Reporter’s Notebook: New Year, Old Concerns

Mask neglect, unvaccinated students risk another shutdown

Walking the halls of Haldane High School in September for the first time in three months, I noticed striking differences from the beginning of school a year ago. 

With hybrid learning discontinued, the halls are full of students. Last year, no more than half the student body was present in the building on any given school day. Julia Sniffen, the high school’s principal, visited one class for each grade to give a small talk, a tradition suspended last year due to the pandemic. Desks are closer together than before because all students are back to attending class in-person.

There are also some disappointing similarities. 

All classes have assigned seating, in order to make contact tracing easier. Some classes bind you to the seat you choose on the first day and others have pre-planned seating. (Students have, as you would expect, expressed their displeasure with this.) In addition, masks must be worn within all school buildings. Although these measures are undoubtedly essential, the lack of enforcement with masks dents their effectiveness. 

Students still wear them on their chins or with their noses uncovered, oblivious to the effect it may have on the rest of the year. A few teachers don’t bother to correct them, and in other cases some teachers need to ask the same groups of students multiple times to put their masks on, with only the threat of a zero grade for the day to discourage them. 

Enforcement varies greatly from class to class. One student told me that his classmates generally seemed responsible; another said teachers would remind students once to wear their masks right before giving up and never asking again. In most of my classes, students and teachers are following the guidelines, with some exceptions. In one of my classes, only I and one other student wore masks correctly. Everyone else was either wearing the mask incorrectly or not at all, including the teacher.

The question must be asked: Have we learned our lesson as the delta variant drives up infections in Philipstown and Putnam County? While this year has the potential to be more productive, safe and fun for students, there must be stricter enforcement to avoid an outbreak, since many students are not vaccinated in the middle and high schools and none at the elementary level. Unlike at many schools, the middle and high school students comingle in the middle school building for some classes, such as art. 

The state could also do more. As of Thursday (Sept. 16), only 54.5 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 15 in Putnam County had received at least one vaccine dose since becoming eligible to receive the two-dose Pfizer vaccine on May 12.

While it’s not clear how many middle and high school students at Haldane have been vaccinated, there seem to be three groups: students who are vaccinated, those who are not by personal choice and those who are not by parental choice. With the Food and Drug Administration’s recent full approval of the Pfizer vaccine for people 16 and over (adolescents 12 to 15 years old are still eligible for Pfizer under an emergency use authorization), why has the state not imposed a vaccine mandate for high school students? 

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which is located in a county where 67.3 percent of its residents have received at least one dose (compared to 69.5 percent in Putnam) announced on Sept. 9 that all students 12 and older must receive their first Pfizer shot no later than Nov. 21 and their second dose by Dec. 19. Students must be fully vaccinated, with the second shot, by Jan. 10. 

The combination of unvaccinated people and the more-infectious delta variant presents a real possibility that schools will have to shut down again. 

I asked multiple Haldane students who have not been vaccinated about a mandate; nearly all opposed it, the exception being a classmate who said he would support it because it would pressure his parents into allowing him to get the vaccine.

Beato, a senior at Haldane High School, is a correspondent in The Current’s Student Journalism Program, which is funded by our members.

6 thoughts on “Reporter’s Notebook: New Year, Old Concerns

  1. Excellent reporting from this young journalist regardless of what you think about masks in schools. Thank you, Ezra!

  2. The school year has barely begun and already there are over 800 COVID quarantined classes in the NYC school system. This excellent reporting by Ezra Beato revealing the safety protocol gaps at Haldane just proves that our local “chain of protection” is only as strong as its weakest link.

    That any teachers at Haldane are unmasked indoors, unvaccinated and neglecting their responsibility to enforce safety protocols is alarming. That Putnam County Hospital has the lowest vaccination rate of medical, administrative and support staff in the entire state of New York is doubly alarming. Additionally, the fact that New York first responders show such low rates of vaccination is troubling too.

    A mandate requiring vaccination of all employees at public schools, medical facilities and first responders is the right thing to do and I hope Gov. Hochul will see the wisdom of it soon. These workers must be held to the highest COVID safety standards because ultimately, their jobs’ core missions are to protect and educate the public. If these employees do not accept their fundamental responsibilities to the larger communities they serve (who also fund their paychecks), a career change should also be mandated.

    Folks, we will never get control of this pandemic, move beyond the economic pain, and heal the personal heartache we’ve been suffering if people refuse to step up and do their part to protect their neighbors and community.

  3. Kudos to Ezra Beato on his excellent reporting on lax compliance with COVID-19 guidance at the Haldane High School. He has documented improper masking and lack of enforcement of mask policy and unvaccinated students at Haldane High School. The high vaccination rate and low case rate in our ZIP codes has lulled students and Haldane School teachers and leadership into complacency.

    As Beato pointed out, with the spread of the Delta variant, this is a recipe for increasing COVID-19 illness and death in our community in the months ahead. It would be great if Beato’s reporting would serve as a wake-up call for students, teachers and school administrators to take corrective steps. Perhaps Beato and The Current could do follow-up bi-weekly or monthly reporting on this matter to put a spotlight on Haldane High School and maybe even extend this reporting to Beacon High School. Indeed, The Current’s Student Journalism Program is making a difference.

  4. Ugh. This is so discouraging. Thank you for this important reporting. One in 500 Americans are dead and Haldane can’t even enforce the mask mandate? Protect our kids and your community, Haldane! [via Facebook]

  5. Vaccinations should be mandatory for children over age 12. It feels fantastic to be responsible toward other’s health, and one’s own. [via Facebook]