Milford High School, in Massachusetts, developed detailed return-to-school plans and safety procedures in preparation for this school year. School administrators proactively communicated to students and families about what returning to classrooms would look like. But even the best laid plans can go awry if students flouted rules and protocols.
Jen Brown, an English teacher at Milford, had this concern as the school year approached. “Leading up to the beginning of school, my anxiety was hyping up the closer we got,” she recalled. “This was not because the administration wasn’t giving us tools or asking us questions. Everyone was doing the best that we could. It was such an unknown situation, so I immediately started to worry. The biggest thing was the whole X factor of the students. How are students going to buy in?”
Despite these concerns, Milford opened its doors for in-person instruction with a hybrid model on September 10.
We understand how severe the pandemic is. People just don’t give teenagers enough credit.
Anastasia Achiaa, senior at Uxbridge High School
As it turns out, Milford and other schools that physically reopened with safety measures in place found that students exceeded expectations when it came to compliance. That’s due in part to the fact that students wanted to be physically back in school, and they understand that failing to comply with rules could mean getting sent back home for remote instruction.
The Parabola Project, a cross-sector initiative between Ariadne Labs and The Learning Accelerator, has been collaborating with schools that have reopened and documenting how they are minimizing health risks while maximizing learning. Here is what we have learned.
Students follow safety rules in order to stay in school.
When schools closed abruptly in the spring as the virus spread across the country, the poor experience students had with remote learning made them want to be back in person. “I was really looking forward to being back in the building,” said Drew Gauthier, a senior at Uxbridge High School in Massachusetts. “Last spring, there wasn’t much of a plan for online learning. It’s gotten better now, but being online just isn’t the same as in person.”
Uxbridge reopened its doors on September 17. Even with drastic safety modifications, and without the usual prep rallies and dances, students say they are glad to be back. And they understand that to keep it this way, they have to follow measures including wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.
“Many of us understand that going to school is a privilege that could be easily taken away if we don’t adhere to these safety measures,” fellow Uxbridge senior Anastasia Achiaa explained. “We understand how severe the pandemic is. People just don’t give teenagers enough credit.”
Some schools have built-in mask breaks so students can take their masks off while maintaining a safe distance. Milford and Uxbridge schedule these breaks in between classes, which take place outdoors or in designated indoor areas, depending on the weather. Some students have gotten used to wearing masks and would rather stay inside. “The more you wear them, you get used to the masks,” Achiaa said. “I feel more uncomfortable not using them. When we get masks breaks now, I just want to stay inside. They feel unnecessary.”
While Uxbridge has reported a few positive cases, there is no evidence of wider spread in school.
Brown, the Milford High teacher, said she and her colleagues were pleasantly surprised to discover that students were buying in and following the rules. Most students, she noted, respond quickly to reminders when a mask slips, or they get a bit too close in the hallways. That offers some relief to teachers who do have lingering fears about contracting the virus and being more at-risk of falling ill.
“I think kids are grateful to be back,” said Nick Molinari, Milford’s school librarian and the district’s union president. “Everyone hates the remote day … Kids really want to be here [in school] so kids are invested too.”
Students at Milford High School take a mask break outside while maintaining physical distance. Photo from a video provided by Christine Ravesi-Weinstein.
Caption: Students at Milford High School take a mask break outside while maintaining physical distance. Photo from a video provided by Christine Ravesi-Weinstein
Non-compliance is dealt with—swiftly.
Serious breaches have been stamped out quickly.
Milford High’s principal Josh Otlin recounted that when a student was messing around and not wearing a mask, she was immediately pulled into the principal’s office and sent home. “We are not messing around,” Otlin explained. “We have to do this to make sure teachers feel like they are safe and supported and students are wearing their masks. If teachers don’t believe students are wearing masks, I lose all credibility with them.”
“I’m not running Saturday school or after school detention,” he added. “If you can’t do this, you can’t be here.”
Since school reopened, Otlin said there have only been a handful of instances where they disciplined students for not complying with safety expectations. Only one student has elected to stay home after being disciplined. (Milford offers a fully remote option, so students can still receive instruction virtually).
“We’ve talked a tough game, walked the talk a few times, and I think the students and families know that noncompliance is just not an option,” Otlin said. “As far as I’m concerned, the rate of student non-compliance with our protocols has been extraordinarily low. I never expected such high rates of cooperation. I thought we’d have at least some regular trouble, adolescents being adolescents!”
Uxbridge principal Mike Rubin said his staff has talked to seven students about infractions, but noted no serious violations have occurred.
Younger students adjust quickly to new procedures.
Teachers and staff were worried about whether students, particularly younger ones, would be able to follow new procedures like wearing a mask all day. They were not alone.
“You know how the adults in the media were convinced that kids would never be able to wear masks during the school day? We’ve had zero issues with kids in masks,” said Tori Jackson-Hines, executive director at Resurgence Hall Charter School. “You would think kids were wearing masks their whole lives. Masks are like shoes on their feet. It’s just something they wear.”
The school, serving students in grades K-3 in the metro Atlanta area, has not had a positive case among in-person students since it reopened in August. Before reopening, staff held a virtual orientation for families that included safety protocols students and family members were expected to follow..
Lynn Vasconcelos, a first-grade teacher at Wood Elementary School in Fairhaven, Mass., was also pleasantly surprised by how her younger students adapted to wearing masks and staying in a desk for most of the day. “Kids seem to be aware that this is a special year. Safety has been ingrained in a lot of them,” Vansconcelos observed.
Student at Resurgence Hall Charter School in Atlanta. (Source: Resurgence Hall instagram account)
Evidence and research is emerging that suggests schools are not the super-spreader sites that many once feared them to be. Still, with COVID-19 infections spiking again in communities across the country, many schools and districts that reopened have decided to close doors and return to remote instruction.
Milford Public Schools closed on November 23 for at least four weeks due to the surging positivity rate in the community. So far, no staff members have tested positive. Eleven students have, although there is no evidence of school-based transmission, according to Otlin. Three of them are doing fully remote instruction, and most of the rest were already in quarantine when they tested positive, suggesting they contracted the virus outside of school.
Worries over holiday gatherings contributing to community spread further raise concerns, even if schools have been safer places than most. There have also been cases where students who are positive have knowingly went to school.
But by and large, students have followed safety measures, and their adherence to protocols have allowed staff and students to resume in-person learning—even if temporarily—after a rocky experience with remote learning last spring.
For Monica Homer, a fourth grade teacher at Wood Elementary, there is no substitute for being physically present when it comes to building relationships with her students.“The longer we are back in person, the more comfortable I feel,” she said. “Seeing students in-person made me realize how much I missed kids.”