When the school where I work as a school psychologist reopened on June 22, about 20 of us on the education staff returned. My school is inside a juvenile detention center. In the spring, while we taught online classes, several Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) workers, who staff the facility 24 hours a day, had contracted the virus, as well as several youth. Fortunately, everyone recovered, and by mid-June there hadn’t been a case in the facility for a month.
Statewide, Maryland had done well with flattening the curve. Many youth had been released, so we returned to only 35 students. Masks were required for all, hand sanitizer was provided, and there weren’t more than eight people in any classroom at once. Our students have always been grouped in “pods,” taking all classes with the same unit of peers. I worried about the air, as there have been complaints about poor ventilation for years. But I reminded myself that the virus had already been through the facility. I looked forward to seeing my students and co-workers again as I’d missed them.
The first three days went smoothly. We were asked health questions and had our temperatures taken every morning. I used an empty classroom to see my students individually for counseling. Even with the strangeness of sitting 6 feet apart across a table (which I sanitized with wipes in between students) and talking through masks, it went well.
On our third day back, we had a memo from human resources in our email inboxes that said two DJS staff had tested positive during universal testing. Despite this, we educators were still required to report to work on site. When I arrived the next morning, I asked if they had worked in our school. One had. “We were all exposed,” I remember my principal saying.
We kept working, five days a week, eight and a half hours per day. As universal testing continued, more DJS staff continued to test positive. During our second week back, the entire facility was sanitized by a small army of “storm troopers” with gas masks, hazmat suits and backpacks full of chemicals. The next day, a unit of students was mysteriously put on quarantine. I had just seen one of the students for counseling the day before. He and his peers must have been exposed — but to whom? Would they be OK? And if my student had been exposed, was there a risk to me, as well?
A second round of universal testing took place our third week back. That Thursday, I took a previously planned day off. By 9 a.m., I had a message from one of the teachers: “You should know I tested positive and was notified this morning.” My heart sank. He now felt like he had the flu. But he’d had no cough, shortness of breath, or loss of taste or smell earlier that week. His temperature had been normal every morning. I’d just used his classroom the day before to see kids for counseling while he taught in another room. At that point, administration finally allowed us to resume virtual teaching. But we had all been exposed.
Despite the masks, the social distancing, the deep cleaning, and the hand-washing, the virus had come for us. It had taken fewer than three weeks. Can we be certain this teacher caught it at work? No. But none of us caught it during the 13 weeks we worked away from the school. Due to universal testing, we know none of us had it our first week back. But two weeks later, one of us tested positive.
As I write this, eight DJS staff, two students, and one teacher in my facility are sick with COVID-19. So many youth have been exposed that we now have only two units that are not being quarantined. We have a small education staff and student body, and we had universal testing to alert us to pre-symptomatic cases (health questions and temperature checks didn’t catch them). Also, at that time cases in Maryland had leveled off. If this can happen to us, what will happen if larger schools try to resume in-person instruction, where universal testing isn’t done every two weeks, where cases in the community are spiking?
It seems almost certain there will be outbreaks that go unnoticed until they are major, until the entire school or even the district has to shut down and return to virtual learning anyway, until some teachers and students get very sick, and even die. Is it worth it? After my experience, I would say absolutely not.
Victoria Rentz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a school psychologist at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.