“Such a Strange New Normal,” The Challenge of Changing U-32’s Covid Protocols

This article was written by Tegan O’Donnell who is a senior in the journalism class at U-32.

 

One Monday in September, Alyce Bradshaw, a U-32 sophomore, participated in surveillance testing at U-32. Around 9 am she left class and made her way to a table in the atrium. She swabbed her nose, gave the test tube to the nurse, and went back to class. 

 

Two days later, at 6:30 am on Wednesday, Alyce walked upstairs to her kitchen. Her dad was standing there, looking at her. 

 

“I was like, ‘he’s gonna tell me something,”’ Alyce said. “Then my mom came in and kind of stood there too. And I just knew that they were going to tell me something.” 

 

Alyce’s parents told her that Maria Melekos, U-32’s COVID-19 coordinator, had just called. Notifying them that Alyce had tested positive. 

 

For the next two weeks, Alyce’s life would be turned upside down.  

 

In its 2nd year of COVID, as U-32 adjusts to ever-changing protocols and unprecedented disease, the administration is struggling with being cautious of COVID without disrupting students’ learning.

 

Because of her positive test, Alyce was absent from school for 7 days. Alyce’s 7 absences are just a small portion of the many absences this year.

 

According to Tammy Hoermann, who records U-32’s attendance, there have been 2,529 total full-day absences since the start of the school year. In the same period for 2018, from the start of the year to mid-November, there were a total of 1,230 full-day absences. 

 

Already, U-32 has 1,299 more absences than mid-November in 2018. More than double the number of absences than an average pre-COVID year.

 

It’s unclear what portion of these absences are directly related to COVID due to confidentiality. This year, U-32 offers surveillance testing to the students and staff, with more COVID testing options coming soon. The purpose of surveillance testing is to monitor asymptomatic COVID cases in our community.

 

“It’s sort of like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Melekos said. There is another purpose for U-32’s surveillance tests other than catching COVID cases in our community. For the many students who have participated in the testing, it “offers some psychological reassurance to families and students,” she said. “I think that makes a really big difference.” 

 

Student, Anna Farber (left), participating in surveillance testing.
Teacher, Adam French (right), participating in surveillance testing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every Monday morning, there is a table set up in the atrium for surveillance testing. After receiving parental consent, Melekos will give the student testing a nasal swab to stick up their nose. The swab gets sent off while they wait for their results.

 

When Alyce tested positive, U-32’s covid protocol was put into action. With any student who tests positive, Melekos has to go through a time and labor-intensive process of contact tracing. First, she has to gather the student’s schedule and find which students and staff are in their classes. Then, she has to find out who they’re eating lunch with since their masks are off when they eat. If the student rides a bus, that bus has to get contact traced.

 

 “It’s a lot of drawing lines from one thing to another,” Melekos said. Once all of the contact tracing is complete, she sends out a letter, making sure that everybody’s comfortable and understands what needs to be done. 

 

In Alyce’s case, every player on her field hockey team received an email saying that they had to get tested. She was asked if there was anyone in particular that she sits next to in her classes. 

 

“[Melekos] asked me who I eat lunch with,” Alyce said. “But I was eating lunch outside, so no one who was eating lunch with me had to get tested.”

 

Alyce wasn’t allowed to come back to school until she was negative. She took two rapid COVID tests, both coming back negative. Everyone around her tested negative. However, she still wasn’t allowed to return to school, in case the negatives were false. Alyce then took two PCR tests and tested negative for both of those. In total, she tested negative four times.

 

This is a photo of one of Alyce’s negative tests. The single blue line means she tested negative.

 

Her positive result from the surveillance testing was presumably a false positive.

 

Alyce’s situation of the false positive is rare, but they do happen. False positives occur around 4% of the time. To err on the side of caution, U-32 treated this case like any positive case. 

 

Alyce was absent from school for 7 days before she could return. She didn’t have many things at home to keep her occupied. She said her teachers weren’t giving her much homework. They told her that she would have to catch up on her work once she returned to school.

 

“I watched a ridiculous amount of Criminal Minds,” she said. “I didn’t really have a lot to do, I went on a lot of walks, and I continued practicing field hockey and running.”

 

Alyce’s time at home was filled with confusion about her status from layers of policies. The Monday after Alyce received her positive test, she called the Vermont Department of Health. They told her that since all four tests she’d taken had come back negative, she was truly negative. “I went to the grocery store that day because I could leave the house,” Alyce said. “But I still couldn’t come back to school…There’s really no policies for false positives because it doesn’t happen very often.”

 

A System Forced to Adapt

 

Jennifer Miller-Arsenault, U-32’s new interim superintendent, is tasked with making sure the school can run while being cautious of COVID, without the caution being overly disruptive.

 

“We learned so much last year,” Jennifer recalled. “People worked so hard.” This year in order to open the school safely, Miller-Arsenault said “we leaned on [last year’s] experience which was hugely helpful.” 

 

Melekos and Jennifer both noted that the COVID protocol and guidelines at U-32 are constantly changing. Amber Larrabee, one of U-32’s school nurses, agreed, giving the example: “It’s now three feet, not six feet” of space required between people.

 

In the summer of 2020, task forces of employees worked to design a reopening plan. U-32 was given over 40 pages of guidance on how to run the school in a pandemic. Last June, everyone anticipated a normal school year in the fall. However, due to a spike in COVID cases at the end of the summer, the school decided that students and staff would return to school in masks.

 

According to Jennifer, as of October 29th, there had been about 25 COVID-19 cases throughout the district, both students and staff included.

 

COVID Surveillance Tests provided by U-32

 

Another big difference between school years’ protocols is vaccinations. Now, students older than 12 can be vaccinated, which has made the protocols even more different from last year’s. Amber says that this opportunity has changed the protocols for the better. “We’re above 80% vaccinated,” Amber said. “So that’s really great.” 

 

Hopeful Developments

 

Melekos says that the school now offers Rapid Antigen Tests for students who’ve been exposed at school. The elementary schools in our district are doing that ‘Test to Stay’ program for unvaccinated students. 

 

Response Testing is also here at U-32. If a student goes to the nurse’s office and is exhibiting symptoms of COVID, the nurses can PCR test them right in the office before sending them home.

 

The third development in our district is vaccine clinics in two of the district’s elementary schools for 5 to 11-year-olds. According to Melekos, the first vaccine clinic for 5 to 11-year-olds is on December 14th at Doty Memorial School from 3:45-7 pm. There will be a second dose clinic on Jan 4, 2022, and there is a hope to offer more clinics as the pharmacies allow.

 

“It’s such a strange new normal,” Melekos said.

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