Great Debate: Should BHS switch to an all-virtual or half day schedule?
January 28, 2022
With the rise of the Omicron variant, some members of the BHS community have felt the current in-person/full day schedule is no longer the best course of action. In the following articles, two students discuss the best alternatives, arguing Bernards should go all virtual, or switch to a half-day schedule instead.
September marked the first time BHS had a completely in-person student body since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Students and staff alike were elated to finally return to a semblance of normalcy, leaving behind zoom calls in favor of classroom learning.
However, since the omicron variant has been sweeping the nation, and Somerset County has seen a significant rise in positive COVID cases, many staff and students have grown more concerned about the safety of school remaining fully in-person.
Students are only able to attend class virtually when symptomatic, and permitted to return to school once a negative test is provided. However, this process negates that many infected students are asymptomatic, and some even attend school while waiting on results.
Multiple times throughout the day a student may unknowingly expose other students to the virus, especially during higher risk activities such as gym with students in close contact, or lunch when students are without masks.
Even in class, proper social distancing can not always be implemented due to crowded classrooms, such as science classrooms where desks can not be spaced out. Nor are social distancing measures adhered to throughout the day, especially in periods such as physical education and study hall, where students feel more comfortable approaching their friends.
With the addition of many students failing to properly wear their masks in such periods, the conditions a completely in-person student body creates is not cohesive with a COVID-safe environment.
Superintendent Dr. Dempsey said, , “The number of cases last week (January 3-7) were significant, but the local health officers did not lead us to believe that we should close because of this.”
She acknowledged this health officer does believe transmission is occurring outside of school rather than in, “They always look at how infection spreads, and so far they have not seen evidence of transmission in school that should lead to closure.”
Despite this assessment, students understand the inherent risk of being in close proximity throughout the day with hundreds of their peers, many of whom may be COVID positive, whether contracted inside or out of the classroom.
At the time of this publication, BHS has 9 new positive COVID cases for the week of 1/17, and a total of 175 for the year. Prior to winter break, there had only been a reported 50 cases.
The only way to completely eliminate the risk of transmission is for students to simply not physically interact with one another. While the virus is reaching new heights, the safest thing for everyone is to limit in-person contact, until numbers are low enough to safely do so.
Virtual school means students wouldn’t have to remove masks for lunch in a crowded room, or feel unsafe when they must be within three feet of a peer due to overcrowding in classrooms.
Dr. Dempsey said, “The Board of Education establishes district goals every year, and this year one of these goals was to ‘prioritize full time in-person learning.’ We are trying to do that everyday.”
While this sentiment is important and appreciated, students may feel better protected had the Board of Education vowed to prioritize reducing the spread of COVID instead.
By providing students with alternatives, and not mandating that all students are in person while the pandemic spikes, students’ fears may be put at ease.
In addition to the potential risk students and their families are facing, teachers are currently struggling more than ever. Teachers are bearing the responsibility of balancing teaching both students in-school and out, with sometimes multiple students in quarantine.
BHS is also suffering from staff shortages, meaning teachers are losing their free periods to fill in for absent teachers, when they are already busier than ever.
Due to policy relating to quarantining when displaying symptoms, teachers are out of school more often. Some teachers must also be absent due to their own children being exposed to the virus at schools and daycares.
This worsens the problem of staff shortages and the lack of substitutes, as well as leaving students lacking valuable instruction.
It is no exaggeration to say throughout the pandemic teachers have been incredible, constantly adapting and even putting themselves at risk to educate their students. But teachers can only do so much, and when they are required to quarantine, they must scramble to alter their plans for the week so that the students can still learn while they are gone.
However, despite their best efforts, nothing can replace receiving instruction directly from a teacher. This problem has a solution, going virtual would allow BHS staff to continue instruction even while quarantined, ensuring students are not suffering from any learning loss while their teachers are not in the classroom.
It is important to recognize that Dr. Dempsey noted the school has “only been able to move to remote instruction if we have been advised to do so by the local health department.”
So while administration can not be blamed for the inability to provide alternate learning options for students, and it is clear there are no easy solutions to this problem, going all-virtual temporarily is the best resolution at this tumultuous time for the betterment of staff and students health, safety, and capability to learn and teach.
Bernards High School has remained in-person for all school days this year (despite one virtual day on December 23rd), but recently, due to the introduction of the Omicron variant, there has been a significant rise in positive COVID-19 cases.
Omicron has caused a surge in cases because, according to Scientific American, “the variant has shown that it can reinfect people who already caught and survived earlier versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as people who have been vaccinated against it.”
A team led by virologist Alex Sigal have found that “reflects people who already got the virus” and “that more than 35,000 SARS-COV-2 reinfections had occurred in South Africa among 2.8 million people who tested positive for SARS-COV-2 within the past three months.”
With the new omicron variant spreading throughout the country, many schools across Somerset County reformatted their schedules as students and staff returned to school following winter break. Given the widely-believed learning loss that students suffer from going all-virtual the decision for many districts to follow a half day schedule to eliminate the spread of COVID-19 still gives students and staff the best chance of learning new material, along with properly following social distancing by eliminating the unmasked contact during lunch periods. Bernards High School should switch to a half day schedule in order to navigate the omicron surge.
Bordering towns and high schools such as Bridgewater-Raritan Regional, went virtual on January 3 following winter break, then following an early dismissal schedule (with no lunch) from January 4-7. Hillsborough High School elected to go virtual from January 3-7, and Somerville High School was virtual through January 14.
The exposure of COVID throughout the high school has grown exponentially. In the week returning from winter break, over 50 cases were reported in one week vs a total of 50 cases since September, according to the COVID-19 dashboard on www.SHSD.org. Scientists have also found that the “transmissibility reflects the virus’s ability to replicate in human cells and move from person to person.” Although Bernards High School has done its best to maintain appropriate social distance, the Omicron variant has proven to be contagious amongst students and staff alike.
With positive cases on the rise and teachers being forced to quarantine or miss school due personal illness or family exposure, an additional challenge the school has faced has been staff shortages. Staff and administration face an increased loss of free periods to fill in for absent teachers, setting back their individual time to catch up on grades and lesson planning.
As 2020 sent us into a worldwide pandemic and saw a good portion of Bernards High Schools 2020-2021 school year virtually, students and staff understand the difficulty of going all-virtual. The Somerset Hills School District has remained structured and organized while handling positive COVID-19 cases within the school, and continues to work to the best of their abilities in order to avoid a full school shutdown and move to all-virtual.
While a full virtual schedule is not the best option, if the district were to switch to a half day schedule, students and teachers would still have ample time to teach and learn in-person, which is most beneficial for students and staff.. With school days ending at 12:15 teachers would still be given 41 minutes to go over lesson plans as the 41 minute periods would be much similar to the old bell schedule Bernards High School used to follow, which ended the 2019-2020 school year. While it is clear that the full virtual option has many negative effects on the students and staff of BHS, the half day option seems like the best alternative during any surge period of Covid variants.