By: Nell O’Hara and Isabel Thomas
Returning to in-person schooling from virtual learning this school year has proved to be an adjustment for everyone – students, teachers, and administrators alike.
Assistant Principal for Academics, Thomas Askey, described this transition time as a “sea of pudding and nothing feels firm or concrete.” This metaphor demonstrates the uncertainty felt amongst staff and students over the last few months.
Social Studies teacher Valerie Johnson remarked of the transition, “There was a lot of talk in education policy and district-level that we were going to come back very aware and empathetic to how everyone’s lives had changed and how scary this situation was and we were going to prioritize everyone’s health and safety, physical and mental. And then we returned, from my perspective, to the exact same expectations.”
There has been a large, district-wide focus on returning to normalcy for students, but as Johnson asserts, that focus has potentially compromised the well-being of students and staff. 12th grade visual artist Mikayla Truitt said, “I feel like schools are trying to go back to normal too fast. They’re acting like everything is the same, when really we’re all struggling.”
Meanwhile, the Baltimore City Public School System has directed many of its resources and efforts toward COVID-19 testing policies to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
The Maryland State Department of Education recommends that Maryland school districts consider using COVID-19 testing programs in schools per the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations, but it is not required. Baltimore City is one of the districts that has developed diagnostic testing programs for students and staff experiencing symptoms, as well as screening testing programs to identify positive cases before symptoms develop. These testing programs are required for students and, as of January 2022, for staff as well. Following protocol with Baltimore City high schools, The Baltimore School for the Arts uses PCR testing with saliva samples, capturing test results each Tuesday and Thursday.
Despite COVID-19 testing being mandatory, it becomes difficult to enforce when each student needs a consent form signed by a parent to participate in testing. Once someone actually tests positive, extensive paperwork and contact tracing is required, sometimes taking as long as the required quarantine period of a positive case to sort out.
The paperwork and logistical complications once testing is administered lead to a disconnect in the information being shared with students, parents, and teachers.
Johnson said, “There has been a real breakdown once test results are gathered. If I have students in my class who are positive, I don’t hear about it outside of having to submit a seating chart. Sometimes we’re not contacted at all.”
Askey, who manages a great deal of the logistics and communication around COVID-19 testing at BSA, addresses this gap in transparency. “The communication about testing can sometimes feel not as transparent as I want it to because I’m not sure if we are accurately capturing a positivity rate in the building because not everybody is testing.”
The good news is, many students are testing. Askey shared that in his recent collection of data, 77 percent of ninth graders at BSA are complying with COVID-19 testing requirements. When students had the option to test before returning to school after winter break, almost 40 percent of students participated on their own time. While a fuller picture requires more people to participate, BSA has a fair amount of encouraging engagement in testing.
BSA has a few advantages in regards to testing. First off, it is a comparatively smaller school, so capturing student tests and contact tracing involves much less hassle and complications. Secondly, students and staff, for the most part, do not appear resistant to testing. And thirdly, the testing policy at BSA, and district-wide, has been consistent and fairly accurate.
It is clear that since the spread of the Omicron variant of the virus, there have been changes regarding both policy and people’s feelings around the pandemic. While COVID-19 was a risk before the Omicron variant, many people became more stressed about contracting it during the surge of the variant. Especially near the beginning of the wave, no one knew how dangerous the variant was and how they could protect themselves from it.
Johnson said, “with something like an infectious disease, fear comes from what you don’t know, so not having any transparency in the information just perpetuates uncertainty and fear.”
While many policies stayed the same when the Omicron variant became a risk, one thing that did change was the requirement of staff to get tested weekly in January, and now February too.
This new policy is reassuring, but, like everything, has challenges that come with it. Being an arts school, BSA has a large number of part-time teachers. The district policy does not recognize part-time teachers’ schedules, and requires them to get tested weekly with all of the full-time teachers, no matter how inconveniencing it is.
“The difficult part is getting the district to recognize part-time teachers when doing mandatory staff testing,” said Askey.
It is difficult for the school to offer constant COVID-19 testing, but with this district policy, teachers are needing to get tested at various times on a variety of days.
Another challenge of this testing requirement is how the district counts sick days for teachers. Before winter break, whenever teachers contracted COVID-19, there was a chance they could have contracted it at school so they were granted permission leave. As a result, the district did not take teachers’ quarantine days out of their sick days.
However, the district treated quarantine days differently upon coming back from winter break.
Johnson said, “They [BCPSS] said, ‘Come in and get tested before you return to work after break, but if you test positive this time, you obviously didn’t get it at school because we were on break so you have to use your own sick time.’ So some people elected not to test at all.”
This policy put the health of both teachers and students at risk, potentially spreading the virus, despite efforts to prevent it.
An important thing students should be doing for the health and safety of both themselves and those around them is to get tested weekly. Having as many students test as possible allows the school to have concrete data of where the state pandemic is.
“The encouragement to get your classmates to test, that’s really what students can do,” said Askey.
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