Omicron Variant Causes New Schoolwide Policies and Updates

A rise in Omicron cases has led to the implementation of new administrative protocols to ensure the safety of Stuyvesant teachers and students.

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By Ibtida Khurshed

As the Omicron variant causes COVID-19 cases to surge, Stuyvesant has implemented new policies and enforced existing ones to ensure the safety of students and staff members. In addition to daily health screenings and a mask mandate, students are encouraged to remain socially distanced when possible. Additionally, Stuyvesant distributed at-home test kits for the school community and implemented new quarantining policies.

Previously, students who tested positive for COVID-19 had to e-mail Director of Family Engagement Dina Ingram and Assistant Principal of Security, Health, and Physical Education Brian Moran of their case. They would then forward the information to the Situation Room, the Department of Education’s (DOE) response agency responsible for tracking positive COVID-19 cases and possible close contacts. Students who test positive are to quarantine for at least 10 days while students who are identified as close contacts are to get tested and can continue attending school if they are negative and asymptomatic.

Students are now to report positive results directly to a Google Form to make the tracking process more efficient. “This information assists us in getting cases reported to the DOE’s Situation Room in a more timely fashion, having an accurate quarantine list for teachers, counselors and the attendance office as well as get information to families on return dates in a timely manner,” Ingram said in an e-mail interview.

Because the Omicron variant is more contagious, Stuyvesant has seen a large spike in COVID-19 cases as students returned from winter break. A total of 416 positive cases were reported since the start of the new year as of January 14—about 2000 percent more than the number of cases reported before winter break.

To minimize the spread, students who are symptomatic are encouraged to stay home. “We want to stress to families that if a student does not feel well, stay home. Academics can wait and be made up. Do not come to school if you are not feeling well,” Ingram said. Close contacts who are asymptomatic or do not have a positive test result from a COVID test will now no longer have to quarantine and are permitted to attend school.

Stuyvesant has also distributed rapid at-home test kits with instruction sheets to all students. Students identified as close contacts or who are symptomatic are asked to take a test first and, if they test negative, to take another test five days later. Otherwise, test kits should be stored until they become necessary. “We plan to distribute these kits to students once per week. Staff also [receive] these kits once per week,” Ingram said.

The administration also canceled all in-person after-school activities with the exception of scheduled PSAL games without spectators and certain activities approved to hold meetings, such as Robotics and the Stuyvesant Theater Community (STC). “At this point, we allowed after-school activities that need to continue that are controlled environments with an advisor present to continue,” Ingram said. “We know how important [these activities] are to the student experience here at Stuyvesant. The administration will continue to monitor and bring back activities when it’s deemed safe.”

While PSAL sports team games and after-school practices are still permitted, some players are concerned about social distancing guidelines in a high-contact sport. “Already, we were taking precautions by masking, but there is only so much you can do when playing a high contact sport like basketball,” senior and boys’ basketball team captain Deven Maheshwari said in an e-mail interview.

The ban on spectators at sports games was disheartening for some, but understandable given the increase in COVID-19 cases. “I'm upset that we can’t have spectators. I love the energy that people bring and the crowd makes the games more enjoyable. However, I understand that the new policy was necessary to try to keep cases down,” senior and girls’ basketball team co-captain Paige Wolfing said in an e-mail interview.

Despite after-school activities cancellations, some clubs and organizations, such as STC, still remain active. “After returning from break, Dr. [Zachary] Berman, our faculty advisor, contacted Mr. Moran and Principal [Seung] Yu, and we were allowed to continue rehearsals given that we have constant faculty supervision,” senior and STC Executive Producer Ava Yap said.

Additionally, AIS tutoring after-school has resumed, with teachers, such as history teacher David Hanna, hosting tutoring sessions. However, he has been unable to meet with students as regularly and has taken several precautions to ensure safety. “I’ve only had a few tutoring sessions since the Omicron surge began. There was one after break when no students showed up,” Hanna said in an e-mail interview. “There was one large one that I moved to Lecture Hall A and made sure each student had an empty seat between them and the next student.”

History teacher Mordecai Moore added, “Because I’m not giving a final or a test in the next couple of weeks, the kids who are coming are coming for help on a project or something, so my numbers are lower than they normally would be.”

The administration has had to adapt to the constant changing of COVID-19 state protocols. “Personally, the biggest challenge I am facing is constantly having to adjust as new guidance and information comes in. We are trying to make the best decisions for Stuyvesant,” Moran said.

Moore acknowledges the rapid virus mutation impact on updating administrative policies. “It’s challenging for the administration because COVID is changing so quickly, through different mutations, and therefore both federal and city policy is changing, so I know the school is trying its best to keep up with proper health and safety procedures while maintaining a rigorous curriculum,” he said.“They’re doing the best they can, but I think it’s challenging because everything seems to be changing at the same time.”

Due to the rise in COVID cases, some students have decided to stay home to reduce their risk. “I did miss a few days of school because of the whole reason of not wanting to get COVID, but unfortunately still managed to get it somehow a few days ago,” junior Ria Escamilla said in an e-mail interview. “I am now missing 10 days of school (including a week of finals) because of quarantine guidelines.”

For those who tested positive for COVID, some expressed difficulty with schoolwork due to a lack of communication from teachers and administrators. “I got COVID two weeks ago and there was such little communication between me and the teachers. They wouldn’t answer my emails on time [and] we were all unclear about how remote learning was supposed to work for us,” an anonymous freshman said.

In response, many teachers made new adjustments due to an increase in student absences, such as hosting remote office hours for quarantined students to keep up with work. “I’ve been doing Zoom classes after school for students who are absent due to COVID and because I teach AP classes, I do more than the minimum because I really want kids who are in these AP classes to not really fall behind,” Moore said. “I end up doing three Zoom classes a week for an hour each.”

Though there is no remote learning option, some desire one, feeling that attending school in person is unsafe and that the limited remote options for quarantined students make it hard to catch up. “We should still return to remote learning, considering the number of people testing positive for COVID,” an anonymous sophomore said in an e-mail interview. “Going remote would make keeping up with classes easier for students who do test positive.”

However, Hanna preferred teaching in-person classes throughout the rest of the school year. “Returning to remote learning would be a major step backward,” he said. “It would have a seriously negative effect on morale across the board.”

Like Hanna, Escamilla expressed concerns about returning to remote learning. “I know a lot of students who do not like staying at home because of a toxic household or other problems at home. I also do know students who depend on the school for shelter and food so for that reason I wouldn’t really like schools to close,” she said.

At the same time, she acknowledged that a temporary remote learning option may be the most beneficial. “I am also concerned for immunocompromised students or family members and get that not everyone, including myself, feels safe going to school,” she said. “There should at least be an option for some students to learn that way, [so] the safest thing would [be] to [switch temporarily] to remote learning for people’s safety and health.”

With the increasing spread of the Omicron variant, both the faculty and student body hope for a return to normalcy. To keep the community safe, the administration urges continuing to follow policies set in place by the DOE and paying attention to updates. “Stuy students have done a great job of being safe by getting vaccinated, wearing masks, staying home when not feeling well, and reporting positive test results,” Moran said. “We ask that students remain patient while we modify activities. Our goal is to keep everyone safe and keep the school open.”