Back to school brings pandemic protocol changes

After a year and a half of virtual and hybrid learning, all students but two are back to in-person school. The 2021-22 school year will look very different from previous school years, considering the district-wide mask mandate, schedule changes, and the constantly evolving status of COVID-19.

On August 8, the district-wide mask mandate came into effect. This administrative decision was made following the rise of COVID-19 cases both locally and nationally. The main factor that guided the decision is heightened community burden level within Shorewood.

“There are several pieces that we look at,” said Tim Kenney, SHS principal. “Community burden level is what we’ve been able to look at up to this point.”

As of September 19, the community burden level for Shorewood is listed as “high” (More than 100 confirmed cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days) with 296 cases per 100,000. by the North Shore Health Department (NSHD). Because of this new wave, students and staff should expect masks to be around for a while.

“We always have to keep in mind we are still in the midst of the pandemic,” Kenney said. “And if we ever want to get out of it, we have to be smart about the stuff we’re doing, and keeping everybody safe is part of eliminating the spread.”

All schools in the district are under an indoor mask mandate, one of the precautions being taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. (Ethan McKaig)

According to the school district’s COVID-19 dashboard, less than five staff members are in isolation and less than five students are also in quarantine or isolation. Though going back to a hybrid or virtual model is still a possibility, staff are hopeful that it won’t be necessary in containing the virus. 

“I would feel like we’re backtracking and I would feel disappointed, but I know I would feel up to the challenge,” said Eric Gietzen, English teacher. “I know there’s not a lot we can do about it. It’s kind of like the weather.”

There is an option for students who would like to learn virtually, rather than attend school in-person. Virtual students attend classes through the Kiel district, a district that has had virtual school options since before the pandemic. Classes that Shorewood students take at the Kiel district will simply be added to their SHS transcript. 

“That doesn’t exclude any student who’s doing school [through the Kiel district] to come be on a sports team,” Kenney said. “And if they want to come back for orchestra, if they want to come back for drama, they can still do that.”

Another thing that will be different for students this year is the schedule. In the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, a block schedule was adopted. In this schedule, classes were longer than they would be in a normal schedule and there were less classes in a day. This year, the school went back to a normal schedule, where students have all of their classes every day.

“There are rules at the state level about how much [students] have to be at school,” Kenney said. “Last year did not accomplish those rules but the state said ‘it’s okay, we’re in a pandemic, so we are going to waive that requirement about how much kids have to be in school.’ So we were able to have some flexibility with that schedule, but we don’t have that this year. They are not going to waive [the requirements] anymore.”

We always have to keep in mind we are still in the midst of the pandemic, and if we ever want to get out of it, we have to be smart about the stuff we’re doing,

— Tim Kenney, SHS principal

Students that came back in person in the second semester of last school year had a strange experience. Everyone was wearing masks, social distancing was enforced between students, and some classes had as few as one or two in-person students. Because of this, many students felt isolated from their classmates.

“[This year], your classrooms are going to feel very normal,” Kenney said. “What’s different about this year is vaccine availability. That’s a game changer. I hope every student got it. It’s their choice and stuff, but getting the vaccine has a number of implications.”

Another factor is a change to CDC guidelines regarding schools. The government agency has changed their suggestion from six feet of distance between students to three feet, allowing teachers to set up their classrooms more practically.

“I have talked to teachers about when setting up their classrooms, we talked about ‘when possible, when practical’ trying to seat students three feet apart,” Kenney said. “I just want students to think about trying to keep a three foot buffer.”

Another safety measure being implemented this year is free COVID-19 testing for students, staff, and their families. These tests are available on Tuesdays 7:30-9:30 a.m., Thursdays 3:30-5:30 p.m., and Fridays 7:30-9:30 a.m., having started on September 9. They will be administered at the Shorewood Village Center, located in the lower level of the Shorewood Public Library.

Staff from Summit Clinical Labs will come to SHS to administer tests to any student or staff member that has COVID-19 symptoms, or who was deemed a close contact to somebody who tested positive. A close contact is someone who was less than 3 feet apart indoors for a cumulative total of 15 minutes over a period of 24 hours with a person who tested positive. Rapid antigen tests are available as well as PCR tests. 

What’s different about this year is vaccine availability. That’s a game changer,

— Tim Kenney, SHS Principal

The administration is putting an especially large focus on mental health this year, knowing that the last year and a half has caused an unusual amount of stress on students, and coming back to in-person school is a big transition. 

“I’ve had quite a few individual meetings with students, mainly about anxiety about being back,” said Molly Norris, school counselor. “We’re really encouraging students to reach out, because what we don’t know, we don’t know… the students that I know have struggled with any sort of mental health or transitions, I have tried to reach out to them, connect, and ensure that they’re ready to be back.”

Teachers are also trying to help curb the mental stress as students transition back to school. 

“What I’m doing personally is I’m inviting students to come in during lunch, and if they let me know ‘I need help getting back on track with classes,’ I am putting all my work on Google Classroom still,” Gietzen said.

Despite concerns that fully in-person education will result in difficult transitional periods, Norris hopes that just being back in-person will help a lot of students. 

“I am hopeful for this year that being back, that connection is going to really help with engagement and feeling like you belong, and that our sense of community is more positive than ever before,” Norris said. 

The school also introduced Advisory, a class each student will have twice a week that focuses on supporting students emotionally and academically. 

“We have a couple of focuses at the high school on what we would like to accomplish with  advisory,” Kenney said. “It’s really important to the staff of Shorewood High School that we build strong community within the classrooms. So we want to build really strong healthy relationships with all of our students and help all our students build those relationships with each other. Having this advisory period will afford us the opportunity to do that, and at the same time support you in not just your mental health and emotional well being, but academically as well.”

The students that I know have struggled with any sort of mental health or transitions, I have tried to reach out to them, connect, and ensure that they’re ready to be back,

— Molly Norris, school counselor

Students may be wondering what homecoming is going to look like this year. The usual homecoming activities that Kenney thinks are possible are a girls powderpuff football game, a parade, and of course, the homecoming football game. 

“I’m not very confident that we can safely do a pep rally, unfortunately,” Kenney said. “The dance is going to be a tougher one, because a homecoming dance is typically about 300 students, all together on a dance floor, all just going to town dancing and having a really good time… I don’t have a high level of confidence, just to be completely honest, about the pep rally or the dance.”

While Kenney is taking a careful and safe approach to the school year, he wants students to have as normal a year as possible.

“I can promise the students of SHS that I am committed to doing as much of school as we can, as normal school had been up until a year and a half ago,” Kenney said. “If I have to make decisions to say no to certain things, I am doing it out of care, caution, and safety for everybody. But I will work through each individual event and the things that students love about school, and make as much of it happen as I possibly can.”