With Omicron looming, ETHS emphasizes COVID-19 protocols

It is an uncommon sight to see someone without a mask in the hallways at ETHS, and with the student vaccination rate at 92 percent, it seems that COVID-19 should be under control within the confines of ETHS. And yet, COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Evanston, and that trend is applicable to ETHS as well. The week of Dec. 3 saw the highest number of new COVID-19 cases detected in students at ETHS all year, with eight new student cases in just one week. The previous weekly high was three cases. Additionally, the new Omicron variant will likely only serve to increase the number of new cases. ETHS has many safety protocols, but how well are students following them?

Over the past few weeks, COVID-19 cases have risen nationally, and Evanston hasn’t escaped the problem. The virus is spreading even among the vaccinated, and that seems to be the case in our community. 89 percent of Evanston residents five years and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, as the city’s vaccine dashboard shows. And still, the number of new cases a day is on the rise. That is, as mentioned previously, reflected in the number of new infections at ETHS. While it is worth noting that the number of new cases is dramatically lower than when COVID-19 was at its peak in Evanston, there is a definitive increase compared to the summer. 

Additionally, now that the weather is becoming colder, more events and gatherings are being held indoors, without masks. These factors increase the chances of a person contracting COVID-19, even among the vaccinated.

 “Transmission of COVID-19 from inhalation of virus in the air can occur at distances greater than six feet. Particles from an infected person can move throughout an entire room or indoor space. The particles can also linger in the air after a person has left the room—they can remain airborne for hours in some cases,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. 

Prompted by the increase in new cases, and the apparent schoolwide mask fatigue, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon came on the intercom on Nov. 17 to remind the student body about the importance of mask wearing. 

Reflecting on his rationale for the announcement, Witherspoon said, “We knew that we were getting into a time when people were getting mask fatigue, to be perfectly honest with you. And so [we] tried to wait long enough into the school year [until we decided], ‘Maybe it’s time for a reminder.’”

On the part of the administration, ETHS has implemented many COVID-19 protocols, from sanitizing shared computers after each use to enforcing strict mask policies.

“In terms of enforcing, I would say what we’re trying to do is have a real fidelity to the [COVID-19] mitigations, and [we’re] doing it by, one, continuing to explain to people why it’s important, and number two, [continuing] to remind people in particular about proper mask wearing.”

All these rules help in the prevention of large outbreaks of COVID-19 at school, but Witherspoon has noticed some complacency in recent months and believes there are some definite areas where ETHS as a community could improve.

“You know, I think that [in] all the things I mentioned, we’ve done a pretty good job. However, I think areas we can improve in is being even more consistent with our mask wearing. I think that is a really big one. And that goes for not only during the school days, but in extracurricular activities as well. I think that we can do better in those areas. And it’s really all about determination of ours, that we, as ETHS family, are just determined that we’re going to do that.”

Improving our COVID-19 safety is a collective effort for all of us, but Witherspoon sees some good signs in and around the school.

“I don’t have the numbers, but I do travel around the school a lot, during passing periods and the like, and I absolutely believe the vast majority of students are wearing their masks, and wearing them properly.”

The feeling that students are doing a relatively good job following protocols is also evident in students’ opinions. 

“I think that students are doing a good job following mask protocols at school. I see lots of students with their masks on all day, but I’m not sure about how much they wear masks outside of school,” freshman Patrick Tu said.

Micah Cherkasky, another freshman, echoed his point, but with a little more hesitancy to commend all students. “I feel that students are doing a pretty good job with masks. Most wear them, but I have definitely seen teachers remind kids to put their masks above their nose or to put them back on.”

Classroom teachers who interact with students on a day-to-day basis also feel that students are generally following the protocols.

“In my classes, I have about 20 students. And out of those 20 students, there’s maybe one or two that need some daily reminders to pull their mask up. So for the majority of the students, it’s not a problem,” freshman biology teacher Alice Litt said.

In continuation of the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, many teachers are orienting their classrooms and classroom rules to stay as safe as possible. An example of this is Litt’s classroom.

“I’m trying very hard to put [the CDC guidelines in place. So, the chairs start out three feet apart. But you know, then we do work with groups and spin chairs around, and so they get moved up. So they’re not exactly three feet all the time. And then I try to have assigned seats, so if we do need to trace something, I know where people are from, although we don’t have any windows here. I do have an air purifier, and I have that on all day long.”

Controlling the spread of COVID-19 is a joint effort, and most teachers and students seem to be following all recommended protocols at school. Even though Witherspoon thinks that students are, overall, doing a good job wearing masks, he urges students to remain vigilant in their mask wearing and stresses the importance of getting vaccinated.

“What I would say to students is first of all, get vaccinated. And we’re finding that a very, very high percentage of our students are vaccinated, way beyond what you find in the general population…And what we have found with breakthrough cases is [that], if you look at the statistics, they are so rare compared to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been vaccinated, and we know that they’re not nearly as severe when they happen. So I just can’t stress that enough. Let’s save lives.”