The Deeper Dig: Students and the Omicron surge

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Ninth-graders at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg on Aug. 25. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

As the Omicron surge drives sudden shifts in state guidance aimed at keeping schools open, students say one thing is for certain: The first weeks back after winter break have been far from normal.

High case rates have already forced dozens of Vermont schools to cancel classes for a day or more this month. But even those schools that have kept their doors open have faced a rash of disruptive student and staff absences. 

“Everyone knows someone who has Covid or has Covid themselves,” said Rachel Ledoux, a sophomore at Bellows Free Academy. “It's not like, ‘Oh, yeah, one or two students are absent.’ Most students are absent.” 

In a series of interviews, students from across the state said that day-to-day learning has been upended during the surge, even when schools have stayed open. 

Class right now often feels like the day before vacation, said Adelle MacDowell, a senior at Lamoille Union High School in Hyde Park. “It feels a little bit like, ‘Should we do work? Will we even be productive with this smaller class size?’”

Students are left wondering whether their school may be the next to close — and whether it should. 

“It's felt a lot like March of 2020 but almost a bit more foreboding,” said Annika Heintz, a senior at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon. “There's more knowledge of what potentially is at stake.”

All have seen firsthand the drawbacks of school closures. Extracurriculars get canceled, social events like proms and graduations are scaled back, and remote learning — when it’s available — still leaves swaths of students behind.

“I would be good with virtual learning for like two weeks,” said Anika Turcotte, a sophomore at Montpelier High School. “But after that, I think a lot of kids start to lose interest and motivation.”

On this week’s podcast, Ledoux, MacDowell, Turcotte and Heintz — all participants in the Underground Workshop, VTDigger’s platform for student journalism — describe the scene in their schools. Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Annika Heintz: In most of my classes, it feels pretty normal until you have someone come in, and then all of a sudden you're zapped back to the reality of what the pandemic is. Someone will just walk in and say, “I need Mary and all her stuff,” and then Mary's just gone.

And then it's 10 days or however long until they get a test. They're just gone. The teachers are trying their best to facilitate remote learning, but it's hard because they're full time in person. So it's really hard to balance that and just making sure people don't fall really far behind.

Annika Heintz is a senior at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon. Mill River is a small school — Annika said her class is 54 people — so it’s particularly obvious when students aren’t there.

Annika Heintz: It's felt a lot like March of 2020 but almost a bit more foreboding. In March, everyone was kind of apprehensive, and no one really knew what was going to happen. And now, I think there's a fear that we will shut down again. There's more knowledge of what potentially is at stake. And there's just a lot of kids missing from classes. 

Rachel Ledoux: I haven't had a single class in the past two weeks that has everyone in it. Most of my classes are like 75, 50% capacity. Most students are out. And a lot of students who are not out, but are getting contacted about being a close contact. I can't go a day without hearing at least one person saying, “Oh, yeah, did you hear so-and-so's got Covid?” Or, “Oh, yeah, I got an email that I was a close contact, but like, I'm vaxxed so it's fine.” 

Everyone knows someone who has Covid or has Covid themselves.

This is Rachel Ledoux. She’s a sophomore at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans.

Rachel Ledoux: In my English class, which is the biggest class that I can think of, we've got about 30 students consistently in there. We've got all of our desks in there sort of set up in a circle because there's a lot of discussions and everything, so we need to be able to look face to face. 

Over half of those desks are empty. It's just glaringly obvious, looking at it. It's not like, “Oh, yeah, one or two students are absent.” Most students are absent. 

We're reading a book right now in English. It's a play, so we've assigned parts to people for the play. We keep having to reassign the parts because people aren't there to read the parts.

Adelle MacDowell: It feels a little bit like the day before break, almost, when a lot of students will go on vacation, and the class size will be smaller. It feels a little bit like, “Should we do work? Will we even be productive with this smaller class size?”

Here’s Adelle MacDowell, a senior at Lamoille Union High School in Hyde Park.

Adelle MacDowell: I think a lot of people are comparing it to March 13, 2020, when schools were about to be shut down. There were those two days the next week, at least in our school, where students went to school before school shut down. And it's been feeling a lot like that recently. People are like, “Are we going to shut down again?” I don't think we are, but it's a concern, and people are saying it feels like that.

We have a policy where if more than half of the student body is absent, we can't count a school day. And I believe last week, there was like, exactly half of the student body missing one of the days.

Do they announce that in some way? Is somebody tracking that?

Adelle MacDowell: We're all pretty curious about it. Usually, we'll ask our first block class teacher, “Hey, can you go down to the office and get the numbers and tell us how many are absent?” Usually it fluctuates a little bit throughout the day, and there are more absences by the end of the day. But it's been quite a lot. We have 524, I think, students in total, and absences have been above 130 for the past two weeks.

I think, in general, everyone's pretty curious about it because it's just so strange to walk into a class, and you're one of three students in a class that usually has 10 students. It's been a strange experience.

Anika Turcotte: It varies by the teacher, but a lot of our teachers, I think, are kind of easing up on work and homework because they know kids are in and out of the classroom. 

This is Anika Turcotte, a sophomore at Montpelier High School.

Anika Turcotte: I just think everyone's a little bit tired and low motivation and just trying to get through to a point where we can all be back at school.

I think there's a lot of classes where my teacher has been a little bit flustered because kids are in so many different places on the material. Kids that are in class are further ahead, but then kids that were out of class maybe did the wrong assignment or did the wrong parts of it. 

I think generally, things are feeling pretty rushed but also super slow, if that makes sense. We have the end of the semester coming up, so teachers are trying to cram in summative tests, but then kids are all across the board with where they are on content. So, just pretty confusing.

Rachel Ledoux: Teachers are out all the time. And it's making things very difficult, just from a student perspective, to get things done. Especially this week. Friday is the last day of the semester for us, so we're really winding things up, and we've got a lot of big projects and midterms and stuff due this week. Not having the teachers there to offer instruction for that and provide support during harder academic times for students is definitely a challenge. 

Plus, even teachers that I personally don't have or non-classroom staff members, with the absence of a lot of them, there's a lot more issues happening in the hallways. Kids are getting into fights. There's a lot more vaping in the bathrooms. 

They're combining a lot of the classes because teachers just can't teach. Our theater teacher is teaching a couple English classes right now because the English teacher’s out sort of indefinitely. There’s a whole bunch of issues.

Right now, these students are at the center of some drastic and controversial policy shifts. Last week, the state Agency of Education issued guidelines that recommend schools stop conducting contact tracing and PCR surveillance testing, both of which had been seen as measures that would help contain the spread of the virus. Instead, the state plans to distribute more rapid antigen tests for students to use at home. 

The students I talked to said they had mostly gotten used to the old system. They said right now, the new procedures seem to have their school officials confused.  

Rachel Ledoux: Every day, you're getting at least one or two emails from the district. “Here's the updated Covid protocols for the school. Here's how we're going to fix things. Here's what we're keeping the same. Here's what we're changing.” I just got an email an hour ago with them telling us about new Covid procedures and stuff. It's happening every day.

Adelle MacDowell: The new guidance for schools from the state is really confusing to a lot of people — with testing and contact tracing, how that's changed. And I don't think any teacher at our school really knows what the guidance means.

There's a lot of confusion and frustration around that, I think, especially among staff — but also among a lot of students, who really don't know where they stand if they are a close contact, like whether they need to quarantine, and the definition of close contact for schools.

Annika Heintz: The administration has done the best job that they can in terms of letting people know what new guidance is, but it's just confusing. It's counterintuitive to think that contact tracing is changing, just because that's something that's been so established in the beginning — that if you're in contact with someone, automatically quarantine. That's one of the big things that people are talking about.

There’s been a lot of debate about those new procedures — and about Covid policies in schools more broadly. The voices we hear tend to be state officials, teachers, parents and some health experts — but students said those conversations are taking place in their hallways, too. And just like among the general public, sometimes those conversations are not particularly civil.

Adelle MacDowell: I see a lot of similar debates happening in school. There are teachers and paraeducators who have very different points of view from each other, and I witness some of those conversations. 

Students certainly have very different points of view. There are people in my circle who are very cautious, very careful. And there are people who are really ready to be done with masks. I heard, the other day, the school nurse asking someone to pull up their mask, and they were like, “Eff you. I hope I die from Covid.” There's a lot of students like that in our school as well who will shout in the halls, like, “Covid is a hoax!” to get a rise out of people. We have some very differing opinions in our student body. 

Rachel Ledoux: I've had people say, like, “Oh, well, Covid’s not even that big of a deal anymore.” I think, partially at least, because Vermont as a state is not taking it as seriously anymore. I think we got a bit of a big head from the fact that we were doing so well at the beginning of the pandemic. And now so many people view it as, like, “Oh, well, Vermont's still doing better than other states.” But we're still doing badly. 

The question is what to do next. Some argue that school communities would be safer with a temporary shift to remote learning. And for students in some schools that have been forced to close their doors, that’s effectively what’s happening already. 

Students tend to agree that despite all the chaos right now, they’d probably rather be in school than not — even if that means canceling some extracurricular activities and social events.

Rachel Ledoux: We just really wish they would make a choice about it. Like, if you're going to be lax about it — sure, whatever. But if you're going to claim that you care about students and you want to keep the school open, they need to start cutting down on things. And as much as that's going to hurt, as much as I want to have our ball and want to have assemblies and want to do all my extracurricular activities and everything, I would rather they get rid of that than shut down our school.

Every single time I see one of those emails, I'm thinking to myself, is this going to be the one where they tell us school isn't happening anymore?

And it sounds like what you’re saying is, you're not quite sure how you would feel about that. 

Rachel Ledoux: I mean, from an objective Covid-safety standpoint, I think I definitely want them to. But from a student standpoint and a person who needs a little bit of social interaction — you know, I'm an extrovert, I like being around people — I'm not going to be happy about it. But it's kind of one of those necessary evil sort of things, for lack of a better term.

Adelle MacDowell: I personally think we should stay in person. And that might be a selfish thing, too, because I've taken all the precautions. I'm vaccinated. I'm boosted. So the consequences for me, if I were to catch Covid, would be pretty small. I know that's not the case for a lot of people, and a lot of people would worry about bringing it home to families. But I personally think that the amount of damage it would do to close schools down again would be immense.

A closure lasting longer than a week would really, like — there are so many students this year who are already struggling. There are students who spend their class periods on the bathroom floor because they don't know how to be in class and interact and be a student anymore because of the two years, almost, that they had remote learning. I think it would set us back even further. And we might lose some students if we were to go remote again — and I mean lose in the sense that they just would not come back to school. I don't know how hyperbolic they're being, but I hear a lot of people saying, like, “If we close down again, I'm just going to drop out.”

And when you talk about somebody on the bathroom floor instead of being in the classroom — where do you think that's coming from?

Adelle MacDowell: I think students — especially younger students, underclassmen, who hadn't had the high school experience before the pandemic — are being thrown into freshman- and sophomore- and junior-level classes, and they just don't know how to do it. Their last in-school experience was middle school. The workload is tougher. And they've forgotten how to interact in a classroom setting, and it hasn't been reintroduced slowly. They've just been dropped into it. 

A lot of people are still really struggling. And it's difficult because for teachers, usually they could handle something like this on a case-to-case basis a lot more easily, if like one student is having a tough time, having a crisis. But it's like 50% of the underclassman student body. And when it's those sort of numbers, there's not really an easy way to take every student aside.

Anika Turcotte: I definitely feel good coming to school. I think that the school district is definitely prioritizing safety. I don't know about other schools, but in Montpelier, I think they are. I think it's just going to depend now. When I was out of school (on break), I, and I think a lot of students that I've been talking to agree, we kind of wish we had just pivoted digitally for, like, the next week or so, just because so many people are out. It’s hard to be in and out of school like that. 

How do you think it would be different if you had done that — if they had just switched everything to remote learning for some temporary period of time? 

Anika Turcotte: It would have been a lot clearer, I think, what we were supposed to be doing. Everyone would be on the same page. I think that'd be helpful. 

I would be good with virtual learning for like two weeks. But after that, I think a lot of kids start to lose interest and motivation. And I think it just really depends on the student and if you really wake up at a normal time to go on your Zoom call or whatever — if you feel like doing that or not.

I asked Anika, from Montpelier, about what virtual learning actually looked like in her school this year. Right now, this varies across the state — some schools have no virtual options at all, and some only provide take-home work when entire classes are in quarantine, not just individual students. 

Anika said when she’s been out, she’s mostly been on her own to get her class work and try to get it done.

Anika Turcotte: Basically, in the mornings, or a couple days ahead of time, I just email my teachers. And I'd say, “I'm not going to be in class today. What do you want me to do?” Most of our teachers have planning documents where you can see what we covered in class that day, with links to material and homework and extra resources. So that was helpful. But the teachers that didn't have that, I was pretty much just getting stuff emailed to me and then trying to follow along. I would text my friends in the class and ask them to take notes for me. 

So when I was home, because we're not really set up for distance learning right now, I was probably doing about 25-30% of what kids in school were.

Rachel, from BFA St. Albans, told me something similar. She said this has been true throughout the pandemic, but especially right now — students who want to stay on track and have the right resources can do it, but lots of others are checking out or getting left behind.

Rachel Ledoux: Even the kids who don't have Covid — there's a lot of people who just aren't coming to school super consistently. So when the class time actually starts most days, there's only like five of us there. There's the consistent group of us who are always there on time because we want to be. And if we're lucky, maybe there'll be like 10, 15 kids in there by the end of the period. But it's just very, very small.

And people just kind of wander in when they get there.

Rachel Ledoux: Yeah. Because of Covid, we had to reevaluate a lot of our rules last year, which means a lot of them aren't being enforced as heavily — including tardiness. There isn't really any punishment for being tardy besides just having it marked on our PowerSchool program. So most kids, there's nothing stopping them from, like, going to Dunkin for a latte or something before school and walking in 20 minutes late because no one really cares, you know? 

For kids who didn’t care about it before, now there's not really any incentive to. It's just kind of like, “Oh, well, half the class isn’t there anyways. And it's not like they're punishing me. So why should I show up on time?”

Adelle MacDowell: I think I'm learning less than I would in a normal school year, but I'm also in the unique position where I'm in a program called Epic for every other day, which is essentially an independent study where I'm gaining proficiencies through doing a project of my choosing. And so I feel like it's not going to have that huge of a detrimental impact on me. But I know a lot of other students who are saying, like, “My teacher hasn't been here for weeks. I don't know what I'm doing. We're so behind in the curriculum.” And I think that, over the course of the year, added up with all of the missed-out learning last year, is going to have an impact. I don't really know how college admissions is going to look for the junior and sophomore class, who really haven't had nearly any time in school pre-pandemic. 

Annika, from Mill River, said the current moment is strange. But it’s stranger for her to think about how long students have been subjected to this uncertainty. She’s a senior now. The first shutdown happened when she was a sophomore. 

So yes, there’s concern about how much learning or extracurricular activity will get sidelined during the Omicron wave. But in the end, that’s just one small piece of what these students have dealt with for the past three school years. 

Annika Heintz: I think one of the things that's really, really bizarre to me is just how, back when all this started back in March of 2020, everyone was so so scared, and we were having max, like, 50 cases a day. I think I remember seeing 80 cases one day, and it was a huge deal. And now, we had like 2,000 the other day. And I think it's just interesting because as kids, we feel so adjusted to it — this is just what life is. 

So when people ask me about it, it doesn't really hit me what's going on or what we're potentially missing out on. And then all of a sudden, someone will say something — usually, it's something pretty miniscule — and it really makes you realize exactly how weird the times we're living in are. 

I'll be having a conversation with my friend, and we'll just realize, we haven't been in marching band since freshman year. To me, that's just what it is. But then you say that to someone who did it for six years, and to them that's astonishing. 

It’s just really striking to me how normalized and how adjusted we are, as a whole, as kids. And that's a little scary in and of itself. Like, I don't know if we should be this adjusted to it.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is a senior editor at VTDigger leading the politics team. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Michael spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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