With autumn leaves falling, cooler weather in the air, and the holiday season imminent, people will likely be spending more time indoors and possibly in larger groups. How do we do that safely during a pandemic? On Wednesday, October 21st, The New Century School presented a special virtual Question and Answer session to answer these questions and many more.
Note to readers: Chances are very good that you’ve had many of the same questions. This post is a comprehensive accounting of the event, so if you don’t want to or are unable to read it in its entirety, skim to the topics that concern you most.
TNCS Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director Roberta Faux emceed the event, beginning with some relevant announcements and updates.
TNCS Safety Announcements
After zero cases of COVID-19 in Quarter 1 of the 2020–2021 school year and no forced school closings, it’s clear that the hybrid model is working. With Quarter 2 beginning November 5th, in-person attendance will increase. About 60% of K–8 families will be on campus full time, another 23% will be half time (every other week), and about 17% will be fully virtual.
A second announcement was about the community pledge to consider getting a flu shot to keep everyone feeling a bit more comfortable. Of the approximately 149 students and 39 staff, 53% reported getting vaccinated. “We’re hoping to get to at least 70%,” said Roberta, “so fingers crossed.” (Her wish was granted—just a few days later, the rate of vaccination is 75%.)
Finally, TNCS began biweekly “Safety Audits” to check for proper mask-wearing, that the intake/outtake fans are running, and that desks remain 6 ft apart. In general, compliance has been excellent: 3rd- through 8th-graders are consistently 100%, K–2nd-graders are averaging 91%, and preschoolers are ranging between 73%–91%. These statistics are regularly shared with staff to encourage increasing compliance.
After this welcome and updates, Ms. Faux gave the Wellness Team the chance to say a few words each about themselves and encouraged attendees to type in questions in the chat box along the way to make the evening as interactive as possible.
Meet the TNCS Wellness Team!
Drs. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, David Griffith, and Nishant Shah comprise the TNCS Wellness committee. Here are their takes on COVID-19 risk management and best practices, both in and out of school.
Dr. McDonald-Mosley began by explaining her long history with TNCS: “I am a parent to a current 7th-grader at TNCS and a recent graduate. We have been a part of the TNCS community since before it was officially The New Century School, back when it was Patterson Park Montessori. So this community to be honest feels like more of an extended family to me than just a school, and that’s the passion that I bring to this team during the tumultuous last few months.”
She is currently the Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, where she has been navigating health care delivery in these “interesting times,” including implementing COVID-specific policies for seven health centers of about 120 staff and 35,000 patients a year. She is an Obstetrician/Gynecologist by training and also has a public health background, having attended Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“I want to take a second to applaud Ms. Faux and Señora Duncan and all of the staff who’ve been working tirelessly to balance keeping the doors open with keeping everyone safe and all of the work that they’ve been doing there,” said Dr. McDonald-Mosley. “I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to convene with you this evening and hopefully answer some of your questions.”
What Dr. McDonald-Mosley felt was an important topic to discuss is the looming holiday season. “For my family,” she said, “Thanksgiving is the ultimate holiday. For those of you who don’t know, my husband is a chef and the owner and proprietor of Black Sauce Kitchen. At Thanksgiving, we throw down! We get together as a huge family and it’s a huge deal.” But with elderly family members, she described needing to be really thoughtful about exposure during the holiday season and what that will mean.
We don’t want to take actions because we miss our family that could potentially put them at risk of being admitted to the hospital or worse by the end of the year. So, my ‘pearl’ is be mindful, be thoughtful, try to think ahead and make some plans. We all want to spend time with our family and friends but perhaps finding a way to do that more safely and implementing some risk-mitigation strategies during your holiday plans would be my advice. If you have specific questions about your plans, we’d be happy to touch base on those offline.
Dr. Griffith has a kindergartener and a primary student at TNCS. He is a pediatrician and internal medicine doctor with special training in pediatric and adult infectious disease. He works at Johns Hopkins, where he cares for pediatric patients admitted to the hospital, and also at both outpatient adult and pediatric infectious disease clinics. “I’ve been focused clinically on the active disease, and it’s been nice to be part of this group and to think about how we mitigate risk and what we can do to help our school community,” he said. “I also want to echo how nice it’s been to work with the school and administration. As a parent, I feel the messaging has always been very clear and the staff has been really responsive, so I’d like to commend Ms. Faux and Señora Duncan on all the work they’ve done.”
Dr. Griffith brought up the topic of “COVID fatigue.” We’re tired of this thing and yet it’s an important time to check in and discuss the coronavirus because we’re likely going to continue seeing increasing cases. Although we’ve learned a lot over the last 7 months, this is a novel virus, and its transmission and disease course was largely unknown. “We must make sure we’re doing everything we can as a community to keep all of us safe.”
Dr. Shah has a 3rd-grader at TNCS and says he considers TNCS a part of his extended family. They have been in Baltimore for 5 years and love being part of the community. Dr. Shah is a family medicine physician and works with Dr. McDonald-Mosley at Planned Parenthood. Before coming here, he worked in a public health department at the county level in Martinez, California doing infectious disease outbreak investigations. “The language is familiar,” he said, “but this disease is not.”
As the newest member of the Wellness Committee, he thanked the others for the work already done to get us to where we are now and feeling more confident about making decisions.
It’s new to all of us, and I feel like I’m learning something new every day. It’s changing what I’m saying to people and it feels kind of crazy, but I’m doing my best, and my mantra to all through all of this has been ‘safer not safe.’ Whatever I do, I try to make it safer because there’s no way to know whether it’s actually safe or not. So, ‘is there a way I can make a situation safer?’ is kind of the way I think about it.
Dr. Shah got some audience love with his closing statement: “Little by little, things will get better and things will get safer. But winter is coming.” As chilling as any Night King, we’re bracing for what winter will bring.
Parents could submit questions ahead of time or while the Q&A was happening. The topics raised are most apropos—again, you’ll likely be seeking answers to many of these same questions. Committee members handled the issues in a “round-robin” fashion.
How Will We Celebrate Halloween?
With Halloween right around the corner, Dr. McDonald-Mosley recommends using Dr. Shah’s framework of safer and thinking about risk mitigation as we’re wondering how to celebrate Halloween. The CDC and Baltimore City are not recommending traditional trick-or-treating.
So, to be safer, think about other ways to celebrate: you could organize an outside gathering with people wearing masks and kids swap prepackaged treats. You could plan a scavenger hunt or pumpkin carvings or a costume parade in your neighborhood. Think about activities that allow you to recognize the holiday and allow the kids to dress up (if that’s important to you and your family and your culture), but do it in a way that doesn’t involve direct interaction with large groups of people or large numbers of strangers.
Dr. Shah added that it’s okay to back out of a commitment. Have a backup plan and set expectations so you can always change gears if you don’t feel comfortable.
Timeline for Mask-Wearing and Social Distancing?
Dr. Shah fielded this one. “As we’re getting more COVID fatigue,” he said, “we’re all going to start to try to figure out safer ways to see family, to participate in activities, to let the kids do sports or whatever. Even in those contexts, COVID won’t be behind us.” Most scientific communities are acknowledging that COVID is going to be around for some years to come, and even when we have an effective vaccine and better treatments, “effectiveness” just means less rapid spread rather than 100% elimination. “Mask-wearing and social distancing give us the most bang for our buck in preventing transmission,” said Dr. Shah. “I anticipate that those principles are going to stay in place this year and probably the next school year. They might change a bit, but just know that the antibody treatments and vaccinations you hear about on the news are things that even when approved and available are going to be slow to roll out.” Maryland just released their plan for vaccination, and high-risk groups will be first. As vaccines and treatments aren’t being tested in kids, they will not be in the first rounds of vaccinated individuals, so it wouldn’t serve the TNCS community to compromise the safety protocols currently in place until we fully understand what the rollout of vaccines will involve.
Dr. McDonald-Mosley agreed, adding, “We’ve never had a vaccine development at this speed before and at this scale and so many uncertainties surround it. What we do know are that masks and and social distancing help. The vaccine will catch up eventually, but I don’t think we can hang our hats on that being the solution any time soon.”
Are Play Dates Still a Thing?
Dr. Griffith discussed whether it’s okay to have play dates outside of school. “It’s along the same lines of knowing your family’s own assessment of risk and trying to make things as safe as possible,” he said. “I think it’s very reasonable if you are outside with smaller numbers—maybe one other child or family at a time wearing masks and doing activities that allow the kids to be socially distant.” For younger children that’s harder to pull off, but some families are consoled by the knowledge that their children are in school and able to have some time with friends that way. Children in virtual school, however, really need that social connection and to interact with their peers, all of which helps them learn and develop. Unstructured play is likewise important for development. “So, if it’s feels comfortable for your family in terms of your personal risk,” said Dr. Griffith, “I think there are ways to do it safely as I described as well as by choosing families you’re on the same page with. And, as Dr. Shah said, if it doesn’t seem right, you can always leave if you get uncomfortable.”
Routine Testing at TNCS?
Dr. McDonald-Mosley took on the viability of routine COVID-19 testing for students and staff. “This is something the Wellness committee considered over the summer, but back then it was extremely difficult to find a place to get a test within a reasonable amount of time, and then sometimes the results were taking upwards of 10 days to come back back, which essentially made the test useless,” she said. She also explained that for someone who is asymptomatic, a screening test basically amounts to a snapshot of your recent exposure over the last week and not much else. “So, while widespread testing on a routine basis is ideal, at that point it didn’t seem reasonable or helpful, and we would also want to make sure that everyone has equitable access to it if we’re going to make it a requirement.” If cases in Baltimore rise once more, however, routine testing may be something that TNCS revisits, especially as testing has become much easier to obtain and the results are coming back faster. At this point, though, TNCS does not plan to mandate testing, but the Wellness Team can certainly help provide resources for individuals in particular circumstances (e.g., recent travel) who would like to get tested.
Dr. Shah chimed in to point out that testing is not a replacement for standard risk mitigation (i.e., social distancing and mask-wearing) as well as that the tests are not 100% accurate by any stretch.
To Pod or Not to Pod?
With folks desperate for personal interaction, the rise of the pod, otherwise known as a “social bubble,” in which a couple of families agree to socialize with one another but no one else, has staved off insanity for many. Pod families hang out without social distancing but agree to follow recommended social-distancing and mask-wearing rules outside of the pod.
Dr. Shah pointed out that forming a pod has risks and that you must take careful stock of who you are joining with and who they have other contact with such as at work (and vice versa). Another point is to be clear about the purpose of the pod—is it to participate in an activity important to me? Is it so my kids can have social interaction? Is it a school pod? Know your goal and make sure the pod is truly allowing you to obtain it. And it doesn’t have to be a slippery slope—just because you’re podding with three families, doesn’t necessarily mean you expand that number, which exponentially increases your exposure to other people.
“Be thoughtful about each step you take because it will impact the others in the pod as well as other people you come in contact with in your life,” urged Dr. Shah. He also recommends setting ground rules, making very deliberate decisions, and always striving for “safer.” Safer can take the form of parents wearing masks while the kids aren’t required to, for example. Also be willing to pod with people that you’re willing to share your health risks with (in other words, you probably wouldn’t want to share your risks with your grandmother). “Finally, just kind of know that infection is going to happen, and contact tracing will mean that you all have to quarantine for 14 days because members of the pod will all be considered each other’s close contacts. Be prepared with a plan that addresses how you’ll deal with work and with your kid being at home for 2 weeks. Call your doctor know their process for testing,” said Dr. Shah.
Holiday Travel: What Will It Mean?
Thanksgiving and Christmas are times when families traditionally gather. Ms. Faux brought up the TNCS Community Compact and explained that so far, TNCS is not looking to ask for additional requirements beyond what it states, which follow Maryland State guidelines. In essence, if you travel to a place with a positivity rate higher than 10%, get tested or quarantine for 2 weeks. Dr. Griffith elaborated: “Within that state recommendation is that nonessential travel should be reconsidered. I know that’s hard for a lot of families with the holidays coming, but my recommendation is to not travel.”
Nevertheless, if you are going to travel, do it as safely as possible (e.g., drive rather than fly, be outdoors if possible, limit interactions, test before and after) and carefully assess the risk of your particular travel—to where, for what, and around how many people? As for what this means for TNCS, Dr. Griffith again defers to Maryland’s guidance and says to consider testing when you get home even if you don’t go to a hotspot and quarantine until you have a negative result. Despite the imperfections of our current testing model, it’s better than nothing. The kids can switch to virtual learning—in fact, the TNCS Wellness Committee encourages you to switch to virtual if you ever have a concern, which is much easier to deal with than a forced all-school closure.
“Everyone is a part of this community,” said Dr. Griffith, “and our decisions affect each other’s kids and families. What’s important for this committee is what are you doing to help ensure the health of the school. We do think about how it impacts our community.”
And yet . . . those grandparents really need to see the grandkids. Lay ground rules, advises Dr. Griffith, and be prepared to have to enforce, and re-enforce, them! If a visitor is coming to your house, for example, ask them to get a test. “In every circumstance,” echoed Dr. McDonald-Mosley, “ask yourself, ‘is this necessary?’ and ‘is there a safer option?’.”
Winter Is Coming . . . Will TNCS Students Be Outside?
The short answer is yes, although lunch is starting back up November 9th and will be served indoors. (Students must eat at their own desks, spaced at least 6 feet apart and they may not talk while eating.) “As far as how cold is too cold,” said Señora Duncan, “we follow a metric from the MSDE office of child care. We will eat outside, but not in extremely cold conditions.”
Do make sure your student has clothing for colder and inclement weather, however, because part of TNCS’s identity is spending time outdoors. As one parent put it, “we really appreciate that TNCS is determined to get students outside and give them some freedom to move, take walks around the neighborhood, and spend some time away from their desks.” Señora Duncan responded, “Yes! Send those rain boots; send the accoutrements. We do go outside, so it’s really important that the students are dressed for the weather.”
How Are Preschoolers Doing?
A parent who joined TNCS during the pandemic asked how the 2- and 3-year-olds are doing with mask-wearing, and Interim Preschool Director David Sarpal fielded this one: “I’m very pleased to say that whenever we prompt young children to put on or fix their their masks, they respond immediately. They know it’s something that needs to be done in general.” Señora Duncan agreed: “It’s like second skin to them. They don’t really pay attention to it; they just put it on and go!”
What Social and Emotional Learning Is Happening?
Another parent question was about social and emotional support. TNCS teachers are very attuned to what’s going on with students, explained Señora Duncan. The younger ones do various activities during circle time, and the older students do journaling and ELA activities, for example. Teachers have even found ways to have on-campus outdoor activities for all-virtual students to optionally attend so that they can actually be with their in-person classmates safely. Said Señora Duncan:
We don’t have a formal program per se, but we’ve been finding out where our kids are and addressing needs as they arise. It’s such a changing environment, and there isn’t a COVID Social and Emotional Handbook yet. Our students are in such a different place right now, and there’s so much going on in our world with social justice issues, the pandemic, the election . . . Our kids are feeling all of it, so it’s really important that we take stock of those feelings.
Ms. Faux encouraged parents to continue sending questions that the Wellness Team will compile and address in forums and Q&As.
For Dr. McDonald-Mosley, the takeaway message is: “We’re going to need to be flexible as we move through the fall and the disease starts to surge again in our area, as it probably will. Continued communication and flexibility are going to be critically important. Again, I just want to applaud Señora Duncan and all the teachers who, despite all of the uncertainty, pushed through and have continued to provide an excellent educational experience to our kids.”
Dr. Griffith closed with, “I was just reflecting on kind of the first calls we had about this back in March and how little we knew and how much more we know now. We’ve come a long way, but we’re still learning.”
Dr. Shah offered three pieces of advice: “1) If you’re concerned about your kid being sick or you’re not sure what to do, stay home and call us or email us; 2) get your flu shot and start figuring out what you’re going to do if and when someone in your family gets sick; and 3) at some point, TNCS will have to close, so let’s be supportive of each other as a community, whatever that takes and whatever help you need, just ask.”
Señora Duncan said, “We didn’t know how this was all going to go—it was nail-biting and hair-raising at times, but it has been truly wonderful to have the support that we’ve had from all of you to get through this, especially the Wellness Team. Thank you so much; we could not have done it without you. You answered our calls and a billion questions and you answered away. This is just such an amazing and supportive community, and we really appreciate what we have here.”
For more information on what TNCS is doing to protect students from COVID-19, see updates posted regularly on Blackbaud, including additional safety measures, how to talk to students about COVID-19, and precautions for the holidays.
Remember, students can move to virtual classes as needed and everyone should STAY HOME if they are sick!
“Thank you everyone for being a partner. Together, with exceptional diligence we will tackle the upcoming months.”—The TNCS Wellness Team