A Question of Safety

Either everyone is serious about following health precautions at school or we’re all at risk.

Many+seem+to+have+let+their+guard+down+regarding+COVID+protocols%2C+but+school+is+not+the+time+or+place+for+that.

photo by D. Crickets

Many seem to have let their guard down regarding COVID protocols, but school is not the time or place for that.

“Dear North Allegheny Senior High School Families,

North Allegheny School District was notified that an individual who is connected to North Allegheny Senior High School tested positive for COVID-19.”

NASH families have received that exact same email 63 times this year. Let that number sink in.

When we first went back to school in-person in September, I was hesitant and a little scared. However, the number of cases was not as high back then, and I was happily surprised to see that most people seemed to be following COVID protocols in school. 

When we went into full remote learning for two months as the holiday months approached, I was once again happily surprised at the district’s respectful decision to keep us at home during those dangerous times.

As January 19, the fateful day we would be returning to school in-person, approached, I could not believe we were going back. Cases were extremely high, and thousands of people across the country were dying every day. 

I begrudgingly walked into school that day, with the sentiment that at least most people were good about following guidelines back in the fall. However, I was appalled at the amount of violations I saw.

As I entered the building, I cringed and took a couple steps back when someone turned around to face me with their mask completely below their nose. I got off the first floor as fast as possible.

Later that morning, on my way to my third period class, I turned a corner and saw a student talking to their friends with their mask down at their chin. I held my breath and sprinted to my classroom, hoping to get as far away from them as possible in the narrow hallways we were crammed into.

Shortly thereafter, a staff member greeted me with their mask down on their chin. At this point, I wasn’t surprised anymore.

As I walked to my next class, I ran into another student not wearing a mask in the hallway. I pinched the top of my mask to make sure it was snug against my nose and stayed as far away from the student as possible.

The biggest shock came when I walked into my classroom. I witnessed two teachers, one completely without a mask, and the other with a mask slipping down their nose, talking to each other like nothing was wrong. 

I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. I thought maybe they’d put their masks on once I made my presence known. I sat down at my desk in the front row, just a few feet from the teacher’s desk, but they continued as if nothing was wrong. After the bell rang, the teacher didn’t put their mask on for the first five minutes of class, apparently belatedly realizing the oversight.

It was too late. If they had COVID, we all would have been exposed.

I wanted to cry as I walked out of school that day, trying to dodge the dozens of noses hanging out of masks. Not only for the fear that I was exposed multiple times that day, but because of the realization that too little was being done to stop these violations from taking place. 

That was only one example of one day. Every day that I am at school, I see more and more violations taking place. Additionally, many of my friends have told me accounts of their teachers wearing their masks below their nose, showing up to school when they know they have been possibly exposed, and more.

Let’s not forget: During the first nine weeks, there were many teachers who wore face shields, which have been deemed ineffective by the CDC, in lieu of masks. For classes that were held outside, the teachers let students take their masks off, even though they were nowhere near six feet apart. 

If North Allegheny wants to keep us in-person, shouldn’t they strictly enforce a safe environment to learn in? 

If the school can regulate dress code and electronic device use, I don’t see why they can’t do better with simple COVID protocols. 

Of course, students who don’t feel comfortable with the in-person environment may switch to NACA. But it’s not that easy.  I would switch in a heartbeat, if it wasn’t for the fact that NACA has such limited course options. If I were a NACA student, I wouldn’t be able to take the very journalism class that is allowing me to write this article. Many other students share my feelings on this.

In effect, by giving students the options to either go in-person or switch to NACA, NA has essentially told students to choose between our safety and education. And for many of us who are in our junior year, we are forced to choose our education.

The situation has only grown more complicated.  In fact, a teacher has even been sending emails to students, threatening their grades if they don’t come to school.

We need for NA to do better to make it safe for students to attend in-person. Discipline those who are seen or reported breaking protocol, and guarantee that staff members follow the rules, too, as they set the examples for students. Otherwise, give us more course options at NACA. ”

If a student doesn’t come to school a particular day for a personal reason, such as feeling a bit sick or even just unsafe, that is nobody’s business except for the student, their family, and the administration. Of course, students shouldn’t be allowed to just skip school whenever they want to. Nevertheless, no individual teacher has the right to fail a student because they deemed their absence “unexcused” without the administration’s input first. And no student should ever have to compromise health and safety for a grade. 

Threatening students to come to school for their grades encourages students to attend even when they have possibly been exposed. What if a student decides to come to school when they feel sick because they’re afraid of their teacher punishing them for not coming? Would the teacher then take responsibility if that student spreads COVID around the school?

Not only are these violations committed by individuals, the administration as a whole hasn’t been following proper protocols when it comes to closing school, a promise they made to us back in July when they first announced their back-to-school plan.

According to protocol, we should have gone into remote learning as of February 2, as two more cases were announced in one day, taking the number of cases to six within a 14-day period.

However, on February 1, North Allegheny sent parents an email stating, “NASD consulted with the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) earlier today for recommendations on maintaining in-person instruction. As a result of this consultation, North Allegheny Senior High will remain open for in-person instruction at this time.”

The district has written on their website that “the threshold is a range,” and that they can consult the ACHD on decisions, which I can understand. However, it still doesn’t feel right or safe for us to go to school in these conditions.

While it’s clear that in-person learning suits most students best, it’s also beyond doubt that the pandemic has become politicized, with some people doubting the risks involved or feeling that we should force a return to normalcy and deal with the consequences later.  It all leads to confusion about the motivation behind the district email from February 1.

We need for NA to do better to make it safe for students to attend in-person. Discipline those who are seen or reported breaking protocol, and guarantee that staff members follow the rules, too, as they set the examples for students. Otherwise, give us more course options at NACA. 

I understand that this is an unprecedented year and that many are trying their best, but some of the things I’ve witnessed at school suggest that we’ve let our guard down. Many of the students I’ve spoken to don’t feel safe, and frankly, it’s not hard to understand why. For those of us who have tried so hard to act responsibly this year, it would be devastatingly unfair to contract COVID from school of all places.

On February 3, it was announced that NASH would move to full remote learning for the rest of the week. I commend the administration for making the right decision, even though it was made two days too late and only after another case was announced.

However, we will have made no progress if we return on Monday to loose rules and widespread violations. If we want to go back to in-person learning for good, it is imperative that safety protocols are properly enforced in the building.