Photo courtesy of Aidan Harris-Cross

          Picture it: August 23, your first day going back to school in person in over a year. It’s something you’ve been excited about for months. You see old classmates, teachers, and friends — it feels good to be back. There’s one thing that’s noticeably different this year, though; everyone is wearing a mask.

          On August 12, Governor Northam issued a mask mandate in all K-12 schools to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and its highly transmissible Delta variant. COVID continues to infect an average of 180 people a day in Fairfax County, according to the New York Times. These  include a number of students at Westfield High School, such as Manal Khalid, 12.

          “I was really surprised” Khalid recalled. “Nobody expects they’re going to get it, especially when they’re vaccinated.”

          Khalid is one of roughly 20 people at Westfield who have contracted the virus so far this year, and yes, she was fully vaccinated. Such cases are called “breakthrough” cases. 

          New variants of coronavirus are more transmissible and tend to be inoculation resistant, such as the Delta variant. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), this strain of the virus is over two times as transmissible as previous variants, representing over 99% of new cases in the United States and causing more severe illness. Although Delta is mostly infecting unvaccinated individuals, it is leading to far more breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals when compared to other strains.

          Recently, former secretary of state Colin Powell died due to complications from a breakthrough case of COVID-19. This event caused backlash from anti-vaxxers, who immediately began using it as evidence that vaccines are ineffective. Although Powell was vaccinated, his immune system was reportedly compromised as a result of cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Powell’s underlying conditions, along with his advanced age of 84, contributed heavily to his death, and although vaccines and masks are not foolproof, they have been proven to be very effective. Over 90% of people hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated, and unvaccinated individuals are roughly 11 times more likely to die of COVID than a vaccinated person, according to the CDC.

          In addition to helping slow the spread at Westfield, measures such as inoculation and mask wearing give peace of mind to those in our country and in our community.

          “I am [concerned about COVID], but I am vaccinated, and I wear my mask appropriately, even outside of the school environment. I even continue to wash my hands more than I used to,” explained Deborah VanTrees, English Teacher. “Perhaps I am naïve, but I feel as though I am doing my part by being vaccinated and complying with mask mandates.”

          “I feel blessed I was able to get the vaccine because it gives me some peace of mind, but…I’m definitely concerned,” remarked Travis Tucker, Dean of Students.

          Although COVID precautions are necessary and have obvious benefits, they also have their downsides. Last year, Online learning took a toll on Westfield and teachers are left picking up the pieces.

          “This year has been especially challenging-maybe the hardest of my 31-year career,” VanTrees remarked. “After the academic ease of the past 18 months, student skills are not quite where they should be, especially in the standard classes. Both reading and writing stamina are weak as students struggle to read for a sustained amount of time or write beyond a few sentences of response. I find that each class needs far more scaffolding to reach complex and abstract ideas…” added VanTrees.

          Since online school has seemingly failed at effectively teaching and keeping most kids engaged in the material they need to retain, many students and staff members are dreading a return to online school this year. Fortunately though, this doesn’t seem likely.

          “I don’t [anticipate a return to online school this year]. I think that we’re doing a great job with mitigation strategies and it’s our focus to keep everybody in the schools,” Antonio DiBari, Principal explained.

          Although COVID cases have been on the rise since July according to the CDC, vaccinations, mask mandates, and social distancing are the best ways to get us back to normal. This is perhaps best summed up by VanTrees.

          “Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Get the booster. Be responsible for your actions.”