Principal Heckert reflects on unique year and looks forward

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Photo by Matthew Sun

Graduation 2021 will look different than prior years. Instead of being at Constitional Hall in Washington, D.C. — like in 2019 — it will be held at WCHS’ stadium.

By Jeremy Fredricks, Editor-in-Chief

As the end of a school year, mostly defined by changes in how — and where — students learn comes closer to fruition, there are a lot of reflections going on. Everything from virtual learning to social interactions to graduation will be dissected and talked about like a lab report. But before WCHS Principal Brandice Heckert can reflect, she has to get through the final weeks of the school year — filled with a reinvented graduation, testing for COVID-19 and changes in protocol for the virus that has plagued the 2020-21 school year. 

WCHS began testing for COVID-19 on May 11. The weekly testing was delayed by Heckert to make sure MCPS had time to work out how the testing would occur on the high school level. A representative from a third-party vendor — Innova — comes every week to test the students who opted into the program. Heckert said that fewer than five students had signed up for the program, which is why it has been slow to get off the ground. 

“It’s a form and so the county has sent the form out several times as a letter that you have to literally sign to opt in. It’s also in my Weekly Winston,” Heckert said. “They turn that form back in, saying that they’re opting in. It’s not like we’re testing everybody, unless you opt out. You have to give us permission for us to test you.”

There are also different policies for members of sports teams who test positive for COVID-19. Quarantine rules are different because the sports teams were considered ‘pods’ when they started their seasons, which occurred under different CDC quarantine rules.

“There’s a different protocol for sports. A lot of it had to do with the fact that there were different restrictions when we started the season,” Heckert said. “Everyone was in a pod. It depends on who was in the pod and who they were considered to be in direct contact with — that’s less than six feet for more than 15 total minutes. So there may have been examples of members of the same team testing positive but not quarantining because they didn’t fall under the rules.”

The county has also changed up quarantine rules. MCPS students who are in quarantine only have to remain there for 10 days, not the original 14. Fully-vaccinated students don’t have to quarantine if they show symptoms. 

“Slowly, they’re lessening the restrictions on the quarantine protocol,” Heckert said. “Right now, it’s not a requirement for staff to be vaccinated. Obviously, we know with students it’s only 16+ at this point. The county isn’t requiring staff to be vaccinated — that might change by the fall.”

As more people get vaccinated — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the OK for 12 through 15-year-olds to get the vaccine on May 12 — rules can be relaxed and things can return to a sense of normalcy. That included this year’s graduation — which is set to take place on the evening of June 4 in the stadium. Each senior is allowed to bring up to two guests to the stadium which will have COVID-19 prevention protocols in place.

“It’s later in the evening because 2:30 p.m. is in the middle of the heat in June. Plus, it also helps us with parking because we can use Hoover, Cabin John, Beverly Farms and other places that are close enough for people to park and walk,” Heckert said. “There’s a survey out for all seniors who have to state if they’re coming to in-person graduation and who their guests are. We have to provide the ability to contract-trace.” 

The school is also working with the county to get the supplies it needs for graduation. MCPS is giving all the schools what it needs for graduation — including the speaker system and chairs. This is similar to a normal year, where MCPS provides the schools the equipment for practices, but not the main event at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Graduation will symbolize the end of over 500 senior’s time at WCHS. It will also symbolize the end of a crazy year of schooling, one that Heckert — like so many students, staff and parents — is glad is done.

“I think the negative is that it was very challenging. I know that we’re all in a pandemic, and it’s impacted all of us differently. The impact of this pandemic has not been one-size-fits-all, but there’s been a lot of learning and a lot of appreciation,” Heckert said. “I think people have started to elevate and take advantage of seeing people and not taking certain things for granted. In the positives, I see the community coming together. Even in times of difficulty, the community has strengthened as a result and students are appreciating more.”

Heckert said that MCPS is aiming for a traditional five-days-a-week schedule for next year. That will be a disappointment to some who enjoyed having off Wednesdays and hour-long classes, but there is a chance that everything may not change. Heckert says that block schedules are still up in the air for 2021-22.

“The system is expecting to be back in a more traditional five-day week schedule,” Heckert said. “We haven’t necessarily given a yes or no in terms of the block or non-block schedule. We’re gonna try to go back to as normal as possible. I know for me, one of the things I enjoyed was hour-long classes. It’s much longer and we get more done and it’s nice on Wednesdays to see the entire staff.”

Graduation is a time for putting things in perspective and reflecting on the past. The usual excitement of graduation has been a bit diminished from last year, but Heckert sees a bright future for the Class of 2021 and the community as a whole.

“I’m excited for graduation. Last year was really hard for our senior class,” Heckert said. “I know that’s hard but in the grand scheme of things they have so much more ahead of them. To have a graduation ceremony is really nice. It’s hard when you get to senior year and you look forward — at least I do as Principal — to seeing just how far kids have come and the growth they’ve had and their excitement for the future. We’ve missed a lot of that this year. There’s a lot to be proud of and a lot to be thankful for.”