Student outbreak sparks discussion about safety of planned reopening


Matt Mande

Around 150 seniors will return to the Whitman building on April 8. The remaining seniors — as well as juniors, sophomores and freshman — signed up for hybrid instruction will follow on April 19.

By Matt Mande, Jocie Mintz, and Taylor Haber

The Black & White has independently verified at least 10 new coronavirus cases among Whitman seniors over the past three weeks. The outbreak comes two weeks before the first group of around 150 seniors is set to return to the school building on April 8, the largest number of students to attend live classrooms since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. 

As of now, the outbreak will not affect Whitman’s transition to hybrid learning, and the reopening plan will remain on schedule.

The MCPS Board of Education and superintendent Jack Smith instructed school administrators to begin announcing identified cases to their community as of March 15. In four separate notifications, Principal Robert Dodd has now reported five cases — three of which involved individuals who were present on the Whitman campus while potentially infected. It is unclear if the cases reported were part of, or in addition to the 10 in the senior class. 

“I’m very concerned that many people have COVID so close to going back to school,” said senior Grace Mcguire, who plans on returning in person. “I really want to go back, but it’s hard for me to justify it because I really don’t want to spread COVID to teachers, the staff members, the Whitman community or my family.”

In a community email addressed to students, Dodd acknowledged concerns regarding recent local cases and stated that Whitman has taken the necessary precautions to address the cases and minimize risk.

“In each one of these cases, we have collaborated closely with the Department of Health and Human Services and MCPS and followed all health and safety protocols,” Dodd wrote in the email. “The safety and health of our students, staff, and families will continue to be our number one priority as we prepare for the return of students for partial in-person instruction.”

Dodd also emphasized the importance of students behaving responsibly and safely both on and off of school grounds, listing effective precautionary measures such as mask-wearing, frequent handwashing and practicing social distancing.

“It is critical that our students continue to follow health and safety guidelines at Walt Whitman and outside of school in their daily lives,” the message read. “Following these guidelines mitigates the spread of the coronavirus in our community and helps ensure that our students and staff are healthy and safe at school.”

Encouraging students to remain safe off campus has become one of MCPS’ main tools for combating future outbreaks. Administrators can only enforce safe behavior on school grounds, as off-campus events go beyond their jurisdiction. For senior Carlisle Imperial, safety is largely in the hands of the community.

“Keeping a small group that you’re interacting with and limiting your contact with people — obviously, it sucks,” Imperial said. “But in many ways, it’s just our civic duty to look out for the well-being of our neighbors. If a student goes to school after having interacted with eight other students, one of whom may have interacted with eight more students, you get this huge network. They might end up bringing the virus to their classmates, who might bring it home to a family member.”

Senior Josh Harkins shares this concern; he chose not to return to school to protect vulnerable members of his family. The recent outbreak reaffirmed his fears about safety and justified his decision, he said.

“Responsibility for community safety is shared,” Harkins said. “Us students have the responsibility to do everything that we can to stay safe and follow all the rules, like wearing masks and social distancing. But administration has to enforce these rules, too.”