Safety measures aim to mitigate virus spread

Joanna Chait and Emily Mulderig

After a year of closed doors and empty hallways, Wilson has reopened fully for in-person school with a variety of safety measures in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. As of September 27, the school administration has reported 11 positive cases of the coronavirus.

On September 20, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that all DC educators must receive the COVID-19 vaccine by November 1. Previously, DCPS teachers could opt out of getting vaccinated if they participated in weekly coronavirus testing. With this new policy, only staff members who have been granted a medical or religious exemption can go unvaccinated.
Bowser also announced new protocols regarding student vaccinations: all DCPS student-athletes who are eligible must provide proof of vaccination in order to participate in DCIAA winter and spring sports. There is currently no District-wide vaccination requirement for students who do not partake in school sports. 

While DCPS guidance does not require social distancing during school, it is strongly encouraged. Guidelines recommend arranging classrooms so distancing is possible.

With Wilson’s enrollment topping 2,100 students this year, many classrooms and common areas are at full capacity, sometimes limiting the ability to social distance. 

According to Assistant Principal Kendric Hawkins, the average class size this year is 35 students. 

“That’s why we do contact tracing,” Principal Gregory Bargeman said. “Some of the classrooms, [have] a lot of students in there,” he continued. 

On September 3, one week into the school year, Bargeman announced an adjustment to Wilson’s schedule to accommodate two lunch periods. 

The change reduces crowding in the cafeteria and atrium during lunchtime and promotes social distancing while eating. Bargeman said that having the split lunch schedule is “working really well.”

With the exception of while eating and drinking, students and staff are required to wear a face mask at all times. Anyone who arrives at school without a mask is provided with a disposable one. 

Junior Patricia Braaten said most students in her classes have been following the mask guidelines. However, Braaten continued, “I see some students wearing their masks below their noses.”

Freshman Berekt Kiros has also observed a majority of students wearing masks appropriately. “I’d say like 80 percent of people are actually putting it on correctly and [wearing] it all the time,” he said. 

Braaten described passing periods as “very crowded.” 

“When we transition to class I don’t see a lot of social distancing,” she said. “You can see people literally next to each other.”

Social studies teacher Michele Bollinger said she thinks that people are doing “a good job” wearing masks. “When I’m in the hallway, I see the administrative team enforcing masking,” she said.

Both Bollinger and math teacher Olivia Phillips said that in the case that a student isn’t wearing a mask properly, they are typically very compliant when reminded to do so.

To prevent the spread of germs, all water fountains in the school building are turned off. Instead, there are four water dispensers per floor for students and staff to use for filling up reusable water bottles.

According to Phillips, this system is faulty. “[The dispensers] empty out usually by lunch and I can’t find water in the building,” she said. 

Each classroom has been equipped with a HEPA filter. Ventilation enhancements help to clean the air in the school and lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission through airborne particles. 

However, HEPA filters are not installed in non-instructional rooms in the building, raising some concern from faculty members. 

Bollinger is Wilson’s representative for the Washington Teacher’s Union (WTU) and said that Wilson teachers “definitely feel like we need HEPA filters in the counselor’s suites and in the social workers’ [offices].”

12th-grade counselor Leslie Sargent’s office was not equipped with a HEPA filter and does not have ventilation or windows that open. “Air purifiers, to me, seem like one of the most important tools we could have,” Sargent said.

Even in the teacher’s lounge, she pointed out, there are “more [teachers] than ever before.” This is because teachers don’t want to stay in classrooms during their planning period when “there are students in there and those classrooms are already crowded.”

According to Bargeman, the HEPA filters were provided by DCPS and the amount allocated to each school was determined by the number of classrooms.

Within classrooms, students sit at desks spaced a few feet apart and all facing in one direction. 

Learning in person during a global pandemic is forcing the school community to strike a balance between safety and socialization. “[Distancing] is a necessary part of containing the spread of the virus, especially when we don’t have full vaccination rates,” Bollinger said. “But we’re not set up to really distance properly. And then we’ve got the human impulse to connect. So it’s a real struggle.” •