Upper School Unmasks

On the day of our first in-person Collection since the pandemic, a Q&A with principal Steve McManus about Upper School COVID plans

Sam Wu, Photo Editor

What are Friends’ plans for COVID going forward?

Well of course, as everyone knows, we are now mask optional, which is a huge step for the school. But we feel like the metrics are permitting us to do that. The vaccination levels and all of the other statistics that we track are going in the right direction.  

Other things that could potentially have a big COVID impact are the big end of year events, things like Prom and Graduation. As of right now, we are planning to have those events in full scale, as they would have happened pre-COVID with all the guests and bells and whistles. 

This is only if we are able to. We always have to hang onto the potential that we may have to go back to all of the restrictions, but right now we are planning forward with a lot of optimism and hopefulness for the spring.

What about next year?

This is the time of year that we’re in planning mode for next year, so we are doing enrollment, and building schedules and course selections. All of that is proceeding with hope that things will be mostly normal. However, it is also proceeding with the expectation that COVID will still be with us next year, and we have to be prepared for periods where we have to put some masking and restrictions back in place. I don’t think it’s ever going to just disappear. But I think that we’ve learned a lot and can operate under a fairly normal set of rules and operations. And hopefully because of that we will be more prepared to effectively deal with any COVID problems that arise.

What effect will the changes in the state/city’s COVID policies have? Will Friends keep certain policies despite changes the city makes?

We try to align with Baltimore City. So those restrictions and rules that the Baltimore City health department puts in place we try to (and in some ways have to) comply with. We are an independent school that can make some decisions independently, but we also want to be good neighbors and good members of our larger community that is Baltimore City and County. So we work to try to stay in line with those policies.

Has Friends ever considered having more restrictions than are in the health department policies?

I think if our number of cases was much higher, if our rate of transmission in school was super high, if our vaccination rates were much lower, we would want to think about it in the context of our school. So even if things were more ‘safe’ outside of Friends, we would have to be more aggressive with our restrictions. But, all of those numbers that I just mentioned are going in positive directions. What we do know about COVID is that vaccines will keep this under control and manageable, and prevent very serious illness. And our vaccination rates are very very high, and our cases and transmission rates are also very low of course, so that’s going to give us a lot of assurance about the decisions we make.

Any closing thoughts?

There’s also a psychological aspect to the pandemic, and I certainly try to keep my finger on the pulse of how people are feeling about things. And from the wave of Omicron, which caused a very big surge of fear and anxiety, what I’m feeling most from everyone now is a feeling of “We’re done. We need to get back to life,” and less of the “Oh my gosh, I’m afraid I’m going to get COVID” which most people we’re feeling last year. And maybe because so many people got mild cases of it at some point, and it mostly has been a milder, flu-like type of thing. Because of that I think, I don’t sense as much of that fear anymore, and what I do feel is people’s eagerness to get back to normal. The masks are probably the most ubiquitous part of this. So, if we have to go back to masks at some point, I think that while people won’t be happy, I think that they will accept it. Because they know that along with vaccines, this is the way to prevent the virus from spreading.