The current wave of COVID-19 cases in schools has made the student experience of the past few weeks feel “nerve-wracking,” said Gemma Goss, a senior at Aspen High School who is concerned about her exposure to the virus at school, as well as exposing family members to it when she gets home.
She isn’t alone in feeling that way, if a survey she conducted between Jan. 10 and 11 among more than three dozen classmates is any indication. Of 38 students who answered the question “Do you feel safe at school in regard to COVID?,” more than two thirds (26 students total) said, “No.”
A vast majority (33 students total, accounting for 86.8% of survey-takers) said they would “feel safer if there was a real online option at school.”
Stella McAniff, also a senior at Aspen High School, said there “technically” is an online option for students — the high school implemented Zoom or Google Meet options as of Jan. 5 after hundreds signed a petition for virtual learning accommodations at Aspen High.
But McAniff said she’s found that “it’s just really disorganized. … People have been told different things,” especially about who can use the online option and what counts for attendance records.
Initial communication about the online option noted that the option is only intended for students who are in COVID-19 isolation or quarantine, or are otherwise home sick, not students who want to mitigate their virus exposure. That was “frustrating” for Goss, who said she sees online classes as a way to avoid getting sick in the first place.
Aspen School District announced it will not issue exposure notifications for each and every positive case of COVID-19 in the school community — only those where “there is a high likelihood of direct classroom transmission,” the district announced in an email Jan.14.
“With the numerous positive cases of COVID on campus and in the community, sending potential exposure notifications for each case is not sustainable,” the email states. “In addition, with the county unable to perform contact tracing, notifications might suggest the case originated at school, prompting alarm. Whether a positive case originated at school or elsewhere is often unknown in the current situation.”
Aspen High School principal Sarah Strassburger clarified in a series of emails late last week that “(a)ny student who is called out (either for illness or for preventative measures) is welcome to access online learning.”
But it still counts as an absence in the school attendance books, Strassburger wrote. The absence will only be excused if a student’s parents or guardians have called it into the school, whether the student is staying home because they’re sick or because they want to avoid virus exposure and getting sick in the first place, Strassburger wrote.
That wasn’t the case last year, when the entire district implemented a hybrid approach to learning that could accommodate entire classes and individual students who had to stay home due to COVID-19 exposure or symptoms. Every student would log on from a computer whether they were on campus or at home, both of which counted as “present.”
This year, the district is committed to in-person learning so long as it is possible, which is why “for attendance purposes, PRESENT means physically present,” Strassburger wrote. Only students attending virtually log on to class via a personal computer; students in the classroom can see and hear classmates attending online via a big screen, and both can see and hear one another as long as there aren’t any technical difficulties.
“The remote option is so that students do not lose instruction,” she added.
But some students, including those who want an online option, feel the current virtual offerings aren’t up to snuff, according to Goss’ survey.
Asked whether they “think the school’s online option has been effective,” 56.8% of the 37 students who answered the question answered “no.” Another 37.8% answered “yes,” indicating that they did think the current option has been effective, and a couple of students (accounting for 5.4% of responses) selected “other.” One survey-taker skipped the question.
Goss and McAniff said a return to more of last year’s hybrid model or another modified in-person/online approach might help address students’ concerns with both virus exposure and the efficacy of online learning without developing gaps in their attendance records.
“I thought that what they’re doing last year, towards the end of the year, was pretty effective, because it gave me the choice,” McAniff said.
“If you want to be fully present, I think you should be able to,” Goss added. “But I also think … we should have the option of being online (and being counted present). I don’t think it’s fair for immunocompromised people, people with older families, people who just don’t want to get sick.”