Campus on edge over Omicron, potential for closure

Sofie Zalatimo, Olga Muys, and Lauren Wong

A substitute teacher distributes at-home COVID-19 test kits to students on Wednesday in an AP English Language and Composition class. Rising case numbers and the recent Omicron variant are causing safety concerns among some students and staff members. Junior Anjali Akkaraju said she believes a transition to online learning, though undesirable, is necessary. “I don’t want school to be back online, but I’m just confused why we’re not,” Akkaraju said. “They gave us two rapid tests, which is good because they’re sold out everywhere.”  (Photo: Lauren Wong)

With the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreading, Palo Alto High School community members are expressing concerns about the safety of in-person school, with some saying they hope for — and others saying they fear — a potential return to remote learning.

Senior Isabel Ramirez said she is worried about contracting COVID-19 at school.

“I’ve been really close to getting in contact with it [COVID-19], and I really would prefer not to, as I have a lot of at-risk people living with me,” Ramirez said. 

According to Ramirez, concerns about the Omicron variant have altered the environment of certain classes, such as her Social Justice Pathway and art classes, as students must keep more distance from one another.

Sophomore Gali Nirpaz said the Omicron variant has prompted some students to stay home or mask more frequently.

“I feel like a lot more people are wearing masks outside than there were before,” Nirpaz said. “I know a lot of people that are scared to be in-person since it is so contagious.”

However, senior Victoria Liao said she has observed on social media that some of her peers are attending unsafe gatherings. 

“It’s just concerning to see people our age act so recklessly,” Liao said. “Personally, I’m pretty vigilant about masks and so are my friends, so I’m not too frightened, but I do worry for people who are around those that don’t care for masks or vaccinations.”

Given the recent increase in cases in Santa Clara County, as well as closures of major districts across the nation, some students said they believe a return to online learning may be nearing. According to Superintendent Don Austin’s Dec. 31 update, schools could close due to either California or Santa Clara County Health Department orders, or due to a lack of staff members.

“If schools are unable to remain open due to employee illness, we could see temporary closures,” Austin stated. “If we are forced to close, each grade level and site will be evaluated individually.”

Despite the district’s efforts to safely remain open, Nirpaz said he supports a temporary closure. 

“I feel like we should go online because a lot of people are going to be missing classes and then falling behind,” Nirpaz said. “It’s going to be really hard for them to catch up after they come back.”

Ramirez said a temporary shift to online learning, while not ideal, could help keep students and staff safe.

“I know that online school wasn’t the greatest for everyone,” Ramirez said. “It was horrible for me, and I wouldn’t want to go back to online school for a really long time. But if we did two weeks [online], I don’t think that would be the worst. I just know a lot of people are staying home anyways because they’re scared.” 

Alternatively, librarian Monica Casey said she feels safe being on campus given the masking protocols and testing opportunities

“I feel comfortable,” Casey said. “I’m double-masked, I’ve been boosted, I’ve been vaccinated. The best that we can do is social distance and keep up with expected protocols.” 

Liao said she worries a temporary closure could mirror the March 2020 shutdown, with an initial closure of a few weeks lasting much longer than expected.

Senior Sofia Antebi said despite safety concerns, the school’s ability to function throughout the pandemic is encouraging. 

“I’m definitely worried about the people around me, especially since we’re at school and there are so many people in a classroom,” Antebi said. “But I think since we already have that experience from all these previous outbreaks that we’ll get through it.”

This article was co-published in Anthro Magazine.