First UPA student to test positive for COVID-19 reported

Janessa Ulug

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 involving a student at UPA was announced by Executive Director David Porter in an email to the UPA community on Dec. 2.

The student last attended Horton Connect, UPA’s in-person learning program, on campus in the Horton Auditorium on Monday, Nov. 30. That morning, the student passed both the daily temperature check and a regular screening test that includes the questions “Do you have any cold- or flu-like symptoms?”, “Have you tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days?” and “Has anyone you live with tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days?” Desk shields, masks and social distancing are other COVID-19 precautions currently being implemented. All materials the student came into contact with, such as a laptop, were wiped down before being returned on Nov. 30 as per protocol.

The student was absent from Horton Connect on Dec. 1, and on Dec. 2, Porter received an email at 11:55 a.m. from the student’s family, notifying him that the student tested positive for COVID-19. Santa Clara County (SCC) requires all students and staff to notify school administration when they or one of their immediate family members test positive for COVID-19. Director of Student Services Andrew Yau led a track-and-trace investigation to identify possible staff or students the infected student might have come within six feet of for more than 15 minutes; one student was identified as having made “very brief physical contact”—a high-five—with the positive student and is now quarantining for the SCC-recommended 14-day period.

“We’ve been practicing and going through all protocols and systems—talking about them, editing them, refreshing and reviewing them—that, when it happened, we just kind of kicked into what our process was,” Porter said.

Others present on campus on Nov. 30 had the option to begin self-quarantining, with staff being able to do so without any deduction from sick or vacation days. Starting Dec. 7, however, all teachers were required to start working from home as a result of the rising COVID-19 cases across the Bay Area.

If we are going to come back, it’s not about how strict and how thorough the staff can be at UPA—it’s whether or not the entire UPA community values coming back and reopening.

— David Porter

As for deep cleaning after the incident, a custodial team wiped down the Horton Auditorium the evening of Nov. 30 and a defogger was activated on Dec. 2 in order to reach viral COVID-19 aerosols missed by the wiping because of their small molecular size.

“It basically looks like a CSI episode,” Porter said.

The free, monthly and regularly scheduled COVID-19 testing for staff members for December was administered on Friday.

Eighth-grade Horton Connect attendee Melawat Solomon, who began participating in the program in mid-October, received an email from Porter on Dec. 2 notifying her and the rest of her Horton Connect cohort of the positive COVID-19 test.

“It was really frightening,” Solomon said. “I’ve been trying to stay away from my younger family members and my dad and my sister who are high-risk. I just was worried because we were all there together [on Nov. 30] and I could have gotten it.”

As a precautionary measure, Horton Connect was suspended at the end of the school day on Dec. 2 and will be closed until Dec. 14, but Solomon said she will likely not attend when it opens up again and instead work from home for the remainder of semester one.

“I did [feel safe] before,” Solomon said. “Now it’s sort of different that you know that someone has it.”

Horton Connect operates in two cohorts, one present on campus Mondays and Tuesdays reserved for seventh through ninth graders and another present on Wednesdays through Fridays reserved for sophomores through seniors. Each cohort has an average of 10 to 15 students. One full-time teacher, Shauna Yelnick, and two campus supervisors, Elliott Boesch and Jess Torres, oversee both cohorts.

Students in the seventh through ninth grade cohort complete their schoolwork during Horton Connect on Sept. 28. Distance Learning Support teacher Shauna Yelnick sits on the far right. (Katherine Nguyen)

“It’s been a reality check that we all need to be a little more cautious,” Yelnick said.

Yelnick recalled two other Horton Connect students who were exposed to possibly COVID-19-positive individuals in November. Both individuals were required to cease attending the program for a 14-day period and test negative for COVID-19 before resuming Horton Connect, which they did.

Since being hired just over three months ago, Yelnick has treated every person on campus with the mindset that they have the virus.

“A little part of me feels nervous because it’s very hard to remind students of behaviors we all have to do that we never have done before,” Yelnick said. “So, for the most part I feel safe, but it’s hard sometimes to remember that when a student needs my help, I can’t be as close to them as I would like to help them.”

Although students in the on-campus program followed safety protocols for the most part, they occasionally forgot to sanitize their hands after sneezing or put their masks back on after eating, Yelnick said. Solomon said she has seen a few students make physical contact, such as high-fiving, or removing their masks when in close proximity to one another. For this reason, Solomon explained she does not believe reopening should commence on Jan. 11.

“[Reopening on Jan. 11 is] not wise, especially since we’re teenagers,” Solomon said. “It’s inevitable that people are not going to completely comply with not touching each other and not taking off their masks around each other, so I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

I’m hoping that this will be a reality check and everyone will just do their part and work together to make things better.

— Shauna Yelnick

With Santa Clara County’s recent shift to the purple tier and the reporting of UPA’s first COVID-19 case, the feasibility of the original plan to transition to hybrid learning on Jan. 11 is in question.

Porter called the reopening plans a “calendar game,” explaining that if Santa Clara County does not reach the red tier by Dec. 27, UPA will not begin hybrid learning on Jan. 11.

The next UPA reopening meeting, where Porter discusses updates to the reopening plan and attendees give feedback or ask questions, will be held on Dec. 16, and the link to register for the webinar will be attached in an upcoming email from Porter.

It basically looks like a CSI episode.

— David Porter

Porter explained that hybrid learning also depends on a collective community effort to adhere to COVID-19 protocol, referencing social distance violations at high school parties in the area.

“We’re relying on 700 different people, and that’s a challenge,” Porter said. “The adherence is important. If we are going to come back, it’s not about how strict and how thorough the staff can be at UPA—it’s whether or not the entire UPA community values coming back and reopening.”

Yelnick believes reopening after February Break is a more realistic timeline than Jan. 11. She noted the student who tested positive on Dec. 2 was asymptomatic, and a similar situation could lead to a COVID-19 outbreak despite all the protocols. Yelnick also said that since March, teachers have established distance learning routines that work for their classes, and reopening could disrupt those systems.

“It’s sad because we all have to miss out on stuff, so if any good can come from this [positive COVID-19 case], I’m hoping this will be a reality check for all the people who are like, ‘Oh, the rules don’t apply to me. I have a sense of entitlement. I don’t have to wear a mask. I don’t have to socially distance,’” Yelnick said. “I’m hoping that this will be a reality check and everyone will just do their part and work together to make things better.”

Even though there’s a high survival rate, it’s not just about protecting us. It’s about protecting the people that we love.

— Melawit Solomon

Having experienced a family death from non-COVID causes during quarantine and living with high-risk family members, Solomon is also concerned that transitioning to hybrid learning will result in an outbreak.

“Even though there’s a high survival rate, it’s not just about protecting us,” Solomon said. “It’s about protecting the people that we love.”

Aquila will continue to update the UPA community with new information as the situation develops.