Rise of in-person learning provokes reassurance of safety at school



As students returned to in-person learning and the social distancing protocol was lowered from 6 feet to 3 feet, questions about student safety arose

The transition towards having students in-person five days a week has caused desks to be moved closer together, large groups to congregate in hallways and a growing sense of uncertainty to circulate throughout the community.

Despite the high school buildings becoming more crowded, local public health experts are certain that school remains a place of low-risk for transmission of COVID-19. David Gacioch, Co-Chair of Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety and Logistics, said the district is well equipped to bring more students in-person.

“It’s important to remember that this does not require perfect execution,” Gacioch said. “We’ve got multiple layers of mitigation in place here, which are all designed to backstop each other because none of them (are) ever going to be perfectly implemented.”

Several of these levels of mitigation will become increasingly important as strict social distancing becomes less of a priority. According to Gacioch, the minimum distance required between students in a classroom has been moved from six feet to three feet. Gacioch said that three feet was decided upon by public health experts because it is a benchmark number, but evidence does not support that the fluctuation of a few inches makes any drastic changes to the risk of transmission.

Assistant Head of School Hal Mason said that there was no circumstance where students would sit closer together than three feet in a classroom. He said that if a classroom is not capable of accommodating all the students it needs to, rooms and desks can be moved around so that everyone has a place to sit.

According to Pierce School Principal Lesley Ryan-Miller, the K-8 schools have had students in full-time since September of 2020, when kindergarteners were the only grade allowed in school. Beginning in March, an increasing amount of grades have been brought back five days a week. Gacioch said that the experiences at the elementary schools can serve as a lesson to the high school that while not everything has gone perfectly, students and staff are staying safe.

Ryan-Miller said she has struggled to work out traffic patterns in overcrowded hallways and help people understand the new distance guidelines are still safe.

“We’ve been screaming six feet for a long time, not just at school, but in the grocery store. When you go out, you hear six feet. When it changes to three feet, it’s a mindset shift,” Ryan-Miller said.

Mason said that the biggest roadblock the high school faces is how difficult it can be for everyone to understand what is or is not going to put them at risk. Coordinator of School Health Services Patricia Laham said that although most people are excited to be back in school, everyone is feeling differently about this transition.

“It can be scary and it’s scarier for some than others. Respect people who do feel more nervous than you feel and know that we’re not all in the same place,” Laham said. “Be very respectful of each other in this climate.”

High school school nurse April Armstrong said being respectful of those around you includes adhering to safety protocols as much as possible.

“Kids are really excited to hang out again together and are needing some reminders about that. We can’t let our guard down because we don’t want to lose all the good work that we’ve done so far limiting spread in school,” Armstrong said.

Gacioch said the town has maintained a good track record in terms of low test positivity rates and minimizing the spread of the virus within schools.

“Just because we’re making this change [to three feet] does not mean everybody can relax and take their masks off,” Gacioch said. “This is a time that we all need to stay vigilant on the other aspects of COVID prevention, in order to keep that strong reputation track record and keep our community safe.”