community when school started, Valenzuela believes their school is taking enough precautions. 

“Our school has had the highest number of cases, so that contributed to our strictness, but I don’t think that necessarily changed the way we reacted,” Valenzuela said. “We still have some virtual learners, but we have stood strong in the way we are handling [COVID-19].”

Schools that offer in-person learning have to deal with the inevitable possibility of positive cases of COVID-19. When more cases occur, they also have to consider if their safety measures are adequate. For Deer Valley High School in Arizona, dealing with parents adamant about ensuring safety is a priority.

“Our school bows to the loudest parent voices,” Deer Valley teacher Melissa Reagan said. “When we started having positive cases on campus, the attention to cleaning and distancing became real to many. I think most student responses to COVID-19 echo their parents’ response. At school, my students are required to wear masks and stay in their assigned seats. Outside of school, [it is their choice].”

Most in-person learning schools operate with a contact tracing system in the circumstance of a positive case. This system, which helps to identify who has been in contact with the virus, can encourage students to make safe decisions in and out of school. After many months away from school, many students are eager to return and want to avoid a two-week quarantine. At Trinity School in New York City, not following guidelines is treated by the school as a breach in their honor code. Though the students do not adopt the same mindset, if they are affected by another student’s contraction of the virus and have to quarantine, that student is shamed socially.

“There is a stigma only in the sense that it prevents others from coming back to campus,” Trinity student Thomas White said. “If someone who was remote contracted it, there would be no problem. But a kid who was in-person got it and literally had to delete social media as a result. In the early days, though, it was much more of a taboo; you knew the names of everyone who had it.”

Students holding each other accountable is a common recent phenomenon. At Trinity, especially, where one grade goes per week on a rotating cycle, learning in-person has acquired a new appreciation. In schools across the nation alike, the adjustments made to account for distant learning has impacted remote and in-person learners. 

“I feel like I procrastinate all the time now,” Simpson said. “A lot of the teachers allow us to use our notes on tests now, which [discourages studying. I get that it is to prevent blatant cheating since everything is virtual, but I don’t feel like I am learning as much.”

With every school having to accommodate conditions, kinks in the system that hinder learning and safety are unavoidable. Many students and faculty members believe their schools could be doing more to increase safety.

“The school should provide adequate cleaning supplies and staff to handle those jobs,” Reagan said. “I spend an hour per day cleaning my classroom for my safety and the safety of my students.”

On the other hand, some people are resolute that it is time to begin moving back to normalization. A huge loss throughout the pandemic has been the suspension of sports, clubs and collaborative groups.

“More people need to be back on campus more often,” White said. “There is no community, at this point. Sports would be a good place to start.”

In the absence of any national consensus as to the right way to handle the virus, districts will continue to persevere on an individual basis. 

“It’s really sad that everybody across the country is experimenting with something different because nobody knows,” Mills said. “There are all these different areas and regions that are trying things totally different, which sounds a little too carefree.”

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