Omicron came to South. Luckily, South was ready.

by Eva Shimkus, Managing editor
graphic by Julie Wang

As national COVID-19 cases skyrocketed throughout January as a result of the Omicron variant, the virus hit closer to home for South students, many of whom had never previously experienced COVID firsthand. 

Junior Jaray Liu, who tested positive during winter break, said he has noticed a shift in students’ perceptions of the virus due to its prevalence. 

“When I got COVID, at first I was like, ‘Oh wow, now I’m going to be known as the COVID boy,’” he said. “But now when people get COVID, it’s definitely not as big of a deal as it was three months ago.” 

Following the spike of cases in Massachusetts, concerns regarding the safety of in-person instruction in schools led to protests in Boston, with students at Boston Latin petitioning for online school despite Gov. Baker’s mandate for 180 days of in-person instruction for K-12.

Moreover, many districts have faced staffing issues due to widespread infections among faculty and staff. According to data reported to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by school districts, 27,472 staff tested positive for COVID between Dec. 23, 2021, and Jan. 26. 

In relation to case surges in neighboring school districts, Newton Public Schools (NPS) as a whole has largely remained COVID free, a result that many have attributed to high vaccination rates of 100% in teachers and over 90% in students. 

Wellness teacher and “COVID Coach” Patrick Jordan Quern, who reports COVID cases in the athletics department, said that this success is also largely due to health-conscious families maintaining close communication with school officials.

“This year, when people are feeling the slightest bit ill, they’re buying more into that social norm like, ‘Hey, I don’t feel well, I’m staying home whether it’s COVID or not,’” he said.

While North has experienced higher rates of COVID compared to South, North Vice Principal Amy Winston said that she noticed the “dramatic” effect vaccinations have had on cases.

“In our January surge here, we really saw an impact of boosters and that many of our cases were ninth graders who weren’t yet, or just had become, booster-eligible because of their age,” she said.

Additionally, masking, ventilation and testing, all measures recommended to NPS by the Medical Advisory Board, have been essential in Newton’s success in combating the virus. Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and a member of the Board, said that NPS has been a model for many other school districts in terms of COVID protocols.

“The major things that are most helpful are getting people vaccinated, improving indoor air quality through ventilation, filtration, getting people to mask up particularly during surges and then deploying testing, both for identifying infections as well as for test-to-stay. Newton’s been doing all of that right,” he said. 

“In the Omicron surge, we’ve got a problem because infection numbers are so widespread, and the time period between when somebody is infected and symptomatic and contagious has gotten so much shorter that we have to make certain modifications.”

These modifications, reflected in NPS’ decision to reduce contact tracing in high schools and make the student COVID testing program optional, have raised concerns from parents, Winston said.

However, South Vice Principal Jason Williams said that following the post-winter break surge, it became unsustainable for the district to maintain contract tracing.

“We are aware that the classroom notifications are on the less detailed side and that they don’t say too much information. The unfortunate reality, though, is that we really can’t give any identifying information about the students at all. … We’re really trying to protect everyone, including the student, because it’s not their fault that they got infected and they need to go home and take care,” he said. 

“The most we can do is, as a courtesy, let people know, ‘Hey, there was someone in your class who was at school during their infectious period and did test positive, just so you know’, so it serves as a strong reminder … to do the daily health assessment and to make sure that you’re not experiencing any symptoms.”

NPS’ decision is supported by Jha, who said that with Massachusetts’ high infection rates, mandatory pool testing and contact tracing would be futile. 

“We still have all the other tools, including very high vaccination rates, good ventilation and masking. That combination keeps Newton Public Schools very safe. Certainly, I feel very comfortable sending my daughter to South,” he said. “In the middle of a pandemic, whenever you have a surge, you have to be able to make certain accommodations, and once the surge is over, … we can go back to putting more testing in place.”

History teacher and South parent Rachael McNally, who missed five days of school after testing positive, said that while she would feel more comfortable if students were regularly tested, she believes the South community is adequately following COVID protocols. 

Williams said that he has seen an already high compliance for COVID policy increase among students since winter break.

“Sometimes I do have to remind the students, ‘Hey guys, make sure your mask covers your nose,’ … but people want to be more vigilant and the announcements are working and helping out with people,” he said. “It really does take the whole village to make sure that we’re all safe.”

In regards to the future of the variant, Jha said that he is expecting a reasonably good spring and summer with declining case numbers in February and March, assuming no new variants emerge. 

“Every variant has had the same strategies to fight against it — vaccines, masks, testing [and] ventilation … If we keep doing those things, new variants will come as they will. They will arrive and we will manage our way through it,” he said. “Over time, this thing will dissipate, but I don’t think anybody should be predicting that it’s going to be over in three months, six months or a year.”

Winston said that it’s essential that Newton remains prepared and vigilant to respond quickly in times of emergency. 

“COVID has taught us that we never quite know what’s coming next. We always have to be ready for the next thing and we have to be rapidly able to respond. That’s something that high schools have done really well,” she said. “The more that we can do that, and we can make decisions quickly in response to the time and the moment, the better off we’ll be.”