Mitigation Strategies Used in Classrooms

Elijah Bullie, Feature Editor

As the 2020 summer came to a close, the COVID-19  pandemic did not. Bellevue East High School ramped up their sanitation and spread-reducing precautions before students returned to campus. 

When it comes to knowing the risks of contraction of the virus in the community, the BPS administration turned to the Sarpy/Cass Health Department COVID-19 Risk Dial to determine what the factors at play look like. Updated every Thursday, the dial is set up into four quadrants of green, yellow, orange, and red. Currently, the dial lies in the Yellow sector. Yellow entails that students can return to the school in person, but there are stipulations in place. 

Experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Sarpy County Health Department, along with the BPS superintendent, assistant superintendent, and both high school principals worked together in July to come up with the guidelines for BPS schools to follow.

 “We really started working on that in the summertime saying ‘well, masks are going to be mandated’ that’s a given, but that’s one step,” Principal Jeffrey Wagner said. “Our cleaning procedures have really ramped up. If you go out in the hallways you’ll see custodians walking around spraying and sanitizing the door handles, banisters.”

Even though the district-implemented precautions are intentionally made to protect students, some teachers feel apprehensive about the level of security provided. While students may travel around the school and be exposed to 4 teachers a day, teachers remain in their rooms, coming into contact with around 100 students in a day.

“I do worry about taking germs home to my family, or my husband who’s also a teacher. My sons are both in school face to face at the school they attend, so I worry about me taking something home to them,” instructor Carla Palo said. “I worry about what happens when someone in my family gets sick. Then that puts my students at risk, as well as my husband’s students.” 

The administration set up classrooms with desks at the start of the year, determining how many students can fit in a classroom if they’re actually 6 foot by 6 foot apart. Most classrooms, they found, can only fit about 14-15 kids normally, yet once the year began some classrooms found themselves with 19 or 20 kids in a room at once. 

“It seems that the precautions we’re taking as far as the masks, people being conscious of washing their hands, using the hand sanitizer, all of that seems to be doing what it’s supposed to be doing for us,” Palo said. “I try not to think about it too much; just come and do my job and control what I can control.”

To prioritize safety, the school has implemented several new policies such as one-way hallways and socially distant lunchrooms. The rules will remain in place as long as the Risk Dial stays at the same level, and students now find themselves with the health of the school placed in their hands. 

“I honestly think they’re doing really well. They could have planned the hallways better though,” junior Kassidy Hoffman said. “I thought masks were going to be annoying, but they didn’t bother me as much as I expected. I really enjoy getting mask breaks. I think that’s a really good time to just clear your head, get outside, and get fresh air.  I wish that there was one day a week for a deep clean, just a good strong sanitizing of the school. That would be beneficial.”

With administration, teachers, students and support staff following mitigation strategies and protocols for more than a month into the school year, East is starting to see results. The district has ordered sanitizer bottles for every teacher and some staff members so they can spray down desks, cafeteria, and the main entrance between class periods. There’s hand sanitizer in every classroom for student and teacher use as well. All these efforts go together to protect inhabitants of the school. 

“I’m scared, too. Every day I walk in I’m like, OK, are we going to have another case today?” Wagner said. “ But the good news is that we’ve had no school spread that we’re aware of, or that we can trace. It’s not coming from somebody at school, they’re getting it from somebody at home. But they’re a student here and it gets reported as a positive case.” 

Though other schools in the metro have elected to make the transition to completely online or a half and half model, Bellevue East remains full time and in person. BPS students were offered the opportunity to learn remotely through the At Home Learning Program, but most of the East student body chose to attend in person. 

“I’m actually pretty happy. I’m surprised we made it this far with as few cases as we’ve had, to be honest,” Wagner said. “I was thinking if we made it to labor day I would be shocked, but labor day came and went. Having 1 or 2 cases a week that are isolated and not related is manageable.”

With nearly every facet of attending a school day altered, some are speculating on the possible adverse effects that socially distant learning styles could have on students. While over 300 remote learners have had to adjust to a new education style, the in-person students are also experiencing similar transitions.

“I’ve noticed that my students, and maybe this is just because it’s early in the year and I don’t know my students super well yet, but some of them I feel like they’re not as inclined to talk as they might be if they weren’t wearing a mask,” Palo said. “I’m a lot more hesitant to have them working in groups and moving around the room, which is normally something we would do a lot more in my class. The energy of my classroom feels different than it has in the past.”

Despite all challenges faced, and last minute changes overcome, the East students have continued on into their 2020-2021 school year. The district continues to monitor the Sarpy/Cass Health Department COVID-19 Risk Dial and could make changes to the school year at any moment. 

“I wish that people knew that we are doing a really good job. You hear about all these other schools that aren’t, and I think that Bellevue East deserves some recognition because we’ve had a lot fewer cases than we could have,” Hoffman said. “There’s just so much uncertainty. It’s all changing. It’s really detrimental to those younger classes, but they’re doing really well with it; they’re coping amazingly. We’re all working really hard, and for the most part we have hope.”