Precautions and worries after winter break

Two surveys show a majority were worried about COVID-19 after winter break.

Two surveys show a majority were worried about COVID-19 after winter break.

Students walked into their first period classroom, squirted hand sanitizer into their hands and grabbed a paper towel to wipe down their desks. The first day back from winter break is often an abrupt transition for many students, and this year, students were met with classrooms even emptier than usual.

Concern among students over the increase in COVID-19 cases around the winter break resulted in many students either permanently or temporarily switching to remote learning after the break. However, school safety measures have proven themselves effective so far and therefore have not been modified.

Before the break, Assistant Head of School Hal Mason noted that the high school’s existing precautions had been successful so far and his concern about COVID-19 cases did not increase after the winter break.

“We haven’t seen the rise that has been seen elsewhere around the country. In this community, we have remained pretty consistent with the numbers throughout the school year in terms of who’s getting exposed, how they’re getting exposed and spreading in school,” Mason said.

Despite the high school’s success with controlling the spread of cases, many students have either temporarily or permanently switched to remote learning after their safety concerns increased

“There was a little bit of a blip both right around Thanksgiving and right around Christmas where a few more people went into remote,” Mason said.

Freshman Hannah Oh switched to remote learning after winter break in light of COVID-19 cases rising in Brookline. Oh said her concern around COVID-19 cases at the high school significantly increased because of winter break.

“I was getting worried about my own health because I don’t want my family members to be in danger,” Oh said.

According to Oh, not as many community members were staying as safe over break as she was comfortable with.

“Many people were traveling and even though my friends were quarantining and following strict guidelines, I know some people are taking it less seriously and might not be following any guidelines,” Oh said.

Visual arts teacher Donna Sartanowicz also felt more apprehension about the virus’s presence at the high school after winter break.

“I’m concerned about the new strains of {COVID-19} that are supposedly more catching and virulent. My mom is elderly, and I need to be able to see her, so it does concern me that a lot of people apparently went away and had parties,” Sartanowicz said.

After the initial period following the break in which many students chose to stay home from school to limit their exposure to the virus, Mason said that more students decided to return to in-person learning.

“For the first time this year, I’m getting more people requesting to come back into hybrid than I am people requesting to go into remote,” Mason said.

The existing precautionary measures have not been challenged by this increase in students participating in hybrid learning.

“We’re still well within the six feet [guidelines] and the numbers in classes. Lunches in the auditorium and bathrooms have not been a problem, clusters of kids have not been a problem,” Mason said. “We have room for many more kids to come back to school and still remain well within the safety guidelines that we set up for this year.”

Dean of Old Lincoln School (OLS) Jenee Uttaro said that this shift towards hybrid learning has required multiple steps to ensure compliance with the health and safety protocols in place.

“We can’t have more than 11 students in a classroom here in OLS, and so that the process of going from remote to hybrid isn’t as quick as the process from going from hybrid to remote is,” Uttaro said. “We’re being very careful to think about what a student’s schedule looks like: how often they’re going, what their class size looks like, if they come in person and how that changes our space.”

Precautions taken in individual classrooms have stayed the same throughout the school year as well.

“In the United Arts building, our rooms are very large so it has been easy enough to separate kids,” Sartanowicz said. “I’ve had a paltry few students, so I haven’t felt the necessity to change anything.”

Uttaro said that fliers were displayed throughout OLS to remind students of the expectations for the hybrid model.

“We reinforced some of our rules about sanitizing our spaces like in the auditorium, where students have lunch or when they eat. We did some more messaging about spacing and halls and trying to keep the airflow circulating and keeping it moving, on what things look like in mask breaks and stuff like that,” Uttaro said.

Mason believes that the majority of community members in Brookline followed the safety guidelines in place and changed their routines to keep the community safe.

“Most people most of the time do the right thing and everybody’s concerned about the virus and what it’s like for the community. I think, ultimately, whereas people might be frustrated and want to return to some type of normality especially around the holidays, most people curtailed and changed their habits because they knew that they would be putting themselves and therefore their community at risk,” Mason said.

Overall, the high school has been able to proceed like normal after the break and did not face an unmanageable number of new cases.

“We were certainly concerned before that we might have large numbers of staff or kids who were either exposed or needed to quarantine or had [COVID-19] themselves, and it didn’t pan out despite people’s concern,” Mason said.