It's been more than two months since students at New Bedford Public Schools began returning to school buildings for in-person classes. So far, the district has seemingly avoided a COVID-19 outbreak, even as cases in the community continue to rise.
But heading back to the classroom has been a strange experience for a lot of students.
"It feels weirdly empty, but also it feels the same," said high school senior Maxine DeJesus.
"It does kind of feel like some sort of post apocalyptic society," added her classmate Raquel Reis.
Hallways are now one-way. And it’s eerily quiet. A little under half of the student body is in the building each day for the high school's hybrid model. Everyone is wearing a mask, so there’s not as much talking between classes. In the cafeteria, there’s plexiglass everywhere: between the chairs and dividing the tables.
"We made the joke like, hey ... we're in an aquarium and you're poking at the fish," DeJesus laughed.
Even so, these students said they really like going to school two days a week. While all of the precautions can make class time feel a little weird, school leaders said they’ve helped keep in-school transmission at bay. Unlike some other districts, there haven’t been any big high school parties on the weekends leading to quarantines or remote learning temporarily.
"They've really risen to the occasion," high school headmaster Bernadette Coelho said of the students. "From ensuring that their faces are covered while they're in class, maintaining social distance and really not having those outside of school parties."
There have been at least 63 confirmed coronavirus cases among students at staff at New Bedford district schools since classrooms reopened, 15 of which were at the high school.
"So far, there's been no evidence of spread in buildings or anything like that," said New Bedford Public Schools superintendent Thomas Anderson.
When there is a potential exposure, the cleaning staff kicks into action.
English as a second language teacher Brittany Jenney said she was in the middle of class when she experienced that. A group of custodians holding sanitizer spray knocked on her door. They didn’t tell her much — just that everyone needed to leave.
"We kind of just walk around in the hallway and looked for a place to go," said Jenney. "So I'm like balancing the students I have on on a video call while at the same time the students I have in person."
It was disruptive, but she was glad to see the district take sanitizing so seriously.
Studies suggest that while older kids and teenagers might be less susceptible to severe symptoms of COVID-19, there’s not a lot of conclusive evidence showing they spread the disease less than adults.
That's a big reason why school leaders in New Bedford and public health officials are keeping a close eye on COVID-19 infections every day. The city of New Bedford has one of the highest positivity rates in the state — 7.3%.
"That that's how we've been managing it," Anderson said. "Sharing what the numbers are ... knowing if there is something in a particular neighborhood, [and] how we're addressing it."
The district also made upgrades to the school ventilation systems. To improve buy-in, they included the teachers union every step of the way.
"A lot of towns didn’t do that," said Fred Pearson, president of the New Bedford Educators Association. "We're working together on issues. We don't have an adversarial relationship right now."
Pearson added that’s partly because the district officials have been pretty transparent so far. The district publishes all confirmed coronavirus cases connected to schools on its website. And school staff also get an email informing them of the positive case.
Staff at the high school said they had received several of these emails over the last couple of weeks.
"The first time we got one, it was like, 'This crazy! Oh, my gosh. Can you believe that?'" Jenney recalled. "It was kind of this weird thing."
But now, she’s kind of getting used to seeing them.
"There was one week that we had three in a row," Jenney said. "So once you've gotten many, it starts to feel normal, to be honest. And I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."
English teacher Takeru Nagayoshi added that while he’s gotten used to hearing about new cases, he’s never completely comfortable with it.
"It's this low grade stress and fear that is big enough to notice and feel in the pit of your stomach when you're going to school," he explained. "But not big enough to to pull the trigger and make some kind of decisive action."
Thanksgiving will be a big test for the district. It’s something that’s weighing on everyone.
"I almost feel like we're headed towards this giant iceberg, so to speak," said Nagayoshi.
The district’s nursing supervisor Wanda Nunes also expressed some concern.
"I mean, there is some anxiety there," said Nunes. "We hope that they all do the right thing."
Because trusting everyone to do their part — whether it’s social distancing and mask wearing, or sharing information — is why New Bedford schools have been to stay open so far.