After a school year that was anything but normal, students at Capital High say they are looking forward to the fall, when most will be able to sit in classrooms, eat lunch and socialize with friends without the barrier of a screen.
Trisdon Cianpanella, an incoming sophomore, is hoping to travel with his family to Panama City, Florida. His classmate, Priya Patel, plans to run for student body treasurer. Incoming junior Aiden Holbert wants to make up for a lost soccer season.
Expectations at the school are high, but they hinge on enough students ages 12 and up getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
“That’s what the situation is at right now — the more kids who are vaccinated, the more ‘normal’ the school year will be,” Capital High Principal Larry Bailey said. “We are letting the parents make their own decisions, but that’s the truth of it. If kids aren’t vaccinated, we can’t make promises for what next year will look like.”
Large swaths of unvaccinated people in the school increases the likelihood of outbreaks and time spent in quarantine. Sports teams will miss games. More students will have to rely on online learning.
Bailey said nobody wants to endure another school year like this one but, without enough people vaccinated, it could become a reality.
Bailey didn’t have exact numbers for how many eligible students or staff members at the school are vaccinated. Speaking about the staff, he said “more than not” have received a COVID-19 vaccine.
According to state data, there are 125,300 12- to 18-year-olds in West Virginia. That group has received a little less than 30,000 vaccines, although it’s unclear how many in that population are fully vaccinated. That rate is higher in Kanawha County, where about 5,000 vaccine doses have been distributed among the 12,400 12- to 18-year-olds.
While statewide COVID-19 numbers have been on the decline in recent weeks, the pandemic — and the risks it presents — is far from over, said Dawn Grigsby, a family nurse practitioner and school-based health coordinator at Capital High.
“Today feels better, certainly, than we felt last year, at any point I think. But I think we all know there’s more to this than throwing away the mask and never picking it up again,” Grigsby said. “I wish participation [at Capital High] was a bit higher, but it’s great to collaborate in any way and provide the opportunity for people who do want it to get a vaccine.”
Grigsby said she is hopeful vaccination rates will be higher by the time school is back in session, but she acknowledged that coordinating vaccine efforts with students on summer break could be difficult.
“With school out of session, we don’t know where the kids are anymore, not like we do when they’re, you know, at school every day or connected in some way,” Grigsby said.
She said another challenge is reaching students who are anti-vaccine or vaccine hesitant.
“Our job is to make sure they have the right information in front of them to make it,” Grigsby said.
For Priya, 14, who spent her freshman year doing in-person classes and who will continue that — fully vaccinated — for her sophomore year, it’s also frustrating. She said she feels like she missed out on a year, and if other students aren’t going to take the virus and the benefits of the vaccine seriously, she doesn’t know what next year will look like.
Priya said she has friends who would get the vaccine but who are scared of needles. Others, she said, can’t get one because their parents don’t support it.
“That’s probably the most frustrating,” she said. “I’m happy I didn’t have to deal with that.”
Aiden spent some of his sophomore year doing distance learning before transitioning into in-person classes.
“We’re an in-person family, and school for him needs to be social. The online just wasn’t working,” said Emily Holbert, Aiden’s mother.
Holbert is also a nurse, and while her children — Aiden has a 12-year-old sister who also is fully vaccinated — struggled to navigate schooling throughout the year.
The decision to get vaccinated was Aiden’s, although he admits he was unsure at first. But he wanted to spend time with his grandmother, who he didn’t see for most of the pandemic.
“It took me a minute, but after thinking about it, I didn’t see why I wouldn’t [get a vaccine],” he said. “Finally, when I decided, I’m pretty sure it was the right choice.”
Emily Holbert was happy with his decision.
“It’s about helping and protecting the people around us, too, not just us,” she said. “For us, as a family, the risks of not getting the vaccine outweighed all the other stuff. We needed the connection and the protection it provided, but everyone needs to make that decision on their own. Do your own research, make sure it’s accurate and, no matter what you choose, be safe.”