By Lily Remick, contributing writer, and Sarah Swenson, editor-in-chief

COVID continues to be an issue on Nantucket and worldwide, with the Nantucket High School (NHS) a microcosm of this worldwide issue. After returning from winter break, the Nantucket High School saw a rise in COVID cases. Though the school continues to take precautions and urge students to be careful, and awareness of this spike increases on-island, case numbers continue to rise.

On January 3rd, the day that students returned to schools after winter break, Nantucket saw 36 new cases. NHS had 14 when they returned from break. Principal Mandy Vasil noted that this number, while higher than the high school has seen in a while, is only 2.2% of the school community, a relatively low number. The number of cases on the island rose steadily that week, averaging about 46 cases per day island-wide for the workweek of the 3rd. NHS had 19 from January 2nd to the 5th. The week of January 10th started off with 152 cases island-wide, and the week’s average was about 55 cases a day, continuing the upward trend. NHS had 36 newly reported cases from Friday, January 7th to the following Friday, including students and staff over the course of the week. Fewer cases are reported on weekend days, perhaps due to the diligent testing carried out by the school.

Possible contributing factors to the rise in numbers include islanders traveling to visit friends and family over the holiday season, tourists traveling to the island for Stroll weekend, when a mass of locals and tourists came together to celebrate the holiday in town, and with the tree lighting ceremony, and the fact that many holiday activities are held indoors, due to the biting cold that continues to surround us.

The school believes that it is imperative to make sure students understand that contracting COVID is serious, and they take it seriously themselves. A positive test affects more than just you individually. All close contacts of a positive student will be tested as well, including family, friends, and even classmates who do not know the student personally, if they interact enough.

Some students treat COVID protocols as a hassle and do not obey school and state mandates, such as the rule that all students must wear a mask that properly covers their nose and mouth, or social distancing rule. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has urged schools to “maintain recommended social-distancing practices by staying 6 feet apart from one another.” NHS has followed these guidelines by separating desks in classrooms. They have also extended the length of the mask mandate until February 28th.

In response to some students disrespecting their teachers and peers by wearing their masks as “chin guards”, hanging ineffectively below their noses, or otherwise wearing their masks in ways that do not protect them or others from contracting the virus, the school has reminded students of the importance of proper wearing of Personal Protective Equipment—in this case, masks.

In an email sent on December 16th, 2021, Principal Mandy Vasil asked that “in order to minimize the spread in our school and keep students and faculty safe, we continue to remind students to wear their face coverings. While we are happy to ensure that students have masks, we would appreciate your positive discussions with your child/children regarding keeping their mask in place during the school day.” This was partially in response to reports of students “being disrespectful to teachers when they are redirected to pull up their face mask.” She implored parents to discuss the importance of being mindful to wear masks consistently and correctly with their students.

The school acts in accordance with DESE guidance; the DESE has stood by their recommendations of adhering to wearing masks, social distancing, and monitoring for symptoms of illness. They ask parents to keep students home when they are sick, but this can be complicated by students who have less severe symptoms and are not as obviously sick. According to Perkins, guidance from the DESE and the DPH (Department of Public Health) in Massachusetts also differs; schools have started to see some real-life implications of these differences as schools struggle with which guidance to follow.

The school also wants students to know that getting tested for COVID is nothing scary. Students who are identified as close contacts, and are not both asymptomatic and fully vaccinated, report to the nurse’s office and are given a rapid result antigen test. A trip to the nurse, and a brief stay to see the result of the test is all that is required before students can return to class, as long as their test is negative.

The high number of positives, however, has spurred fear among the student body, and even teachers. 

On January 3rd, the town’s wastewater report predicted an average of 50 new cases a day for the upcoming week. On Friday, January 10th, the estimated average had risen to 95 new cases a day for the upcoming week. The growing prevalence of the Omicron variant, which, while less deadly, is much more contagious, means that cases are spiking, even though hospitalization and death rates are not. Omicron traveled from South Africa to a global level in about a month. School nurse Kelsey Perkins confirmed that there has been a dual trend caused by Omicron; cases have increased, but severity has decreased.

The CDC has not yet given recommendations on the severity of Omicron, but they do emphasize that masks, social distancing, and often sanitization are still effective measures against this variant. Nature News says that what we know of Omicron so far suggests hope in terms of severity: “Reports from South Africa have consistently noted a lower rate of hospitalization as a result of Omicron infections compared with infections caused by the Delta variant.” Additionally, the vaccine is useful in lessening the effects of the virus, and thus in lowering the chances of transmitting it. Anyone 12 years or older can get the Pfizer-BioTech booster shot. One can sign up with Dan’s Pharmacy, check with the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, or go to [other places?] to get their booster shot.

Although the island has hit a spike with COVID cases, the high number of vaccination rates has mostly protected everyone from the possible severe cases that have been seen in recent cases worldwide. Students are learning how serious COVID is getting by the empty classrooms and are becoming more self-aware, keeping their masks on correctly for more of the time. Teachers, prior to returning to the classroom after the holiday break, were provided with a supply of special masks to wear at this time in order to keep them and keep their students safe. The school has also received a large supply of rapid result antigen tests for the high number of students that need them every day. The town has also been attempting to order a supply of many tests, however, the process is slow, so it will most likely be a while before they arrive.

One anonymous teacher commented that everyone, be it state officials or teachers are “trying to make this year “normal”. For policymakers at the DESE, plays out as them not allowing remote learning as a substitute for in-person learning, and bringing back strict rules for this year that took place before the pandemic.

To keep parents and students updated as the situation continues to change and evolve, Superintendent Hallett has been sending out data boards with accurate information on the COVID cases and close contacts.

The mask mandate in town has changed many times and continues to change, which also affects many locals. While the mandate remains constant in school—students are always required to wear masks, except during lunch periods—the town has lifted and replaced indoor mask mandates as case numbers dropped and then rose. As of right now, the Nantucket Board of Health voted to carry out an islandwide mask advisory, with no mandate. However, students must wear one in school.

This is in compliance with statewide policies, created by the DPH and the DESE Some students are confused and upset by having to return to school. However, rules about this are not determined by the NHS, but by the DESE and the state. These departments also create the rules surrounding whether or not schools should be in person or not. Currently, the state policy is that schools must be in person for days to count for time on learning.

“The rules here are pretty simple. We count in-person school as school. If the school districts’ not open at some point over the course of the year, they can use snow days until they run out of snow days,” Baker explained in an interview to NBC 10 on the upsurge in COVID cases after the winter break. “But they do need to provide their kids with 180 days of in-person education this year.”

Remaining in person, however, does place strain on the school. With 10 staff members out on January 3rd and 7 out on January 14th, many classes were operating under the supervision of TAs or substitute teachers. Since several teachers are out, and the school is already short-staffed, several classes are held in the auditorium at once, with only one substitute teacher, supported by administration, advising. Students were informed of this change by signs on classroom doors directing them where to go. This practice was also implemented at many other schools in Massachusetts and across the country for the same reason. 

The number of classes held in the auditorium is decreasing. Students are learning what it means to function responsibly in a classroom affected by COVID. Cases have trended continuously up since break, with Massachusetts seeing a similar spike in numbers: an average of 27,862 cases the work week of January 3rd and an average of 29,3721 cases the workweek of January 10th. Many fear a continued rise in COVID contractions. We will have to wait and see how the pandemic continues to play out.

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