BY MAIRE O’NEILL
More than 150 people participated in a Los Alamos High School Zoom meeting early Wednesday evening to hear Principal Carter Payne and Interim Supt. Jennifer Guy answer questions about the 10-day temporary remote learning period which begins for high school students Thursday.
“We have been excited to have kids back in the building this semester but one thing that we noticed was that immediately after we came back, we started to see an increase in the number of COVID cases that were being reported among our students and staff,” Payne said.
He said this week, LAHS got to the point where there are more than 70 cases and that meets the 5 percent trigger point for entering temporary remote learning under the Public Education Department’s guidelines.
“We have about 1,200 students and 140 staff on campus for a total campus population of 1,340. Under the PED rules, once we get to 5 percent of our site population, we have to enter a temporary remote learning phase of 10 days. We had some cases we needed to report over December because we were number of cases over the last 14 days was 76. Because we have those cases, we have exceeded the 5 percent – 5.7% – so we will be entering a temporary remote learning phase for our school beginning Jan. 13 and extending through Jan. 22,” Payne said.
He said Jan. 22 is a Saturday but that it’s important that it be included because the 10 day-period is a calendar period, not a school day period.
“For this 10-calendar day I wanted to include the weekends, because as many of you know as students and parents, we have a lot of school activities that happen on the weekend. During this temporary remote learning period, we don’t have any school activities that will be happening in person. No club meetings, no practices, no competitions, no events. We won’t be having any in-person activities,” Payne said.
He noted that there were a lot of questions submitted about the 10-day quarantine period that CDC recently reduced to five days and how that relates to this 10-day remote learning period.
“They both happen to be 10 days but they are completely separate. This 10-day remote learning period is based on our percentage of positive cases in the preceding 14 days. The quarantine period is something is something the CDC changed from 10 days to 5 days for people who actually have positive COVID cases and the PED released a new ToolKit this afternoon that’s available on their website that also reduces the quarantine period required in the schools to 5 days. So if I’m a student or a staff member and I tested positive for COVID, I have to quarantine for a minimum of 5 days and until I’ve had a significant improvement of symptoms. That’s outlined in the ToolKit,” Payne said.
He said with heading into a long weekend, three of the calendar days will be Saturday, Sunday and Monday which is a school holiday for Martin Luther King Day.
“That means that our students will be remote learning for three A days, starting tomorrow (Thursday), Friday is a B day, Tuesday is an A day and so on and so forth. Three A days and 3 B days. We had a meeting at the end of school today to talk with staff about how to best make sure our students are continuing their learning and know what’s expected of them for this period. And as we mentioned in the letter we sent out today, we are continuing to follow are A-B schedule as usual,” Payne said. “We will also be continuing to follow our regular bell schedule. Classes will start at 7:50 a.m. and classes through the end of fourth period will be going through 2:35 p.m. We’ll have our lunchtime at the regular time and we’ll have breaks between classes as they are scheduled.”
Payne continued, “We all learned during remote learning in the previous year and a half, that it’s really difficult for students and staff to be on camera all day. Students and staff need a break from that and what we’ve encouraged staff to do is to do their direct instruction, their group discussion, all the things that will be done using the remote learning platform at the beginning of each period so students will be expected participate and be signed on and be synchronous or live with the teacher during the first 30-45 minutes of each class period and then teachers can turn them loose to work in small groups, work on their work independently and have some time away from camera during the last half to two-thirds of the period.”
He said each class is different, each teacher is different, each subject area is different.
“We thought it was good to give our teachers some kind of basic guidelines and then trust their knowledge of their students and the curriculum that they need to cover in terms of how they actually do that during those periods.” Payne said.
He noted that the 3 percent and 5 percent thresholds that have been discussed were implemented last fall and they apply across the state although some districts have had some autonomy in terms of what sorts of measures they’re taking especially at that 3 percent phase. He said it’s something that’s been in the planning in case LAPS had a large number of COVID cases and that LAHS was doing really well last fall until this the Omicron variant came along.
“Will we potentially extend again after this 10-day period is up? That is a possibility. The way the rules are written, we would kind of extend in 10-day chunks, so we will continue to watch the COVID cases among our students and staff populations over this 10-day remote learning period…. We’ll continue to monitor closely. If we continue to stay above 5 percent, under the state rules we would need to extend for another 10-day period,” Payne said.
He said the whole justification for having this kind of 10-day period away from school is to give the spread of the virus a little bit of a cooling off period so that LAHS can hopefully get its case count down and reduce the spread among its students.
“I know that students are still continuing to have personal lives and things in the community, so I would just ask that students continue to be very careful outside of school as well and follow all of our community’s COVID safe practices in your home, if you have people over, depending on your relationship, you may want to have masks, you may want to be wearing masks if you’re riding in a car with a peer. We know that students will continue to see each other most likely as they have throughout the pandemic, but making sure that making sure that this number of cases continues to decline so that we can come back to school is very important. We would ask that people continue to be very careful outside of school and follow our COVID-safe practices,” Payne said.
He noted that overall throughout this pandemic, LAPS strategies have been multi-layered and that students started coming back to school before they were able to be vaccinated.
“We’ve had a lot of important measures like masking, cleaning, hand-sanitizing, social distancing and the collective effect of those actions up to this point has been really good at preventing the spread among our students,” Payne said. “I want to applaud the efforts of our students, especially over last semester. You can get tired of all this stuff and they have been incredible about wearing their masks, following the rules, eating outside and thank goodness we had nice weather until right before the end of the semester.”
He said all those measures together, especially with the really high vaccination rate among LAHS students kept the school from having really any identifiable spread among the student body at school last semester.
“This new variant came along and everything’s a little different. Before we were seeing that vaccinated students were really only getting infected if they had really super close contact with people in their homes especially if they were with really close friends that they spent a lot of time with. Now we’re seeing that even among vaccinated students that are great about wearing their masks, some of them are coming up positive so this measure was put in place last semester in case something happened, and I’ll just tell you, we were all surprised by how quickly we got to that 5 percent,” Payne said. “So closing school temporarily and giving things a chance to settle down a little bit is really important. We’ve heard in the news too that this wave is expected to really come on strong and then hopefully peter out quickly. None of us can be 100 percent perfect about predicting that but we’re hoping that this temporary closure as the PED has outlined will help that to really happen in a way that keeps us safe.”
While everyone is at home, Payne said, students are expected to log in and be present for their classes.
“If you are at home ill, if you can participate, you should participate and teachers are going to be taking attendance based on who’s going to be there and who’s participating just as we did during remote learning. If you have a student, heaven forbid, that’s too ill to take part in the class, please call them in sick the way you normally would during a regular school day,” he said. “If they woke up and they were feeling really bad or struggling but by second period they were able to be there, call and excuse them for first period. We’re planning on every single student being in every single period every single day just as usual and if that’s not possible, we still need parents to call them in sick.”
Payne said with the new variant, more vaccinated and boosted kids who are great about wearing their masks are still testing positive.
“We didn’t see that nearly as much in the first semester but we’re seeing that a lot more, so I would just caution students and parents that even if you’re vaccinated and boosted, under the current situation with this current variant, it’s not quite as protective as it was for students last semester. Be careful about wearing your masks. Those are strategies that work,” he said. “I’m a molecular biologist by training, that’s what I got and my degree in prior to teaching. I’ve been following all the science closely and the spread of this virus through aerosol particles is really one of our primary sources. That doesn’t mean that contact spread with surfaces and washing hands isn’t important but really, especially this variant it’s really important that we control that aerosol spray.”
In response to a question, Supt. Guy said parents said parents absolutely can keep students home from another school while the high school students are on remote.
“We ask that you reach out to your principal or your attendance line and let them know. We ask that parents work with us in those two-week, 10-day intervals, so that if you’re uncomfortable and you’re going to keep your child home for 10 days, you let your elementary or middle school principal know. They will arrange for work just as if you were out for flu or any other reason. They’ll make sure your child has some access to learning because those schools will still stay in person. We’re watching the numbers at every campus and we may have some other schools that we do have to adjust and put in remote as well,” she said.
Asked about rapid testing, Guy said it will continue from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the school district.
“I appreciate everybody’s patience because the lines have been long. A helpful tip is if you wait until 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. to come, you won’t have to wait in line as long and we would appreciate being able to get those elementary schools and middle schools that are still in ‘Test to Stay’ in first and then every high school kid or every staff member are welcome to come,” she said. “We are only able to test student and anyone with an LAPS staff ID. That’s because we have a grant that pays for that testing and that’s the way the grant was awarded. We have asked for that to be expanded for all of our families but haven’t gotten approval for that yet. We are also working with the County to get some PCR testing available five days a week and we should have some more information available by Friday on that.”
In response to questions submitted about athletics, Payne said that right now, all in-person activities related to the school have to be moved into a remote phase or be canceled or postponed.
“Right now, we are not planning to have any athletic competitions or those sorts of things on our site or have students from our school participate. That is a big challenge and I will just say we are looking really closely at areas where we might be able to figure out some accommodations. A lot of our teams are heading into state qualifying play and with the release of the new ToolKit and the kind of developing situation around the state with the number of districts that have gone to temporary remote learning there is a discussion at the state level. As of right now those contests have to go to either a remote contest if it’s possible or be postponed or canceled,” Payne said.
He said the other piece that he’ll add to that is that administration is not only looking at the school as a whole but looking program by program.
“We’ve being going with this overall 5 percent, but if we see a significant spread among a particular group, say the underwater basket weaving team has half of their members testing positive for COVID – that also factors heavily in our ability to advocate to allow participation for some of those groups. It’s really important that people in those extracurricular groups and those activities think about the overall case number on their team as well as the overall case number at our school. If we’re going to be able to advocate for any competitions during this closure, it has to be because the team is doing especially well and even if we go back to school, and the team is not doing well, their competitions could be canceled because of a high number of cases,” he said.
He noted that there are districts in the state that have canceled their activities without being at the 5 percent so LAHS is looking for a little more coordination and collaboration with those other schools.
“What I’m telling you is right now they’re canceled. If there’s a team that’s doing especially well with COVID amidst their ranks, we might be able to advocate for some flexibility there but we haven’t been able to have those conversations yet,” Payne said.
Asked why the school is keeping to the regular schedule instead of the shorter schedule implemented during remote learning last year, Payne said it’s because this is a temporary closure and not district-wide.
“There are routines and habits and rhythms that we get into, so we want to help maintain the momentum students have in our current schedule. It’s also partly logistical throughout the district. We share staff with other sites and if we went to a different schedule when other schools are still in session, we would have problems with our staff meeting their obligations on our site while working on another site or vice versa,” he said.
Supt. Guy said one of the things that is certainly going to be a bit of a challenge is that PED requires that students that test positive that were infectious when they were on campus are reported.
“That’s why you don’t see numbers reported unless students were in athletics at an event over winter break. But we also are committed to safety, so we’re going to continue to encourage parents to reach out to us if your child tests positive. Please report that to the school nurse, to the high school administration. We will continue to do those daily number updates. We are definitely relying on parents for that communication piece and that’s where we’ve always been because we don’t get test results. So when you have your child tested those results go to you. They don’t necessarily come to the school and so you have to let us know and we’re going to all have to work together to understand. We’ll continue to monitor community spread around the County and cases at other schools and then we’ll take that data into consideration,” she said.
Going back to the issue of athletics, Payne said the way the players on the team are conforming to the COVID safe practices that are in place on campus and the more safe the team is and the less spread among the members on the team, the better standing LAHS has to advocate and potentially consider some other competitions.
“So it’s really important that during this closure period that everyone continues to follow the COVID-safe practices even though you’re not here on campus, please be very careful with your social interactions with your friends. Please make sure that you follow those layered strategies, staying apart from each other, not eating together in a closed car, not riding together without masks on and those sorts of things so that we can reduce the spread among our student population and hopefully be able to come back at the end of this temporary remote instruction period,” he said.
LAHS will not be going to a pass-fail grading scheme.
“We’re early in the semester and we have a lot of time for students to continue to work. Our expectation is that all of our students are going to be participating. This is not a statewide shutdown. It is not a shutdown of our community or our district. It’s not a shutdown of education at the high school. We’re just changing the setting from physically being present here to working remotely from your home. So our academic grading and those sorts of things are still going to be important,” Payne said. “As I say that, I need to let you know that we had a really good discussion with all of our teachers this afternoon about what they’re planning to do, how they’re planning to structure their classes, how they’re planning to make their remote and online time engaging and worthwhile academically, socially and personally and so please do continue to show up and please do continue to do the work that you need to do so that we don’t have any gaps in your learning when we come back to school.”
Payne noted the amount of work involved in contracting tracing at LAHS which he said has grown and taken over a lot of the things staff does since the January 5 return to school.
“It’s been all contact tracing all day for a number of us. I want to take a moment to recognize the incredible effort and coordination that our nurse and our nurse assistant have put in during this time. There has been an overwhelming amount of communication and email and things that have gone back and forth and I will acknowledge that it has not been perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but there has been a heroic effort in our nurse’s department. We’ve recruited a number of staff to work with the contract tracing when elsewhere in the building. It’s been a full-time job and it will continue to be a major part of this effort,” he said.
He added that contact tracing and letting students know they’ve been exposed and they need to be careful not to spread it to other students is another one of those key measures that helps prevent spread in the community and at the school and will hopefully enable the return to school following the temporary remote learning period.
“The biggest thank you goes to our students who have been good sports through this whole thing, who have been incredibly thoughtful and careful up to this point. Our goal is to get this number down so that we can bring you back to campus and have you continue to be able to participate in all the experiences that are really important for your high school year,” Payne said.