It is an odd feeling to be at the end of July and to still have five weeks before the beginning of school. At this point in the summer, we have begun finalizing our COVID mitigation efforts, and, with the caveat that much can change over the ensuing five weeks, I feel comfortable providing you with a broad description of our progress. This is a long letter, but one full of information, so please stay with me!
Let me begin by reminding you that the success we have in keeping our faculty and students safe requires that all members of our community remain committed to our shared responsibility by following safe practices outside of school hours. Please wear masks, socially distance, do not congregate in indoor spaces, and to the extent possible, do not travel to areas with high COVID positivity rates.
As you are aware, we plan on reopening school, five days per week, to all students on Tuesday, September 8th. Unless there is a spike in the number of cases and positivity rates in the Roanoke Valley, I see no reason why this shouldn’t happen. And, again, unless we see a substantial elevation in the presence of the virus in our school community or in the greater community, I believe we can make it through the upcoming year without having to resort to distance learning.
We fully anticipate being able to operate on the published school calendar but it is critical for you to realize that we may be forced to make changes in our school year. There have been a number of experts that have indicated a possible increase in the virus in late fall. Should this become reality, a possible school response may be to move to distance learning for the three-week period between Thanksgiving and January 4th when we return from break. In addition, there are possibilities that might require forgoing Spring Break or continuing school into June. Again, these are possibilities, not likelihoods. I mention them here only so that you will think about possible childcare options and be specifically aware when your travel deposits become non-refundable. Should we be forced to make these decisions, they may come quickly, and we want you to have had sufficient time to think through your responses.
Our planning has been informed by regular contact with numerous state and national organizations and reflects best practices as recommended by the CDC, Harvard University School of Public Health, the Virginia Department of Health, The Virginia Department of Education, and the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry. It has not been easy as these groups often contradict each other and recommendations have changed with growing knowledge of the COVID-19 virus and its spread. We have also utilized our local medical community and have formed a Medical Advisory Board to guide our future efforts in testing and our response to positive test results.
Below is a list of the school-wide mitigation efforts we have taken to protect our faculty and our students. I can’t say it enough: our efforts will only be effective if you take responsible precautions at home. In the near future, you will also receive letters from Victor Lamas and Stephen Belderes describing changes in the school day that will provide additional safeguards for our students as well as creating an atmosphere where a positive test will not require a large number of students to be quarantined. They have been hard at work with our faculty mitigation committee identifying common-sense modifications to our school day.
It is the simplest of all responses but unfortunately, the wearing of masks has proven problematic in our country. But on the advice of medical experts, all students, JK-3 - 12th grade, will be required to wear masks when indoors or outdoors and unable to maintain six feet of separation from other people. This is a change from our earlier requirement that students in grades 3 and above be masked. We have been very pleased with the ability of our youngest students to wear masks during our summer camps and mini-school and I am hopeful our teenagers will be as receptive. In addition, all faculty will wear masks and all visitors to campus will be required to wear masks when indoors or outdoors and unable to maintain six feet of separation from other people. We will have masks available should you forget, but we will rely on students bringing their own masks from home.
This is a requirement, but we do realize that some of our youngest students may struggle a bit with masks. We will be supportive of their efforts to wear them and will not create any unwanted anguish if a child is having a tough day with the mask. That being said, after the first week of our ECP mini-school, we can cheerfully report that our three-year-olds, four-year-olds, and five-year-olds have worn their masks for several hours each day with no problems! Of course, we also recognize the need for time to be spent without masks, and teachers will specifically build in time outdoors when masks can be removed.
Prior to our reopening, we will require all students attending class, on campus, to have a negative COVID test result that is less than one week old. We will offer COVID testing for all students, on campus, on Monday, August 31st and Tuesday, September 1st. These tests will be the less invasive nasal swabs and not the “back of the brain” nasopharyngeal swabs seen on television during the early days of testing. These tests will also be free of charge and more information will follow regarding the specific testing times available for each grade level. Several of you have indicated that you will not be available on those days, and we are able to accept COVID testing from other locations in lieu of our tests, provided they reflect testing done during that one-week window.
Students and faculty will be re-tested, while in school, the week of September 14thand the week of September 28th. These tests will also be free of charge.
The purpose of these three tests is not only to identify infected students but also to establish a baseline positivity rate and trend in positivity for the North Cross community. Following each round of testing, our Medical Advisory Board will review the results, make recommendations for further mitigation efforts, and determine the frequency of future testing.
The first three rounds of testing will be free of charge to the student and it is our hope to continue to provide testing at no added expense. However, as I communicated to you in June, it may become necessary to ask parents to bear the burden of continued testing costs. I recognize the significance of this burden but must weigh it against the added certainty it provides us in maintaining in-person instruction. In the event the potential expense of testing becomes prohibitive to a family, please contact the business office so that arrangements can be made.
See an example of our COVID-19 testing here!
It is unlikely that we will make it through the entire school year without at least one person identifying as COVID positive. When a person tests positive, and is symptomatic, that student will be sent home to quarantine for a period of ten days from when the first symptom occurred until 24 hours after being symptom-free. Asymptomatic students found positive by regular testing will be required to quarantine for 14 days.
North Cross will notify the local Department of Health of all positive results and staff will immediately begin identifying all students that came in close contact with the infected student. Close contact has been defined by the CDC on the basis of being masked or not, socially distanced or not, and the duration of the contact. This definition is subject to change as more becomes known about the virus. Staff will present our recommended response to each outbreak to our Medical Advisory Board, and as appropriate, these students will be quarantined.
Testing will not prevent the presence of the COVID virus on our campus, but it will help prevent a large outbreak. The analogy I have frequently used is driving in the dark with your headlights off. You don’t know you have driven off a cliff until you start to feel yourself falling, and at that point, it is too late to help yourself. Without testing, we are also driving blind, and we will not know if we have an outbreak until it is too large and requires us to close the school. Testing acts as our headlights, allowing us to see where we are going and make appropriate changes before we are forced to close school.
Note: Periods of time required for quarantine are subject to change as we learn more about the virus. Students asked to quarantine will be able to continue their studies via distance learning.
We have restricted classroom capacity to the maximum number of seats possible while maintaining a six-foot distance between them. There have been several organizations that have advocated closer distances if students are masked, but we have retained six-foot margins. Admissions has been quite brisk this summer, and we have turned away qualified students because of these COVID maximum capacities.
Where classrooms use tables and we are unable to spread students a full six feet, we have plexiglass dividers that will be placed between seats. Air Quality
Recent research has indicated that the COVID virus likely exists in an aerosol form and may linger in the air for much longer than respiratory droplets. We have purchased air handlers for all buildings, capable of using a HEPA 13 filter, which is recommended for removing particles the size of the COVID virus. As weather permits, we will increase airflow from the outside.
Studies have also shown that toilet flushing is a significant producer of aerosols unless the lid is closed prior to flushing. We have ordered lids for all of our toilets and plan to have them installed prior to the opening of school.
Hygiene Stations and Disinfecting
Each classroom and all common spaces will have hand sanitizing stations. In addition, there will be regular reminders during the school day to wash hands or sanitize.
We have purchased a number of electrostatic disinfectors which effectively fog an entire room with disinfectant. All classrooms and common spaces will be fogged each evening, and high-traffic locations such as bathrooms will be fogged regularly during the school day. We will continue to wipe down all heavy touch surfaces, such as doorknobs, push bars, and desktops. Desktops will be wiped down between each class, and all seats will be assigned.
Temperature Taking and Wellness Reporting
Upon arrival at school, all students and visitors are required to have their temperature taken. Students and visitors with fevers will be sent home until allowed to return by doctor’s consent.
In addition, all students must complete a daily wellness report by answering a short series of questions about their health. These questions will be found on an app that will be sent to you prior to the beginning of school and will serve in lieu of classroom attendance.
I very much appreciate your patience as we work through the ever-changing recommendations. Our goal is to provide a safe school environment for all students and to remain in session throughout the entire school year. We know so much more than we did last spring, and I am confident this knowledge will allow us to have a different but enjoyable school year. Please safely enjoy the remainder of the summer. I look forward to seeing you soon.
Christian J. Proctor, PhD
Dr. Proctor is the ninth Head of School at North Cross and has served as such since 2011. He has more than 30 years of experience in education. He has served as headmaster at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, South Carolina, St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie, Louisiana, Grace Episcopal School in Monroe, Louisiana, and as Interim Headmaster at Wesley Academy in Houston, Texas. In each location, Dr. Proctor’s tenure was marked by creativity, innovation, and school growth.