Photo by Ella Dzialowski
As the head of the Centers for Disease Control warns of the “most difficult time” in U.S. public health history, the Upper School is preparing to resume in-person classes for most students for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country last spring.
One of the main inputs for the decision to return to campus in January was from a survey in which a majority of Greenhill families and students said they favored a return to campus over the current system of alternating weeks of in-person and remote classes.
Greenhill administration cited the social-emotional well-being of students as the driving force behind the move to shift to larger in-person classes.
“We have been hearing from families for whom the hybrid model hasn’t been working well, especially for students with mental health or SEL (social emotional learning) concerns,” Head of School Lee Hark said. “So we decided we would look into it and see where the community stands on it.”
The results of the survey sent to families in November indicated strong support for the resumption of broader in-person classes: of survey respondents, 59% of Upper School on-campus learners said they would like to return to campus while only 17% of the same group felt dissatisfied with the hybrid model.
The challenge for Greenhill is ensuring the safety of students and faculty at a time when COVID-19 infection rates and deaths are soaring across the country.
The new model would give all Upper School students the option of on-campus classes as opposed to the current system of alternating weeks. While Greenhill administration says safety precautions will be thorough, many students say they are concerned with the potential risks.
For some, the educational benefits outweigh the risks posed by an in-person model.
“When I am online I can barely focus and it’s much harder for me to learn,” senior Jessica Herlitz said. “I am aware of the risks, but I am hopeful that I can have the opportunity to complete my final semester at Greenhill in the classroom with my teachers.”
Junior Mia Ness says she is nervous about what this decision means for her safety.
“I think it’s beneficial for kids to have an -person education, but now is not the right time,” Ness said. “There is a reason we haven’t come to school with some people since before Spring Break. That’s what made us safe.”
While both Herlitz and Ness plan to attend in-person school in January, Ness doesn’t support the decision and would prefer maintaining the hybrid model.
“An increase of cases should create an increase in safety,” Ness said. “I definitely learn better in person, but I think the risks outweigh the benefits.”
On the survey sent to families, the question of safety risks was raised. Families were asked whether they “would be willing to alter some recommended health and safety guidelines” to make a full return to campus possible.
Some faculty members are also skeptical as to whether the changes can safely happen.
“The cases are rising, it is much worse than it has ever been, so why would we do this when numbers are worse and getting worse?” Upper School science teacher Kaleb Mathieu said. “Coming to campus directly after the winter break is not going to end well in terms of COVID transmission. If we look at what happened after Thanksgiving break, we were at one of the highest total cases so far according to the dashboard. Thankfully we were online for one week, which was helpful.”
Administrators disagree with the suggestion that the plan to return a majority of students to campus in January should be pushed back. But in an acknowledgment of the concerns and the risks of a spike in COVID-19 transmission as a result of holiday gatherings and travel, Hark announced on Dec. 15 a plan to replicate the remote learning week implemented following the Thanksgiving holiday.
“I know that the spread of COVID-19 in our community is still top of mind for all of us, and some of you have asked if we are planning to return to remote learning in early January,” Hark wrote in an email to families. “Any decision to engage in remote learning is one that the School makes carefully, weighing a number of factors from the impact on our working families to the possible spread of the virus after community members engage in holiday travel and spending time with others.”
Hark said the week of remote learning following the school’s Thanksgiving break had resulted in “a smooth, stable return to learning for our students and faculty.” The introduction of another week of remote learning coming out of the Winter Break was “an effort to reduce infection within our community,” Hark said.
Beyond the remote week, precise details of the plan to accommodate more Upper School students on campus in January have not been shared with faculty or families.
“We are thinking creatively about ways to accommodate additional students while still maintaining as much social distancing as possible,” Head of Upper School Trevor Worcester said in a November email sent to families announcing the decision.
Among the proposals under consideration: moving some classes to the nearby Greenhill Towers office building or to tents in the parking lot of the Marshall Family Performing Arts Center (MPAC).
But contact tracing of confirmed student cases thus far suggest the greatest risks lie outside the classroom.
“The two challenges are going to be in lunches and passing periods,” Worcester said. “Those are the points in the day that seem the most risky. With contact tracing that has been happening so far, those (lunches) are the spaces that create the most close contact.”
After families were surveyed, the administration culled through the data and reached the decision to move forward with in-person classes for all students wishing to return to campus. The decision was presented to faculty in a Zoom meeting after the surveys in mid-November.
“We were basically told the decision has been made, we can talk about our feelings but the decision has been made,” one anonymous Upper School faculty member said.
Evergreen Online reporters interviewed four faculty members for this story, including three Upper School faculty who said their views reflected the sentiments of a larger group of faculty. The faculty members did not want to be identified because they said they feared the consequences of publicly criticizing the administration policy.
After several faculty raised concerns about the November decision to return to campus, a survey was conducted, but it mainly focused on implementation of the policies.
The Upper School faculty members interviewed said they are frustrated because they feel that they don’t have as loud a voice as other members of the community did in the decision. Based on conversation and reaction during the mid- November Zoom call with administration, these faculty members say they believe their frustrations are widely shared.
“If we are truly a community where everybody is valued and truly part of the community, there needs to be more transparency in how decisions are made,” one faculty member said. “No matter the solution a better solution would be one in which the most people had a say.”
Worcester has a different view.
“The faculty is the one constituency that don’t have a lot of choice this year, they don’t have an option like a family does to opt to work from home,” said Worcester. “We understood that faculty are probably not going to be completely in favor of this decision, so is it disingenuous to survey them and then disregard their input.”
“Invest a lot of trust”
The model that is going to be implemented in the Upper School is similar to that of other private schools in the area, including St. Mark’s School of Texas, which has already carried out a return of students to campus.
Ness, whose brother attends St. Mark’s says she feels much safer in Greenhill’s hybrid model than her brother feels at his school.
“My brother has been tested at least three times [on the family’s initiative] just to be safe because there have been quite a few cases at St. Mark’s,” said Ness.
The broader in-person model the Upper School is set to adopt in January has been in use in the Middle School since Labor Day.
While the Middle School schedule and routines look much different than the Upper School, there are key similarities.
Like the Upper School, classrooms that are too large have had to expand into other spaces. Some classrooms have moved to the cafeteria. Others have students seated in the pods if all the desks don’t fit. And others still have outdoor classes with new outdoor seating, when the weather permits.
As of Dec. 7, the Middle School had reported 11 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases during the fall semester while the Upper School had reported nine. In recent days, the Upper School has experienced a surge in cases and as of Dec. 17, the Upper School had six lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases while the Middle School was shown as having none.
Earlier in the fall the Middle School implemented several off-campus quarantines. More recently, it has been the Upper School that has had to implement a number of quarantines.
The early fall perception of the Middle School having more confirmed cases led one Upper School faculty member to speculate that a cycle of quarantines is what awaits the Upper School in January.
“The Middle School has been in person full time and they have been doing much worse in terms of cases so I don’t understand why it makes sense to shift to that,” one Upper School faculty member said in November, before Thanksgiving break and a series of confirmed cases in the Upper School.
However, Middle School history teacher Kara Smith says she doesn’t think the higher number of cases is because of insufficient safety protocols.
“I do feel like our procedures are working,” said Smith. “As for what’s happening here, I know that we are doing everything we can. But for this to work you have to invest a lot of trust with everyone on campus—are they being safe?”
Although she is more comfortable now with the Middle School’s return of most students to campus, Smith says she would have felt differently only a few years ago.
“I do have to think that if something like this did happen to me two years ago, where I was a part time caretaker for a family member, I would be in a really difficult situation,” Smith said, “I would almost have to choose between my students and my job and my family, and that would be gut wrenching.”