OPINION: District’s COVID response wasn’t easy. But what comes next requires community.

On Tuesday, April 20th, East students, staff, and families received notice from the school that they would be entering a 10-day pause to in-person learning due to a significant increase in quarantined students and positive COVID test results.

It’s just one of the several sudden changes the community has had to go through this past year and a half.

To be certain, the pandemic and the district’s response to it has been nothing short of a challenge, perhaps the most challenging moment in the district’s history. The only thing more difficult than responding to this pandemic was the manner in which the district chose to do so. While some will look back at the district’s response as a relationship of successes and failures, the sudden shift from success to failure — sometimes on a weekly basis — became as difficult to deal with as the pandemic itself. 

Ultimately and unfortunately, frustrations that have come from some decisions within the district have created a pandemic of backbiting, turning once trusting parents and dutiful administrators against each other when they’ve always had the same goal of safety for the school. 

The school year started entirely in remote. The once four walled classrooms turned into laptop screens, and peers turned into little rectangles and computer icons. About two thirds into the school year, students were slowly allowed back into the building — albeit while following COVID restrictions. Students were split into different groups: A, B, and C. A and B students would come in on their respective assigned days for the second half of the day, while C students remained in the virtual classroom setting. Class schedules were flipped every other day to accommodate for A and B students being able to attend all of their classes. Eventually, A and B joined together and in-person students were allowed to be in the building for all eight periods. This gave way to the D group: in-person students who needed district-provided transportation. All the while, C students continued to learn and attend classes from home. 

It’s clear that such significant changes in schedule and pacing in such a short span of time would feel hectic and unorganized, regardless of how much planning went into them. Oftentimes, plans only lasted for a couple of weeks to serve as “transition plans” before switching to a new one.

Just as students started to feel comfortable and settle into a routine, they were already moving on to a different one. It was like they were never really able to find their footing. Transitions are usually supposed to help ease tensions and help students, staff, and families feel more secure, but the “transition plans” this year have often only done the opposite. 

To say the least, all the plans had a lot of moving parts and became confusing for students and teachers alike.

For Honors Anatomy and Physiology and Chemistry teacher Robyn Mellas, moving through so many different schedules — with each individual plan posing it’s own unique challenges — made it more difficult to stay organized.

“I found it difficult as a teacher to keep track of who I was going to see and when. The flipped schedule thing, although I understood the point, was a headache,” Mellas said. “The only positive that I took from that was being able to see my 8th period class at the beginning of the day instead of after they were burned out at the end of the day.”

There have been at least four different plans throughout the year, most of which were introduced during the second semester. The biggest change the entire school has faced with these new schedules is the shortened class periods. 

It initially seemed like a blessing in disguise — shorter classes means a shorter school day. However, the grass isn’t always greener and both students and staff are starting to see the consequences of the shortened periods. 

Traditionally, during a non-COVID year, classes would run for 48 minutes with six-minute passing periods in between. Now, teachers are forced to adjust their curriculums to fit all necessary material into 35-minute periods to limit person-to-person contact. 

For sophomore Alisha Khan, adjusting to the shorter periods and new schedules didn’t come easy. 

“I thought it was going to be easier to do school online, but as the year went on it just got harder and harder,” Khan said. “There have been some upsides, but none that make up for the difficulties.”

While some students may have thought that online learning was going to be easier, it actually created a new set of challenges for those students including the lack of opportunities for hands-on learning, inability to collaborate in groups, and lack of direct accessibility to teachers for help. 

This type of adversity that students have never experienced before ultimately encouraged the general lack of motivation felt amongst students and teachers alike. With no teachers to truly hold remote students accountable and no peers to help motivate students in such a difficult time, it’s no surprise that students were dragging their feet to complete their work. 

It’s hard to ignore the fact that these issues were never prominent during a non-COVID year when all students were in person for the full 48-minute classes. There’s something to be said for sticking to traditional classes and what one knows. 

Not only would attending 48-minute periods be beneficial to maintain some sense of normalcy for students and teachers, but it would also aid in a higher motivation level and retention of material. 

It’s not even like full class periods aren’t an option to structure the school day during this COVID year. If according to the school you can be infected within 15 minutes of being less than six feet near someone positive, why not just run the full 48-minute classes? In either case, you’re going to be deemed infected and have to quarantine, so why force more change on students and teachers than they need to deal with?

That excessive change is exactly why students like Khan have chosen to spend the entirety of the year in remote. In a time when it’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed, staying in a single plan for the whole year offers some sense of balance, even if it means losing out on educational opportunities: a loss many students were willing to take.

For a while, students were able to find their footing and settle into a new normal, half the class in person and half the class in remote — that is, until the sudden 10-day pause was announced and all students were required to attend class virtually. Now, many continue to stay in remote despite the pause having ended in fear of being contact traced and missing out on special activities (like seniors being unable to attend graduation) or of catching the virus themselves.

For many spring sport athletes who have faced drastic changes to their already shortened seasons, time is of the essence and the risk of losing valuable practices and games to quarantine is not one that’s worth taking.

Many athletes have already lost out on several opportunities over the past year and a half due to the pandemic, either missing out on entire seasons or facing significant changes to them.

Senior Megan Leonard, who has played both basketball and softball at East, considers even having just a shortened basketball season a blessing of sorts and said that athletes have been following as many precautions as possible to maximize opportunities to play.

“Everybody’s just sticking with their group of people and they aren’t taking any risks since nobody wants to lose their season. Everybody’s been staying really safe, masks have been on during practices, we’re social distancing. So we’re following all the guidelines to make sure we can play,” Leonard said.

Seeing as how the outbreak likely stemmed from athletics itself, it’s questionable that sports weren’t given more attention as to how they’d play out during and after the 10-day pause.

East’s Athletic Director Tony Millard says that teachers, coaches, and students have been diligent in staying safe. Yet, if students and administrators insist that COVID precautions are being followed, then why was there such an increase in positive tests in the department?

The likely explanation is that people hadn’t been following precautions as closely as they say they are — not all, but enough students and staff members to cause a shut down of in person activities.

In a time when it’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed, staying in a single plan for the whole year offers some sense of balance, even if it means losing out on educational opportunities: a loss many students were willing to take.

A significant amount of students have commented that precautions, such as mark wearing, have not been as strongly enforced as they should be. Even some teachers have noticed their colleagues easing up on enforcing restrictions.

It’s not necessarily out on the fields — it’s in the building too. There have been reports of students not being required to wear masks properly in the weight room. Students can be seen huddling up and gathering in large groups in the hallways, oftentimes wearing their masks incorrectly or not at all. There have been a handful of times when such students can be seen called out by their peers or by athletic training staff for their inability to follow restrictions, but there’s no way to know how many of these incidents have gone unnoticed or uncorrected.

Sources within the high school’s administrative office could not be reached for comment.

Based on what has been seen and heard around the school, it’s really more of a disappointment than a surprise that there was an increase in cases that resulted in the 10-day pause. Initially, all in person activities were shut down, including all athletics. However, only around a day later, that decision was reversed and varsity athletes were allowed to play again during the pause.

It’s hard to ignore just how quickly this decision turned around. 

According to Millard, many of the decisions made regarding COVID thus far have been spur of the moment and administrators have gone back to investigate after releasing an initial decision.

“… After we sent out [the email] that we were going to go on a pause, the next 24 hours gave us [administrators] a lot of time to have conversations about how we move forward,” Millard said.

You’d think those conversations were supposed to be had prior to sending out a mass email to the entire community.

This incident alone is just one of many emphasizing the lack of deliberate decision making on East’s administrative side. The community has been through enough change this last year and a half. The last thing the school needs is the administration investigating consequences to their decisions after the decisions have already been made. 

While it’s understandable that there are a lot of factors going into COVID-related decision making, decisions simply cannot be made haphazardly and on a whim. 

Not to mention, it doesn’t look good on the school’s part either. The sudden change of plans from pausing all athletics to allowing varsity to play during the break almost forces community members to speculate about what’s going on behind the scenes, even if there’s nothing going on at all.

It’s like the school is setting itself up for failure in these situations. These spur of the moment decisions barely ease community members, and especially for those who are already on edge, it pushes them past the tipping point and encourages community gossip and rumors. Fortunately, the vast majority of the community isn’t acting on speculation. But a very vocal minority is and always has been. After almost a year and a half of living with COVID-19 and the changes it has thrust upon education, many have lost their tolerance for change and aren’t willing to put up with it as easily.

While it isn’t necessarily the school’s responsibility to heed to the community’s every word, it unfortunately is a system they have to indirectly operate within. Making more deliberate and planned decisions that last for longer periods of time not only eases community members’ minds but also reduces the amount of backlash the school has to face later on.

Athletics isn’t the only place where tensions between the community and school’s staff have been running high. Following the announcement of the pause, families have been speculating about what’s been going on in classrooms too.

It’s no surprise that the drastic shift to virtual learning has significantly altered what teaching and learning looked like this year. Even after students were allowed to return to the building through the in person plan, several COVID restrictions were still in place, limiting the activities and opportunities students would’ve normally had access to.

The community has been through enough change this last year and a half. The last thing the school needs is the administration investigating consequences to their decisions after the decisions have already been made.

Such restrictions include, but are not limited to: desks being spaced six feet apart, mask wearing, limited group contact and hands on activities, taped off hallways, predetermined routes through the building, no socialization in hallways, limited spaces in bathrooms, and closed off water fountains (save for a couple of water bottle filling stations).

But just because these restrictions are in place, doesn’t guarantee that they’re being followed.

While the school itself has acknowledged that social distancing isn’t 100% guaranteed, students and staff haven’t been doing everything they can to get as close as possible to complete safety.

In an ideal world, students would never remove masks unless necessary and desks would be exactly six feet apart at all times. Unfortunately, however, that hasn’t been the case.

In most classrooms, desks are definitely not the full six feet apart, often seeming to be around only three or four feet away from each other. Obviously, the school can’t make structural changes to a classroom or extend walls to ensure that all desks are six feet apart. But in such a case, you also wouldn’t insist that so many students can be allowed into the classroom. When it’s clear that you won’t be able to accommodate as many students as you once thought possible, why even offer the option in the first place?

It’s understandable to want to bring as many students back into classrooms as possible, but it’s just not fair to assure families that precautions are being taken when in reality, they aren’t.

If the administration knew that maintaining social distancing wasn’t possible and that student safety wouldn’t be guaranteed in this aspect, they might as well have just stuck to the A and B student groups to reduce the number of students in the classroom at a single time. It would’ve saved the school from yet another schedule change too.

It’s not just desks where maintaining social distancing has been an issue. Students aren’t supposed to gather in large groups in the hallways, but it’s still very common to see clusters of students around the building or a herd of them rushing down the hallways after eighth period, eager to see their friends or go home.

It’s up to both students and staff to enforce COVID regulations. Students can’t keep relying on teachers and administrative staff to correct them or remind them of regulations they already know are in place. They’ve been at this for far too long to be ignorant of the rules that have been created for their own safety. Only when the district — administrators, teachers, students, and even parents — is all able to pull its own weight will everyone be able to work together to keep each other accountable and make progress.

That idea of togetherness is crucial in determining what next steps are going to be taken as a community. As this school year comes to a close, there’s a lot that we’ll be weighing on our minds over the summer in terms of what the year has been like and how next year may differ. Hopefully, those reflections will include the dynamic between school staff and families.

This year, more than previous years, there has been an influx of emails, calls, and social media posts vividly outlining complaints about what school has looked like for students and their families. It hasn’t been uncommon for community members to criticize decisions in a non-constructive way or even imply that school staff simply don’t care for students and their wellbeing.

As important as it is for administrators to reflect on the past year’s rules, regulations, and outcomes, it is equally important for community members to reflect on how much work staff have put in to make this year as successful as it was — even if it didn’t always feel that way.

Only when the district — administrators, teachers, students, and even parents — is able to pull its own weight will everyone be able to work together to keep each other accountable and make progress.

AP Spanish Language and Honors Spanish 3 teacher Fatima Lopez-Villarino doubles as a parent in the East community. She’s been able to observe both sides of the situation, and admits that while she isn’t happy with all the changes that have been made, she understands the need for them and trusts administrators to make the right call.

“As a community, I think we need to try to understand that whoever is running schools, buildings, our classrooms is not coming from a place of being selfish or not doing the best for the kids. It’s just that there are so many limitations to what they can do,” Lopez-Villarino said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the decisions they’re having to make are not decisions that people like.”

This year hasn’t been easy for any of us: not for students, who have had face drastic cuts to their image of the high school experience; not for teachers, who have had to completely revamp their teaching styles and methods to accommodate for so many changes; not for administrators, who have been consistently backed into corners by state guidelines and community members alike; and not for family members, who have often had to deal with the fallout of decisions that were out of their hands.

But despite having been through so much, none of us should be turning on each other. The lack of sympathy and capacity for understanding is simply inexcusable. It’s fine to want change and to disapprove of certain decisions, but unless those sentiments come from a place of collaboration and communication rather than anger and frustration, they do more harm than good.

In these difficult times, it can be very easy and very tempting to lash out at each other. At a certain point, we eventually run out of patience and tolerance. Only when we’re able to control and hold back such impulses, however, will we be able to overcome the challenges that we face.

And the only way we can do so moving forward is together.

Samantha Anderson & Sriya Veeramachaneni are columnists for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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