By senior staff members of the Hawk Herald:
As Superintendent Dan Behm and the Forest Hills Public Schools Administration proceed with the decision to move forward to full time face-to-face classes at FHPS, many students strongly believe that their concerns are not being heard or addressed. We are all navigating uncertain times, and we acknowledge that especially now it can be difficult to make decisions that affect our health and safety. As students, we believe that we have not been given many opportunities to share our points of view. We think the decision that was made did not involve students’ input, when we are the ones in attendance. On behalf of many Forest Hills Eastern students, the Hawk Herald believes that our arguments and concerns deserve to be outlined.
We recognize and respect that many of the steps taken by the FHPS administration have been in an attempt to reinstate the structure of school pre-virus. While a return to any form of normalcy may be the first step towards our students feeling comfortable again, we believe that there is great danger in assumed safety.
Kent County Director of Community Wellness, Joann Hoganson, explains that we’re in the midst of experiencing a “very normal phenomenon” known as drift. “As the pandemic progresses . . . it is becoming our new normal,” she stated. “And as it becomes our new normal, people begin to relax . . . we [used to] follow the rules, and all of a sudden we . . . relax our standards. We need to be very careful that we do not drift into more sloppy behavior, which will increase the spread of the virus.”
While clearly risky for students, the return to full-student attendance is a danger to their families—especially if someone in their family has an immunodeficiency or an underlying condition that puts them at greater risk. Often a result of cancer treatment, immunodeficiencies result in one’s immune system failing to work at full capacity, making them more susceptible to illness.
For example, one student on the Hawk Herald staff has a parent who is on immunotherapy, with their immune system only working at 7%. The family has taken every possible step to protect their loved one, but the student’s peers’ outward indifference towards the CDC’s guidelines causes the student to feel anxiety whenever they step foot on campus. Their concern extends to many FHE students and their families—for these community members to contract the disease could result in hospitalization or even fatality. “I think we opened too early,” a FHE junior weighed in. “Especially with flu season coming up. I think our health is more important than school work.”
When the return to full school was announced, the FHPS administration was not short on ideas for implementing strategies to mitigate the spread of the virus. However, when students disregard these practices there is heightened risk for infection. After observing how some students have been “wearing” their masks, we believe there is further reason for concern.
Social distancing within locker banks, hallways, and classrooms is difficult, and dozens of students have disclosed their discomfort as they witness students and staff wearing their masks below their noses during class and in the halls. When asked to adjust their masks, students often roll their eyes and refuse to correct their behavior. Staff members are consistently better at adjusting their own masks, but are unfortunately less observant in requiring students to follow the mask guidelines. Their leniency is particularly dangerous, paving way for repeated offenders. A severe breach in trust has been created between peers and teachers.
It is difficult to form a culture of belonging and school spirit when the foundation of integrity is inconsistent and flawed. “If the students and the school do not follow the protective strategies that we have in place,” says Hoganson, “I think that the likelihood of [the virus spreading] is really great . . . It is going to be even more important now that anyone that has symptoms has to stay out of school . . . [The] wearing of masks, cohorting, and [social distancing] is more important now than it was before.”
Many FHPS families, out of concern for their circumstances or extended family members’ health, stayed partially or completely isolated between March 13th and mid-June. The decision to send children back to school was a difficult one for many families—even when the decision was being made under the presumption that the hybrid guidelines would prevail until the coronavirus had subsided on a larger scale. Switching to full attendance has stripped students of the option to switch to online classes this semester, leading to many students feeling trapped.
“Remote learning was very troublesome for my family . . . [so the online option would not have worked for my family.] So we decided to go to school,” one student admitted. “Upon hearing that students would be reverting back to a five-day, in-person, ‘normal’ school week, many (including my family) were struck with panic.” With no way to opt into online classes (as virtual classrooms have now been filled), many students feeling as though a rug has been pulled from beneath them.
“It’s nice going back to seeing everybody,” shared a FHE sophomore. “But I’m scared of getting COVID because the halls are so packed.” Beyond just physical health, the impact of returning to school under such circumstances has also resulted in a strain on mental health. “Going back full time was overwhelming. My stress level was lower with hybrid, and I liked the smaller classes,” remarked a senior.
On the other hand, we recognize that there are other students in the Forest Hills District who think that the best learning environment stems from full weeks and in-person classes. For some students, their main source of anxiety is due to the looming threat of COVID, for others, the struggle is not in school, but at home. Without a quiet environment void of distractions, some students found it increasingly difficult to focus on school work while learning at home. We know that for many with ADD, ADHD, and difficult situations at home, returning to business-as-usual is imperative for success. We believe that more options should be offered to fit students’ individual needs, as neither physical and mental health are “one-size-fits-all.”
In addition, the end-of-the-day traffic situation needs to be addressed. With car lines regularly stretching all the way to the Knapp-Pettis traffic light, and a fifteen-minute wait to get out of the student parking lot, traffic issues have only been exacerbated by an increased number of students and parents.
If administration and faculty address the issues in this letter, then perhaps the traditional full-in-person schedule is not only a viable option, but also the best for our education. In order to continue doing so, we need to make sure diligence is our top priority—if not, we face the risk of losing all progress and being completely shut down once again.
“Being prepared to pull back is going to be extremely important,” added Hoganson cautiously. “I hope we can maintain schools opened with face-to-face education. I hope that the terrible pandemic is not more disruptive… I don’t want [students] to spend… these important years away from [their] peers and classrooms. [Another shutdown] would be very sad, but it may be very necessary.”
As we see Eastern continuing forwards with the current plan of action, we believe that there are responsibilities all stakeholders of the Eastern community must uphold in order to continue with a successful transition. Stricter enforcement of mask-wearing and social-distancing are of paramount importance when it comes to preventing another large-scale outbreak of the coronavirus. FHPS should also consider moving forward with other fully (or partially) virtual options for those who have immediate family members who are at high risk.
Again, we understand that making decisions at this time is extremely difficult. However, we ask that the Administration take our concerns into consideration, reflecting them in updated policies. We are excited at the announcement of a Student Advisory Council’s implementation across the district, and we plan on discussing our uneasiness with them as well. Students often believe that though our concerns may be heard, nothing comes from us sharing them. Thank you for taking the time to read our concerns, and we hope to hear from you soon.