As Concord Academy moves into the final stretch of the school year – and hopefully, the final stages of the pandemic – people are more hopeful than ever about the possibility of a return to normalcy. I spoke to Laura Twichell ’01, CA’s Interim Dean of Faculty, to ask about potential changes to the in-person opportunities in the upcoming STAC.
JC: As things currently stand, there’s a divide between boarders and day students, especially at meal times – eating in separate areas. Can we expect that to change in STAC 5?
LT: One of the things that I think is hardest with boarding is that if you’re in a boarding house and somebody gets sick, the whole house has to be in quarantine because there’s enough contact in the halls and in the bathrooms and things like that that everyone’s sort of a close contact with each other. So I think that at meal times that’s one of the things that helps is day and boarding students eating separately so if a day student gets sick, the risk to the boarding community, and the impact on boarders’ ability to attend classes, is lower.
JC: Right, and vice versa if a day student gets sick.
LT: Well, yes, a day student would have to quarantine but it would just be them and not an entire house because they don’t have that cohort of the house. So I suspect, and this isn’t really my area, but I suspect that the meals will have to stay the same because eating is the highest risk thing, you know with masks off? So I think that’ll probably stay the same.
JC: Also, speaking of meal times, the tents are great for being able to eat while socially distanced indoors so you’re not freezing, but they do bring a significantly different vibe to campus. So with the warmer weather, and the fact that people will be able to eat outside more comfortably, can we expect to see those go or change?
LT: I might think the walls would come off – so you would still have the roof, if it was raining, but if it was warmer you don’t necessarily need that enclosed space – those are enclosed so you can have the heat and things like that, so it’s possible that that sort of opens up and becomes more airy.
JC: Right now, the CA gym has been reopened but only to boarders and on-campus faculty.
LT: The Fitness Center?
JC: Yes. So, I’m assuming that will be opened up to day students at some point?
LT: Right now, it’s in a pilot phase and I think part of the pilot was to understand what the amount of need was for boarders. Like if there’s so many boarders who are using it that there are no spaces for day students we’ve gotta think about that in a different way than if it’s like a couple kids using it and there’s already room. So, part of it is just understanding the use patterns and then obviously making sure that safety is good. But the goal is to open it up to day students and to think about how we do that and what hours we can do that for. So yes, we’re gathering data right now, but that’s the hope.
JC: Right, that’s another area where I’d imagine that – like the indoor dining – it’s a bit of a risk issue because you have people wearing masks but also exhaling a lot more.
LT: Right, exactly.
JC: Do you also expect that there would be boarders and in-person faculty times and then day student set times?
LT: I don’t know about that – I think – I don’t know if you’ve been into the Fitness Center –
JC: There’s tape everywhere, right?
LT: Right, and there are only five people allowed in there at once. So, I think with that distancing, and with the air circulation, you know, it’s got a good ventilation system, I think it would probably be OK to have day and boarding together, but I’m not sure. I think that, without numbers, and the other piece with day students is that, as you know, once your final commitment ends, you’re supposed to go home. So, part of it is “what’s the right timing for day students so you’re not waiting an hour and a half to then use the Fitness Center. So, part of it is also managing the time that people are on campus because – probably – the time you’re in the Fitness Center – spaced out – is maybe the lower risk than when you’re just waiting for it to be your time, and you’re hanging out with friends and probably not six feet apart because it’s so hard to stay six feet apart when you’re hanging out with friends. So, again, what’s really important is managing the timing.
JC: And the way gyms have worked outside of CA is interesting because before COVID they were very packed and sweaty, and they were closed for a while, and now they reopened.
LT: Right, with a lot of protocols.
JC: Right, they have duct-taped squares where you can’t stand, stuff like that.
LT: Right, so we’re following those guidelines too, they’re slightly different for fitness centers versus schools, so we’re trying to navigate all that and make sure we have protocols that keep people safe.
JC: Speaking of that, how are they different from – schools sort of fit under a lot of different categories in terms of COVID precautions – you have the indoor dining aspect, and the Fitness Center aspect, and then, not quite like a hotel, but with the boarding houses you have a lot of people in an enclosed space for an elongated period of time. How is it different for how CA has to comply with state guidelines versus a hotel or a gym or a restaurant?
LT: So there are, like, for the fitness centers, you can find what are the guidelines for fitness centers but because we are a school there are school and gymnasium guidelines. Nobody’s published a school fitness center guideline, that I’ve seen, so it’s kind of like you’re cobbling together a little bit, like “ok, that’s what fitness centers do,” but then you’re like, “oh, well, fitness centers, they have to that, but it’s fourteen feet in a fitness center, but six feet in a gym, so you’re trying to make sense of things – one group wrote that, and a different group wrote that, and they’re not necessarily always speaking to each other directly, so it leads to really interpreting, how can we keep kids safe and what makes the most sense here, so that’s where we’ve seen some of the tension, between guidelines from different organizations and entities.
JC: And then there are differences even when you’re in a gym where you have people doing cardio who are going to be a lot more out of breath than people who are just lifting.
LT: Yes, and, you know, you may need to move around in your space, versus being on a stationary bike, thinking about distance – there’s a lot of different pieces, but as we’ve thought about the Fitness Center and the gym and the dance studio and squash courts, there are a lot of different guidelines that you have to synthesize and make decisions about.
JC: So is it a mix of state guidelines and like what you were saying, “the fitness centers of the US?”
LT: Yes, professional organizations, state guidelines.
JC: And then also just, common sense?
LT: Yes, there’s some common sense, but we try to follow best practices – hopefully those two things are aligned – but we’re working with a consulting firm that thinks about indoor air quality. So they’ve done a lot of work with COVID, so we’ll go back and say “Hey, this is what we’ve seen from fitness centers, does that make sense to you?” Or, “We have questions about squash court use – how many kids can be on a squash court?” They’ve been helping us with those kinds of questions because they’ve been keeping their eye on all of the different guidelines and research and all of that. And obviously we’re watching those too, but we can’t read every research report so it’s nice to have an expert consultant who’s doing that and can give us a more definitive answer.
JC: With the reopening, we had a very high number of cases from around Thanksgiving through early February, and it’s been really noticeably decreasing recently – I think we had under 1,000 cases the other day. How has the decrease in cases, in addition to the vaccines, played into CA’s decisions with reopening, if at all?
LT: It certainly feels good to have that, it hasn’t really played into our decision making because we haven’t seen any community spread the whole time and that’s been a major marker for us; if, in the way we’re reopening, we’re having spread in our community, we need to do something different. But if we’re not, then we’re doing the right thing and the community’s doing the right thing – people are living by the Concord Pact, and that’s helping us not have cases coming into campus, so those two things are more important than what’s been happening in the broader community.
JC: The broader community being the state.
LT: Right, the state numbers. Certainly, we keep our eye on that and we’re paying attention to things like the variants, but right now we haven’t seen spread so that makes us feel like we’re doing the right things here. And since the community is doing the right things, we can start to open up a little and try something like scrimaging on your team – those small steps. So it’s not so much about the community numbers and more about what we’re seeing here.
JC: Yeah, and I can only think of a few cases we’ve had at all since October.
LT: Right, and there was no evidence of spread from them, which was really great, and I think the community did an amazing job over winter break with people coming back really healthy. So, spring break, hopefully we’ll see the same thing. One thing that was interesting to me was that my husband works at the airport and he said that Logan Airport recorded the highest number of passengers over this past February break, higher than over Christmas. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens over this break. I think people are getting antsy, so we’ll have to see how these next couple of weeks go – it’ll be interesting going into break to see if things are increasing or staying low.
JC: I just have one more question, which is, “We’ve had a lot of success doing events virtually, major events, staples of CA, like Coffeehouse, and I think the biggest event of the year is Commencement, so I’m wondering, what can you tell us about Commencement?
LT: I think, like everybody, we would love to have an in-person event, and that’s something we’re going to try to plan for and work for. If we’re able to do that, it will not look like it usually does, with everybody in the Chapel garden. I think we’re trying to be creative and think of ways we might be able to make it happen, but it’s also a huge difference than what we’ve been doing, bringing families onto campus, so it’s really going to be a shift in our policy, but we want to celebrate seniors; this has been a hard year where they haven’t been together, and to try to create a way for them to be together at Commencement would be great. We’re all trying to make it happen, I don’t know if it will be possible.