When the COVID-19 pandemic began with force in March 2020, the Catholic, all-boys Mount Carmel High School in Woodlawn closed its building and began holding courses remotely. Last year, most students returned to school, but with strict safeguards in place and up to 170 still learning from home.
Now, all 581 students are back, and except for the required masks, which staff cheerfully remind certain teenage boys to pull up over their noses in the hallways, things are functioning fairly normally. Around 80% of the student body has been vaccinated, according to a survey this summer.
"I would say there's kind of an odd sense of calm to start the year, versus last year," Principal Scott Tabernacki said in a mid-September interview. "We've been able to scale back a little bit, thinking back to last August, with temperature checks outside and hand sanitizer and all that."
For distancing's sake, some classes last year were split, with part of the class having the teacher in the room with them and the other half learning over a livestream in another room. The school taught classes in the old gymnasium and lunchrooms. This year, everyone is in the same classroom.
Tabernacki said it was simply difficult to relay teaching online, and attendance was always a question. He said Mount Carmel's school culture suffered over the remote-learning period, with no intramural sports and very few all-school Masses. But there was no uncontrolled transmission in the school, and contract tracing worked with other identified cases.
"We felt like we could come back, and we knew what to do really well with the policies and procedures already in place from last year. We thought we could make this work this year," he said.
Now, sports are up and running, attendance is good, and at the time of the interview, Tabernacki said there had been no COVID-19 issues. At the time, nearly all staff had been vaccinated.
Tabernacki said Mount Carmel, 6410 S. Dante Ave., is providing students' families with information about vaccines and encouraging them to get their sons immunized. The school was a public vaccination site with the Illinois Department of Public Health on Sept. 23, and as a University of Chicago pediatrician has come to give COVID-19 vaccine shots this school year to students, their families and the public alike.
Brendan Conroy, president of Mount Carmel since April, said the school's high student vaccination rate comes from everyone's sense of community responsibility towards keeping in-school instruction going.
The nation's vaccine mandate policies are evolving. In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered pre-kindergarten through high school teachers and staff to get vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 weekly; President Joe Biden's administration is crafting mandates for businesses that employ tens of millions of Americans.
"I wish that the State of Illinois would take the lead and say, 'Just like measles, mumps and rubella, you've got to get a COVID-19 vaccine," Conroy said. Mount Carmel could try to mandate it on its own, but he said a state requirement would make it easier, and he said that there are safeguards in place, like stringent testing, for people who invoke religious or philosophical exemptions for vaccines.
Conroy noted that the humongous Los Angeles Unified School District has mandated COVID-19 vaccination for students 12 and older, wishing them luck with the hundreds of thousands of students included under the order and that it sets a precedent across the country.
COVID-19, even as it becomes an endemic disease, will be a long-term disruption. Though the worst of the pandemic seems to have passed, it has dramatically, and permanently, changed the way Mount Carmel operates.
Tabernacki said the routinization of cleaning has changed his staff's working habits. There has been an added emphasis on the school's counseling department, which is now better staffed, and social-emotional support. "Family structures were breaking down. You needed that extra support," he said.
Mount Carmel is seeing a new academic gap in its new students, whether they are matriculating from grade schools or from other schools or homeschooling. "Those come with consequences, in a sense, for their path here, and what we need to do," Tabernacki said, "is say, 'What do we need to do to support them right away?'"
Matthew Potter, who lives in Woodlawn, said beginning high school at Mount Carmel in the fall of 2020 was tough, but familiar. He came to Mount Carmel from the Ancona School, 4770 S. Dorchester Ave., and said being in one small class with a handful of other students every day was pretty much the same experience as he had at his old school. That being said, when he was in the building, he felt as though the COVID-19 protocols were keeping him safe.
This year, he's gotten to know more of his classmates, and the relationships have been better. He gets to sit with more people at lunch; last year, there were only three allowed per table.
"Last year, it was the same two people I was talking to every single day," he said. "Now I have seven more people on a daily basis."
Tabernacki observed that lunches were eerily quiet last year. This year, the lunchrooms sound like what they are: for better or worse, full of teenage boys.
Elijah Jointer, of Hyde Park, was recruited to play basketball at Mount Carmel. He's always enjoyed being on the team. He feared the pandemic's disruption, right in the middle of high school career, would be a blow to playing the sport in college, but he is entertaining several offers now, in his senior year.
Academically, he appreciated his teachers' commitment during the remote period, but he noted that having to email for help was fundamentally different and more cumbersome than just being able to raise his hand or stay after class.
High school only lasts four years, and it only happens once in a lifetime. Just like a war or any other long-lasting world historic event, those who attend high school during a pandemic are not going to have the experience they imagined they would in more normal times. For three years now at Kenwood Academy, Principal Karen Calloway has said that students have questioned her whether or not they will get to have a prom in the spring.
"Going through this, I feel like I've had all the emotions. I've been happy, sad, and there's been plusses and minuses to this. But no one could have ever guessed this was going to happen," Jointer said. "Of course, I was mad that my high school year didn't go as expected, or as the seniors before me had, but at the same time, you have to make the best of it and work with what you have."
Tabernacki, for his part, said his students are handling the circumstances by and large "incredibly well, and probably better than us adults at times, too."
Last year's basketball season went on, he said, but, played amid a pandemic, it felt perceptively off, Tabernacki said. The football season was moved to March. A graduation ceremony happened with the seniors in cars. But the students fell in line with the unprecedented expectations.
"They're just incredibly resilient," said Tabernacki. "They got through it. I think they lean on each other. They helped us as adults get through it, too, and really supported each other through it."