As the pandemic evolves, our policy should too

Benjamin Chait

It would be naive to think that Omicron will be the last wave of the pandemic. If DCPS truly remains committed to staying open through the next one, it needs to update its COVID policies to reflect reality and current scientific knowledge.

The mask mandate is the core of our current COVID policy. Students, staff, and visitors are required to abide by the broad policy of wearing a mask or face covering. This policy made sense early in the pandemic, when mask supplies were low and most of the studies were focused around merits of using a mask at all, not comparing efficacies of masks. 

Since then, however, data has come out showing that there are huge disparities in effectiveness between different kinds of masks. Studies have shown that the use of cloth masks or even surgical masks is really only helpful for shorter periods of time. Gaiters and valves have be shown to be fairly ineffective. For longer periods of time, such as our school days, you really need a properly-fitted, high-grade mask such as an N95 or KN95 mask in order to prevent the spread of COVID. 

This vague mask policy puts students and staff at a higher risk of transmitting or getting the disease. DCPS should update its mask policy to require N95 or KN95 masks because current guidelines state other masks simply are not effective enough, given the amount of time we spend in school. To make sure they’re accessible, DCPS can hand out N95 masks to students as they enter the building, just as they have begun providing them for teachers. 

Part of the pandemic response includes deep cleaning protocols, including for high-touch surfaces. While all and any cleaning of the building is a good thing, it’s performative to package it with the rest of the COVID response. Innumerable studies about how the disease spreads show that contact transmission isn’t a concern. It’s easy to look back to the beginning of the pandemic, when people were scared to even touch packages and groceries delivered to them, for fear of contracting COVID. This concern stemmed from a lack of information about the nature of the pandemic. Now, in 2022, we know that COVID is a respiratory disease, and spreads primarily as such, through respiratory droplets in the air. 

Any and all personnel employed to minimize COVID transmission in schools should instead be directed to focus on testing. It’s vital that our schools have sufficient testing to monitor and quickly respond to outbreaks within the school as they occur.

Another aspect of DCPS COVID policy quickly trailing behind the current science is the vaccine mandate—specifically, the mandated two-shot regimen. Currently, full (two-shot) vaccination is required of DCPS staff as well as student athletes. In the early stages of the vaccination approval process, the two-shot regimen seemed like liquid gold. It appeared to be incredibly effective at preventing the spread of COVID. While two doses are still incredibly helpful at preventing serious illness and spread of the disease, newer scientific consensus has moved in the direction that effectiveness wanes after a few months, and the original vaccine stands a worse chance against newer strains of the pandemic like Omicron and Delta. 

Our vaccination policy needs to be updated to reflect these new findings. DCPS should update its vaccination policy to include booster shots, which have been shown to significantly increase protection and decrease transmission of COVID even against newer strains. Boosters shouldn’t be seen as the cherry on top of a two-shot regimen; instead, they should be seen as a vital component of a three-shot regimen. The sooner that DCPS policy is able to account for these changes, the safer everyone in the building will be. •