Some of the main symptoms of COVID-19 – cough, fatigue, headaches, and sore throats – can be easily mistaken for allergies or a cold, making it difficult for someone to tell whether or not they are experiencing symptoms… especially high school students who are consumed with stress and busy lives. While there may be a symptom check to fill out before our classes, students may be tempted to ignore their sore throat or their headache in order to attend their important quiz.
“I know corona is a much bigger deal, but I remember the freshman year I got super sick and my parents still wanted me to go to school for three days in order to avoid getting behind,” said junior Willa Melander, “Later, I found out I had the flu. It’s not just our consciousness of symptoms, but some parents might not even let the kids stay home if they are behind… or we may not let ourselves.”
In addition to overlooking symptoms, it is important to recognize just how many people we will be coming in contact with when we return to school. “You can not have human beings crisscrossing the school, crisscrossing the community, crisscrossing the campus, interacting with each other in ways that are not predictable, or measurable, and contact trace at the same time,” said one Clayton High School teacher. For our article, we interviewed multiple teachers who agreed to speak to us on the condition of anonymity.
Students may also not be aware of the requirements for safety coming back to school. We have not received any information about how we will safely travel through the halls or use the restroom throughout the day. What are the guidelines for students? What are the consequences of not following the guidelines? Our inboxes are constantly flooded with emails regarding school, and it is very likely that students are missing important information. In addition, email is not the best tool to communicate with students.
“It doesn’t make sense if that’s not your primary form of communication. We blast out an email, let’s just say hypothetically this Friday, of the expectations of the return to learning in classrooms, how do we know that you read it?” a CHS teacher said.
If we, the students, do not pay close attention to guidelines set by the district, the cases will continue to spread. While colleges are also allowed to monitor student behavior, public schools are not. Schools such as Washington University are able to frequently test their students for the virus. They are also able to put restrictions on student activities. For example, there can only be a certain amount of students in an area and they all have to be wearing masks. While public schools like CHS can try to regulate during school hours, they have no control after the student leaves the building. We need to pay close attention to the rules and regulations or our school environment could become less safe.
The School District of Clayton has tried to make equity a fundamental focus over the past five years and has reiterated this commitment in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this summer. But being committed to racial justice doesn’t just mean diversity training. It means taking it into account when major decisions like these are made. When students have to choose between learning at home or in-school instruction, how can this be equitable when a teacher has to split their time between in-person students and Zoom students? Students of color are also disproportionately represented in the learn at homegroup. Considering that COVID has disproportionately hit families of color – the CDC estimates that hospitalization and death rates for Black populations are 2.6 times higher than white populations – does it seem equitable to ask a student to learn in person and put their family at risk?
Many students do want to return to the building because they fear missing out on social interactions and quality learning. However, we cannot go back to our old ways. It is simply not possible while adhering to safety guidelines. Despite our best wishes, the pandemic is far from over, and returning to school will only exacerbate the issue. And for students who do need academic support, small groups of students are currently being allowed to come into the building to work. Recently, the number of students who have elected to Learn at Home has just increased to 213 students. About 25% of our students have already made the choice to mitigate the risk — we ask the administration and the Board to take the “choice” out of mitigating risk for the rest of the student body.
We have also just established our online school routines. We have completed virtual learning for the first quarter, and we will continue for part of the second quarter. Interrupting the rhythm we’ve only just settled into may cause even more stress and confusion for the CHS community.
“I think you’ll have some students who are benefited by returning to school. At the same time, I think you’ll have other students that the additional disruption will be a detriment to them,” said another CHS teacher. “I think at this point we have gotten into a little bit of a routine with learning online. You know, in the middle of a semester, of a quarter, it is a little disruptive for the students and for the staff.”
Students also feel as though the adjustment period will never end if case counts rise and school shuts down again.
“This is a whole new adjustment. By the time we are adjusted to school, we have Thanksgiving and then we come back, and we may get sent home again due to high cases,” said junior Maya Goldwasser.
CHS freshmen are also feeling uneasy about the adjustment. Due to COVID-19, the freshman class has not experienced in-person high school yet. They haven’t had a chance to adjust to moving from classroom to classroom, or to high school in general.
“Especially from the perspective as a freshman, I not only have to adjust to in-person COVID school, I have to adjust to in-person high school for the first time. I’m also starting high school sports for the first time which is another huge adjustment,” said freshman Alex Cohen. “Particularly with my personality, someone who takes a while to adjust to changes in routine, I’m worried this will be a lot of stress for nothing if we are sent home quickly.”
When the district announced the start of hybrid learning on Nov. 9, some teachers panicked. Teaching simultaneously to students in a classroom as well as students on Zoom is extremely challenging.
A significant reason for the push for in-person learning is the idea that students will have higher quality and more instructional time. But there is no guarantee that that will be the case. Teachers would need to be teaching students in the classroom and through Zoom, meaning they would need to be attentive to two different groups of people. High-quality learning can only be considered high quality if that quality is maintained for every student.
“I can tell you that ten days ago when this plan was presented to us as teachers, albeit across Zoom, the level of anxiety and fear and anger was palpable,” said a CHS teacher. “I would imagine that if adults come back into a classroom space with the students, a lot of that anxiety is going to follow into the room with them. Then to ask them to do their job at a very high level given that emotional state [is] certainly not fair.”
Clayton administrators have been known to treat teachers well and be there to support them throughout their careers. While we haven’t talked to every CHS teacher, the ones we had the opportunity to speak with discussed significant concerns with returning to in-person learning. The Board of Education needs to address these concerns and listen to CHS teachers.
During the Oct. 21st Board of Education meeting, member Amy Rubin said, “We have super high-quality teachers, and I would love to get some follow up on some of the specifics on how we are supporting them.”
We appreciate that the Board wants to support teachers, so it is important that they understand that many teachers are uncomfortable returning to in-person learning with increasingly high rates of transmission in higher schoolers. Additionally, many CHS teachers have lost family members and loved ones during the course of the pandemic — the level of anxiety is high.
“Why as a teacher am I expected to make, really, a sacrifice in respect to interacting with my family, for higher quality instructional minutes that you cannot empirically demonstrate that actually exist in the first place?” said a CHS teacher.
Another point to consider is that we are heading back to school on Nov. 9, only about two weeks before Thanksgiving break. How many people are going to be visiting extended family members during this time? How many people will be traveling? How many people will be exposing themselves without even knowing it? Colleges all across the United States have decided to end their semester before Thanksgiving, sending students home right before Thanksgiving and not bringing them back until after the holidays. Why are we doing the opposite?
The facts must be taken into account. Missouri is experiencing high positivity rates, meaning more and more people are testing positive every day. As of Oct. 26, Missouri has averaged 1,869 new confirmed cases a day over the last week. We just had our 7-day positivity rate spike at 21.1% on Oct. 20. Of everyone tested in Missouri, 21.1% were COVID-19 positive, the highest rate so far in Missouri. At what point are the number of cases too high for us to return? We have more cases now than we did when we started in remote learning at the beginning of the school year.
“In order to be in that lower risk, we wanted to be between three and five [percent positivity rate], and the moderate risk is between 5 and 8 [percent positivity rate],” said Dr. Sean Doherty, Superintendent of the School District of Clayton, during the Board of Education meeting on Oct. 21. “Now, again, we are seeing throughout the county that it has changed; it has changed significantly even over the last couple days and now is beyond the moderate risk and actually is in a higher risk as of today.”
As of that board meeting, the positivity rate presented by Doherty was 8.60% for the county.
“One thing that I have wondered about for a long time has been what is our school district’s threshold for making a decision about whether we are going to be in person or learning remotely?” a CHS teacher said.
Currently, students and teachers are struggling with a lack of information. How will the district ensure we stay safe? How will teachers continue to provide the best education possible if we have fewer instructional minutes?
“What is guiding the decision-making process at this point? Is it data? Because if it’s data, why has MRH, Maplewood Richmond Heights called it for the year? Why has the Hazelwood District called it for the year? What other districts have called it for the year? Are we all looking at different data sets? Hard to believe,” said a CHS teacher.
Again, we have time to make the right choice. We, the Globe editorial leadership team, ask the administration to please do so.
The Globe Editorial Leadership Team
[Note: an earlier version of this story noted that 225 students at Clayton High School have selected learn from home, that number is 213 as of Oct. 28]