Herb Cox, principal of Midway Middle School in Hewitt, Texas, was nervous about returning to school five days a week when the 2020-21 school year started with the pandemic still raging.
“I was scared that we were going to have a teacher get sick and die,” he recalled. “Thirteen-year-old kids getting sick and dying on campus. What am I going to do about that? I was very scared.”
Fortunately, the number of coronavirus cases on campus has remained low. By the end of the first semester, about 20 faculty members and 40 or the school’s nearly 1,300 students had tested positive, and about 230 students have missed school at some point because they had to quarantine.
“I think we’ve done a phenomenal job taking care of everybody,” Cox said.
The school operates in part on a kind of honor system—relying on parents to let administrators know that their child or someone in the household has tested positive for the coronavirus.
“We just have to take their word for it—if you are exposed and if you test positive, let us know,” Cox said. “They’ve been really good about it.”
Teachers also fill out a series of screening questions every morning.
“The biggest pushback we’ve had is from kids who are playing in athletics,” he said. “‘We’re going to miss football games.’ I’m sorry. That’s our protocol. We have to protect the other 1,300 kids.”
He credits the safety measures for the low case count. In addition to masks, teachers spray and sanitize desks between groups of students, the four-minute passing period between classes has increased to six, and the school now has staggered release, with two hallways at opposite ends of the building open at an any one time.
None of this is what we signed up for. None of this is what middle school should be like. This is what this year is like.”
Students are grouped by class during lunch. Seventh and 8th graders are separated at pickup time at the end of the day.
Students are dropped off and picked up by their parents at one end of the building, while those who take the bus are picked up and dropped off at another end.
“We want them to be socially connected, but physically distant—keeping that social and emotional learning piece in mind through all of this,” Cox said.
Still, even with all the precautions, cases have cropped up, including on the football and basketball teams—right before the championship games.
A system of tracking—and separating—exposed students and staff
Cox keeps track of the cases with color-coded Google forms, which list all students and staff who have tested positive for the coronavirus or who have been exposed and need to quarantine. He uses those forms to locate and isolate students and others who may have had sustained contact with the infected person, at school or on the bus.
If an infected student had more than 15 minutes of sustained, unmasked contact with others, those exposed are called to the auditorium—put behind a curtain and spaced six feet apart while they wait to be picked up.
“They could be sitting on the stage for hours, with an [assistant principal] checking in on them,” he said.
They will then be sent home for 14 days. (This semester it will be modified to 10 days, based on changes made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. )
Early in the year, students were not initially told why they were called to the stage, but months into the semester students have figured it out—and their reactions vary.
“Some of them are like, ‘I get to go home for 10 days,’” he said. “They still have to do the work.”
Others are upset that they’d miss athletics.
“They are the ones whose parents are really angry; that it’s not fair,” Cox said. “No, none of it is fair. None of this is what we signed up for. None of this is what middle school should be like. This is what this year is like.”
The yeoman’s work, Cox said, is shouldered by the school’s nurses, who are in charge of the effort and call the parents.
“Our nurses take the heat from the parents who are angry,” he said.
Leading during this school year has been exhausting, Cox said. At one point, six teachers were in quarantine at the same time; substitutes, paraprofessionals and other staff members pitched in.
“For me, the burden of just making sure that everybody is safe—it’s just emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting,” he said.”
At the same time, he said, “I have a lot of faith in my administrative team. I have faith in my teachers to do what’s right for kids, and we’ve had to have faith in our parents to follow that honor system … and have faith in the resilience of our kids.”
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