WT, Don’t Go Virtual


Andrew Shlomchik, Staff Writer

COVID-19 cases have exploded in the past month, both throughout the country and within the community. More students and teachers have contracted the respiratory virus and have been forced to stay home than at any other point in the pandemic. These recent developments have propelled the question of whether to move classes online both at WT and across the country. My answer? Most certainly not.

As wildly contagious as Omicron is, for the vaccinated, it isn’t actually that dangerous. Vaccines are very effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death. Those who are vaccinated are very unlikely to suffer serious illness from COVID-19, and those who do often have specific risk factors that make them more vulnerable. Although the original vaccines are not as effective against Omicron compared to previous strains, the protection they offer still largely holds up. Furthermore, booster shots are now widely available for most people, and studies have shown booster shots to be incredibly effective at increasing protection against Omicron variants.

Omicron also seems to cause milder symptoms than previous variants. The hospitalization rate for those who contract Omicron is significantly lower, and even among those who do become hospitalized, symptoms tend to be milder. One likely reason cited by scientists is that the virus isn’t as damaging to the lungs compared to previous variants, with scarring of the lungs and difficulty breathing previously being major factors in serious cases of COVID-19.

Another factor to consider, which is especially important for the WT community, is that COVID-19 infections are less serious for young people, especially children. This also appears to be true for Omicron. Breakthrough infections, as many of us personally know, are now quite common, but the likelihood of a fully vaccinated child or teenager becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 is extremely low. With the additional booster shot, the risk to most students at WT is practically non-existent.

The actual reason that some schools across the country have decided to go back online is the problem of staffing shortages. Increased COVID-19 infections mean that more educators and support staff have to stay home, resulting in not enough teachers being able to come into school and take care of students. So far, at least, WT hasn’t had enough teachers out of school to necessitate such a decision. 

The serious impact of holding classes online must also be considered. Online learning is less effective, and as many of us personally know, often more frustrating and stressful. Social isolation, difficulty paying attention, loss of routine: these are all problems that can result from going virtual. Another impactful side effect of going online tends to fall more harshly on parents than on students; finding childcare for younger students. The only reason for WT to go online, provided that the nature of infections doesn’t significantly change, is if so many students and teachers are forced to stay home with COVID-19 infections that they outnumber those still attending in person.

Such an outcome is highly unlikely, and we still have other less drastic measures we can take to slow the spread that the school administration has yet to put into effect. Enforcing better masks is one of the simplest measures. The evidence clearly shows that cloth masks are virtually ineffective against the Omicron variant. Experts say that the best choice is a well-fitting N95 mask, but as these are often in short supply, well-fitting KN95 and surgical masks are also good options that reduce the risk of contracting Omicron. Surgical masks are now widely available, though students and teachers should be careful in their search for N95 and KN95 masks, given that the internet is rife with counterfeits.

Along with enforcing better masks, Winchester Thurston should mandate booster shots for all who are eligible. The data is clear that boosters are both safe and effective, and their full introduction into the WT community would make everyone safer. Fully vaccinated should mean having received both the original mRNA or Johnson and Johnson shot, as well as a booster shot. Vaccine exemptions should also be closely examined on a case-by-case basis by school administrators. Pool-testing should be mandated for anyone who isn’t vaccinated. These are all sensible measures that require few additional resources but can greatly increase the safety of the WT community.

Winchester Thurston should also be accommodating towards those who do have risk factors that make them more susceptible to serious illness as a result of COVID-19. For example, perhaps older teachers should be given the choice to teach virtually from home; this avoids sending everyone back online and allows an increased level of safety for specific at-risk people.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a risk-free world. There will always be the risk that someone gets into a car accident on the way to school, or perhaps trips and falls down the stairs. We must accept a certain level of risk, especially when the alternative is, without doubt, damaging to students. The risk of any member of the WT community contracting and becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 is extremely low. With the additional measures cited in this article, the risk is practically non-existent. But online schooling, we know, with complete certainty, is damaging. 


Winchester Thurston: stay in person, don’t go online.