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August 10, 2021
Dear St. Stephen’s Families,
I would like to thank you for your support and participation during the COVID-19 Q&A sessions on Monday. Below are several key takeaways from the sessions, with supplemental responses as requested by our parents. You can find the remainder of the FAQs below this letter.
Masks and Classroom Access. Masks are required “as feasible” for our students (Primary – Middle Years) and for all of our adults on campus. We will be providing to our faculty and staff KN95 masks to further enhance that protection for our faculty, for our team, and for our children. At this time, only faculty and staff will have access to classrooms during the school day. Parents, we would ask that if you are dropping your child off at the classroom, that you please wait outside the classroom door.
Vaccination Profile. We have also received a number of questions about the vaccination profile of the School and our shared campus with the Church. Tracking back to early spring when vaccinations became available to those working in educational contexts, we were swift to strongly recommend vaccinations and to put in place HR policies surrounding paid time off to secure the requisite amount of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and recover, as applicable.
We are exceptionally encouraged by the dedicated response to our vaccination protocols. In terms of percentage rates of vaccination, our current fully-vaccinated profile for all campus employees – both School and Church – is above 90% fully vaccinated. We continue to promote a policy of strong encouragement with supporting HR protocols. Please understand that the ability to mandate vaccinations in the current context of the pandemic is a complex piece. CDC guidelines advise that “[p]romoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.” We have followed this guidance.
Mindful of the increased transmission rates of new variants, we stand firm in the layering of our protective policies of masking, distancing, temperature testing, sanitization, and robust COVID-19 scenario planning and quarantine requirements. Any unvaccinated employee on campus will be required to secure a negative COVID-19 test result on a weekly basis.
Cohorts. We also received a number of queries about our larger cohorts and the ramifications in the event of COVID-19 in one of those cohorts. The cohorts have widened to allow for socialization within those cohorts and learning, as follows: (1) Orientation, (2) Primary, (3) Lower Elementary, and (4) Upper Elementary and Middle Years. Were there to be a positive case in a cohort, the entire cohort would quarantine.
On a related note, should there be a family with students in more than one cohort, both students would likely need to quarantine in the event of close contact by one of the students to a person diagnosed with COVID-19. This quarantine would be per the close contact protocols, which count as close contact a scenario where a member of the household of the student has been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19, and the member of the household is not fully vaccinated, as defined by the CDC. Thus, for example, should there be a family with a student in Orientation and a student in Primary, and the Orientation cohort is placed into quarantine, both students would need to quarantine at home. However, the Primary cohort would not need to quarantine in this scenario.
Cohorting will continue in our Bulldog 360 program of learning, which we offer after the school day closes from 3:30 pm onwards. Programs will be offered into cohorts and not across the school. We are looking carefully at what meaningful offers we can make into each of those cohorts. In addition, we are staffing Bulldog 360 from our internal employees; only our faculty members and staff will be leading those programs. Ms. Liz Newchurch will be leading our Bulldog 360 program. Ms. Liz is a Lead Lower El teacher who also carries a leadership portfolio.
We are monitoring COVID-19 metrics and guidance from health and governmental authorities on a daily basis. We will not hesitate to reduce the size of our cohorts or to make any other changes to our policies and procedures. Please be assured that anything that represents a policy change will be communicated to families so that if they have a concern, they can share it, and if they’re supportive, they can feel joyful about it.
In an ever-changing landscape, we will take decisions courageously, as with the decision to move the start of the school year a full week. I want to thank you for your patience. I appreciate that that is not an easy thing to absorb on a Sunday evening. But, I think that was the right decision, and we will not hesitate to take the right decisions, as we monitor the situation on a daily basis and alongside our Re-Gathering Task Force of leading healthcare experts.
Thank you for your partnership and please do not hesitate to reach out. You can find our COVID-19 policies and procedures on our website here: https://www.ssesh.org/covid-safety/.
Penny Barker, Head of School
In your email regarding this week, or I guess the incident from last week, you said that you all were doing contact tracing, is there any chance that students will start without their teachers or that a certain cohort won’t be able to start?
There may be broader questions out there about why the start of school was delayed for a week. There are two reasons that have really influenced that decision. One is that we require the full campus to be deep cleaned and to also have a period of vacuum. This is just good practice for any contagious disease that’s been apparent in a facility. At the same time, we recognize through contract tracing that a small number of our team members have had close contact and that the policies and procedures for close contact apply. Recognizing the influx of testing in facilities in Houston, we wanted to make sure that we gave sufficient time for the small number of our team who have been identified as close contacts to be able to secure their PCR test results, as required by our policies and procedures.
So could you just talk to me a bit more about the vendor, specifically if they were wearing mask?
Yes, the vendor was wearing a mask. Please note that we adhere to the guidance of 15 minutes of contact within 6 feet, regardless of other protective factors such as masking. But, yes, we do require that masks be worn as feasible by all our adults on campus, be they a vendor, employee, faculty, administrator, or staff member.
I just want to make a comment that the contact tracing would be difficult to do in 24 hours as the testing is taking longer these days. And I know a lot of the testing facilities are taking more like 36 hours to get results back these days.
I think in terms of our contract tracing, it would just be an initial inquiry to know who had been in close contact. Then, the close contact protocols would apply to those identified individuals.
For those that we’ve identified in terms of close contact (a small number of our team), we recognize that testing facilities are under great stress right now. Therefore, we want to give our team sufficient and appropriate time to follow our policies and procedures so that they are in a safe space to return and so that we may bring all of our students to campus safely at the same time. We are also deep cleaning the campus, leaving it vacant for that period of time, which is just good practice in terms of any contagious disease.
What are your thoughts about parents delaying the start of school for their children?
We need to be mindful of unique situations and to make sure that we deal with them mindfully as they arise. In the first instance, we would meet every child and every family where they are. We would certainly be supportive of family decisions, which are based on the current context, individual context, and health and safety and well-being because that’s central to everything we do. We can take that time to work through that in more detail, in a one-on-one conversation.
What is your trigger to go to distance learning/hybrid learning in terms of positivity rate?
Yes, we are fully cognizant of the positivity levels, which is why we have been very intentional in either sustaining or improving our safety protocols around COVID-19. What I am sharing with you today is the situation that we face today. We are monitoring the situation daily, and should we feel the need to put in place enhanced conditions up to and including distance learning, then we will certainly not be tardy in doing that.
We have received a significant parent voice that overwhelmingly there is a desire for on-campus learning. However, the faculty and the leadership team continue to plan for distance learning scenarios, both a full distance learning scenario and also for individual groups or students who may need to participate in distance learning due to quarantine or a school-mandated buffer week.
Will there be a policy to require negative COVID PCR test results after travel by plane or outside of a personal family vehicle similar to last year?
You will see in the protocols and the guidance, the school reserves the right to implement buffer weeks following those key times of travel. We want to make sure that, as a school, we are proactive in putting in place those buffer weeks that will keep children safe. However, what I would say to each and every family is that we strongly encourage those PCR tests after travel as a commitment to keep the community safe.
How do you deal with the very tough situation that somebody is testing positive after having COVID-19 and they’re returning to the classroom with your child?
We recognize that a child who has recovered from COVID-19 and is no longer contagious may still test positive for a long period of time. We require a detailed physician’s note to confirm that the child is fit and well, not contagious, and may return to school.
Posted into the chat is a paper that explains why, at least on a genetic level, some patients might exhibit positive test results, even after recovery.
Could you define “as feasible” as it relates to your mask policy? And one of my biggest concerns, of course, would be behavior in PE.
In terms of PE, we have not made a distinction between inside and outside in terms of masking, but we recognize that in the outdoor temperatures in Houston, masking during physical exercise may not be feasible. In this case, it would be acceptable for the child to unmask if they were struggling to breathe and that we would have to create a distance space to allow that to happen.
Current guidance from CDC is clear that outside and inside scenarios are not the same in terms of transmission. However, as a school, we have been intentional in not making a distinction between masking inside and outside.