Op/Ed: An Analysis of the DHS response to Covid
The DHS dependency on "perfect" student behavior is a dangerously false assumption.
November 15, 2020
On September 28, after three weeks of hybrid learning, Darien High School returned to full in-person attendance. Despite surrounding towns already recording cases, including New Canaan, which quarantined nearly a dozen students within its first week, DHS brought 1400 students and staff back to school.
Upon returning to school, the DHS administration took various safety measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Hallways are one-way, students are required to wear masks, desks are spaced apart, and two auxiliary cafeterias have been opened to limit lunchtime contact. Before opening, DHS health protocols seem likely to combat Covid.
As of November 10, there are 340 Darien Public Schools community members in quarantine and 23 Darien school community members confirmed positive. Forty of those students were quarantined due to a single case. DHS administered fully remote learning on October 22 and November 5 and 10 for contact-tracing. The students quarantined, however, were only those who had been in recorded “close contact” within the school’s awareness, such as in inadequately spaced classrooms.
The school district’s advertised plan states that desks are spaced three feet apart, yet there a few classrooms large enough to accommodate this, and few teachers who actively uphold this spacing.
On October 25, Math Department Chair Felicia Bellows released a statement saying that Calculus 300 classes were so large that another section would have to be opened. One class had already been moved to a different classroom to hold its 25 students, but this room included more desks, not more space.
“For almost a month 25 kids were crammed into an unsuitably sized classroom,” said senior Eliza Spain, a student in the largest of the Calculus classes. “When we moved, were much closer together than before.” Student proximity during the class time due to the full in-person model is not only responsible for making hundreds of students feel unsafe but for the fact that so many students have been put into quarantine.
It is unsuitable in a school district attempting full in-person learning that just one positive Covid case removes upwards of 40 students from the classroom for two weeks. It is also irrational to assume that there are not additional students, who were not quarantined, who will spread the virus to others. Outside of the classroom, students continue to attend extracurriculars, athletic practices and games, and social events that the school is unaware of.
There are massive deficiencies in the effectiveness of contact tracing. It depends on two completely false assumptions: that the only place students interact with each other is at school and that students will self-isolate even if not required by the administration. As DHS remains on a full in-person learning model, cases will only continue to increase.
“It’s hard to completely isolate yourself, and I don’t think anyone is expecting people to do that anymore,” an anonymous student said following a visible surge in cases after Halloween. “Irresponsible students keep coming to school after being at high risk for Covid,” the student added.
Teachers and staff are not given the identity of the Covid-positive student. Yet, they are expected to work with the administration to ensure that all possibly infected students are notified and quarantined. Although this measure is intended to protect students’ privacy, it is completely illogical to assume that effective contact tracing can continue anonymously. Contact-tracing procedures also fail to account for student interactions at lunch, in the courtyard, and during mask-breaks.
If a student tests positive, the student that they sat with at lunch several days before has no way of knowing. In the case that they do know, the odds that the friend would admit to that contact and self-isolate are slim.
The most logical assumption is that students have selfish tendencies. They do not want to be quarantined. There are very few students who would willingly self-isolate. There are very few students who instinctively social distance, wear masks when unsupervised, or stay at home on weekends.
In an attempt to improve school safety within the administration’s control, DHS authorized Open-Ends for all students and Open-Campus privileges for seniors so that fewer students were in the building at any given time. However, students may not leave school during the second time-slot, even if they have a free period. Here, the administration’s logic completely trips over itself. If the advertised purpose of this year’s Open-Campus is to limit hallway congestion, ensuring that all students and teachers are in the building during the second time slot is counterproductive. Students with classes that period will inevitably, but avoidably, come into contact with students that had no reason to be in the building.
Similarly, students may not leave the building during their assigned lunch wave. To mitigate Covid spread, only half of the students in any given class eat in the cafeteria; the rest remain in the classroom. The students who remain in the classroom sit, masks off, for 30 minutes. Administration defines “close contact” with any student as within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more. Ideally, students are able to be seated six feet away from each other in class, but lop-sided cohorts make that not possible in some classes. By this logic, spending lunchtime in the classroom is forced close contact. If students, or at least seniors with parking privileges, were able to leave the school during their lunch wave, congestion in the cafeteria and classrooms, and time spent maskless around other students, would be greatly reduced.
In the main and auxiliary cafeterias, dozens of panes of plexiglass have been placed on tables to separate students. However, especially in poorly-ventilated freshman and sophomore auxiliary cafeterias, students simply slide their chairs around to the sides of the tables, remove their masks, and eat lunch completely unprotected from their peers.
Teachers and campus monitors are stationed throughout hallways for the sole purpose of telling kids to follow the one-way arrows. Although one-way hallways reduce congestion in any given place, it is irrational to make their enforcement a top priority. Asking a student to turn around, especially if they are already nearing their classroom, forces them to come into unnecessary contact with more students. Secondly, there is a lack of evidence proving that the one-way movement has any measurable effect on the spread of Covid. DHS faculty spend the majority of their time directing hallway traffic, yet they set a horrible example. It is just as frequent, if not more common, of a sight to see teachers ignoring the directional arrows in the hallways.
Despite efforts to enforce certain Covid policies, the administration remains blind to what is right before their eyes. The school has its priorities completely misaligned: there is a myriad of shortcomings, invalid assumptions, and dependencies of the school’s Covid plan, most blatant of which is the inadequate spacing between students in common spaces, unsupervised by staff.
Outside in the courtyard, under the cover of taking a school-sanctioned “mask-break,” students congregate in clusters with masks off daily. Inside, students who walk through the hallways or sit in class maskless are rarely reprimanded or disciplined.
“People who take their masks off and continue to gather in large groups are just irresponsible, selfish, and disrespectful to others,” said junior Giselle Winegar.
Outdoor lunch tables remain at a four-person capacity. Outdoor gym classes walk the cross-country trail or the track in massive groups without masks or any form of social distancing. The simple act of moving outside does not eradicate Covid. It does not make the spread impossible. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the advantage of being outdoors is that more space allows groups to spread out with greater ease. Holding outdoor P.E. barely mitigates the spread if social distancing is not enforced, which is a rare occurrence.
At face value, the DHS response to Covid seems flawless, but it depends on the community’s willingness to cooperate. While acknowledging limitations and liabilities that prevent a “perfect” response, the administration should be taking to adapt to the reality of the situation: firstly, observe students’ real behavior, not ideal behavior.
Student negligence is the biggest, and still completely unaddressed, flaw. Enforcing proper social-distancing and mask-wearing should be paramount.
As Covid cases in Connecticut are spiking quickly, safety at school will only continue to decline. DHS Vice Principal Mr. Mark Mazzone repeats often during morning announcements that the school’s Covid procedures ensure that we “stay safe and stay together.” But, DHS students are not safe: they have just been lucky.