On Tuesday, Mar. 10, 2020, a fateful email was sent out to Grace students and faculty instructing them to come in, gather their things, and leave by noon. “That was the last regular day,” Mr. Davison, Head of School, mused, “We haven’t been the same way since.”
To recognize this anniversary, the team who has been behind keeping the Grace community safe shared how the school has fared since September, how safety policies have evolved, and some exciting plans for the rest of this school year and the next.
“It’s less than a dozen people, including students and staff, who have tested positive since September,” reports Mr. Reilly, Grace’s COVID Response Manager. He added that Grace has conducted random testing since September, where 40-80 people are tested at a time. “In random testing alone, we have tested 87 faculty and staff and 242 students. That’s out of roughly 800 students and 200 staff. In the random testing, no one has tested positive.”
He believes that both the testing that students are required to take before re-entering the school building after breaks and the trust Grace has built up with the community play a large part in keeping these numbers down. “The biggest way we’ve evolved is that we now view privacy as very important. Families won’t tell us if they test positive if they don’t trust us,” Mr. Reilly stated.
Many students have lamented that they are not sent the emails that their parents receive which both notify the community about students who have tested positive and provide crucial updates on random testing and updated policies. In response to this, Mr. Reilly said, “If the number got above 3-4 members of the community at once, we agreed at the start of the school year to let everyone know [including emailing students], but it never got to that point. We didn’t want to send out mass information when that could create unnecessary hysteria.” Vikki King, the high school nurse, added, “Some people can handle this situation and others can’t. Parents are primarily responsible and can look at this situation with more of a mature, calm lens. But we haven’t had a specific conversation about [excluding students from the emails]. It’s just how it turned out.”
Unlike a few other independent schools in the area, Grace continues to administer regular random tests and allows students and faculty to choose whether they are “hybrid” (two days in school, two days learning remotely) or completely remote (as well as alternate between the two). Mr. Davison shared that many schools are insisting that teachers take a leave of absence if they are unable to work in person, meaning that they are not paid for the entire year. “Packer is making all of their teachers come back in May. When I asked the Head of School what the parents who can’t get childcare would do, she said that they would ‘just have to deal.’” Packer’s Head of School, Dr. Jennifer Weyburn, affirmed in an email that teachers at Packer are required to resume in-person teaching from Apr. 12 onwards.
Mr. Davison added that they have had Grace parents demand that teachers return to school and remain completely in person, but he maintained that this “wasn’t the deal [Grace] made with teachers,” though they are slowly starting to come back on their own. “Many more will be back on Apr. 12. There will only be five high school teachers out as of Apr. 12 [including two teachers who are out on non-COVID-related medical leave]. There will be even more back on May 1.”
Mr. Mahabir, Head of High School, spoke about plans for the rest of this year: “Maybe in April, we’ll be able to relax a bit and allow students to go off-campus for one day a week. That has been something we’ve been talking about as well as finding time for seniors to come together.” Mr. Davison added that they plan to have all of the seniors come into school in May and that they are testing some clear partitions that the students can use to be closer than six feet. For now, Mr. Mahabir urges students to be especially mindful of who we come into contact with outside of school. “The virus is still out there. It can feel like we’re turning a corner with the vaccine and the nice weather, but we shouldn’t be lulled into complacency.”
Following these interviews, Mr. Davison sent out an email to Grace parents notifying them that, starting May 3, 8th and 12th graders will be able to return to classes in person for five days a week with masks. The email also mentioned the modified CDC guidelines which say that desks can be three feet apart instead of six, which could mean that Grace can “bring more students in the building more often.”
While the initial flurry of managing a school during the Covid-19 pandemic was and still is undoubtedly stressful, the dust has settled and out of it has emerged stronger inter-school and outer-school connections. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms. King was part of the NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools) nursing thread where school nurses could seek advice on how to treat students. “COVID has strengthened the relationship between nurses at independent schools because our situation has necessitated daily communication,” Ms. King said in an interview. “Before it was a one-off, weekly communication, but this is a daily, sometimes hourly, communication.”
She mentioned that Ava Dawson, the school nurse at LREI, spearheaded this support system and has acted as the “lifeline” for all of the other school nurses. In an interview with the Gazette, Ms. Dawson said that online communication has been instrumental in strengthening the connection between independent schools and that how they interact has “[become] more collaborative.” Ms. Dawson also shared that the number of schools the network brought together was around 45 before the Covid-19 pandemic, and since then, that number has burgeoned to over 100.
These pre-existing connections have proved useful as schools have leaned on each other for advice and to make important decisions in tandem. “We are in close contact with our peers like St. Lukes, Little Red, and Friends. We try to make decisions in concert and have a broader city meeting once a month,” Mr. Davison commented. “The independent schools in New York have always been pretty tight with each other. We’re fierce rivals especially now during admissions, but we’re always supporting each other.”
Mr. Mahabir continued that he had met with other Heads of High School at the start of this school year to “organize schedules, discuss how we’re handling hybrid students, what cleaning products we were using, how we were organizing our classrooms…no one has had to feel like they’re going at it alone.”
There have been many instances where the “indomitable Grace spirit,” as Mr. Mahabir calls it, has revealed itself since September. Mr. Reilly stated that the most enjoyable part of this experience so far, which he said has felt like operating a school “during war-time,” was working with the support teachers and alumni network who are a “high-spirited, supportive community that wants to give back to Grace by being on the frontlines of education.” He also wanted to thank the student body who “give to the community before they give to themselves.” Mr. Davison highlighted the chalk hearts drawn by parents on the sidewalk outside of the Middle School. Mr. Mahabir tipped his hat to the arts, which have functioned as a “spiritual food” throughout these trying times.
This same spirit has allowed Grace to recognize the value of community ties which have allowed us to succeed during a year unlike any other.