The decisions behind the school’s reopening strategy

Dr. John Nagl in a Zoom meeting – Jeffrey Yang ’22

     At the closure of campus due to COVID-19 in March of the last academic year, no one knew when the school doors would reopen to welcome boys back into the halls. However, one mission persisted through school administrators’ minds: to reopen as soon as possible, with safety concerns softened.  

     “We’ve wanted to reopen and we were hopeful that we could reopen in the spring. It didn’t turn out to be the case. And so we’ve been working hard for many months now to prepare for the day when we could reopen and now that day is just a week away. So we’re very excited.” Ninth Headmaster Dr. John Nagl said. 

     Dr. Nagl’s excitement, though, comes as bittersweet: his recently announced resignation means he will be stepping down from his position at the conclusion of this school year. Nevertheless, this fall, Dr. Nagl’s focus is on the school’s reopening and efforts to ensure that it remains open.

Pt. 1: The Research and Plan

     In thinking about the reopening of campus, the question was never whether school would reopen but rather when.

     “Certainly we knew that we were going to reopen school in person someday; the question was if we could do so before there was a general vaccine, and before the population was inoculated and we all had immunity,” Dr. Nagl said.

     The school established a reponening task force, including members of the Athletic and Training Departments; the Health, Personnel, and Business Offices; the Grounds and Maintenance Crew; and Administrative staff. The task force met regularly to discuss breaking knowledge on the coronavirus, the experiences of other countries and schools, as well as recommendations on preventing and mitigating disease spread from Montgomery County Health, the CHOP Policy Lab, and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

     “We gathered as much information as we possibly could to try to understand what leads to transmission and what we could do to mitigate those concerns and enable us to reopen in person.” Dr. Nagl continued. “That group met regularly, reviewed all of the information that we gathered and wrote the reopening guide on the reopening website. We’re very proud of those products and we’ve received a lot of praise, including from the Montgomery County Office, on our reopening plan.”

     The focus of the task force’s attention has been placed on mitigating the risk of contracting the disease and preventing its transmission if a member of the community was affected. 

     It’s about mitigating: you can’t eliminate risk, you can only mitigate risk. You do all be prudent things, so that hopefully it won’t happen,” said Chief Financial Officer and member of the reopening task force Mr. David Gold. 

Chief Financial Officer Mr. David Gold in a Zoom meeting – Jeffrey Yang ’22

     From the research that the group conducted, aerosol transmission has been addressed as the most likely form of disease spreading. 

     Dr. Nagl said, “We know that masks, if you’re around somebody else, are the right thing to do. We believe that if you are six feet apart from other people and wearing a mask that the risk of transmission is vanishingly low. We know that there are things you can do to increase airflow and put more efficient filters tighter in your HVAC systems that reduce the chances of transmission. And so we’ve tried to implement all of those things into our reopening plans.”

     Specifically, the school has upgraded filters in the Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems and plans to change the filters out once a month, as opposed to twice a year previously.  

     Mr. Gold continued, “Also within those systems, we’re going to operate them with a higher balance of fresh air because that’s what they tell you to do to overcome those things.” 

     Other measures being taken address the more tangible forms of transmission. Contact will be limited in hallways and staircases by signs directing travel in a single direction, and hand sanitizer will be accessible all over campus. Furthermore, excess furniture has been removed, desks have been spaced out, and lounging and community areas have been restricted. These physical changes are in conjunction with changes in the schedule, differing for each division.

     “In theory, you’re going to move as little as possible,” Mr. Gold said.

     What “as little as possible” means varies by age. For example, Lower School students will stay in their classroom with the same students each day, and the teachers will move around. The minimization of movement among students will hopefully only require one controlled portion of the Lower School to quarantine if a breakout were to occur.

     “There’s seven pods.” Mr. Gold continued, “The idea is that you can just close down that class or you close down that grade, instead of the entire division.”  

     However, such a rotation is inapplicable to the upper school, where each student varies in their courses. Instead, the Upper School schedule has been condensed to three long periods daily, and specific procedures, such as wiping down desks after each usage and one-way travel, will mainly reduce the risk of transimssion. In addition, class sizes have been reduced—a change made possible by the school’s extended contract on Virtue Village. 

     Acknowledging the privilege Haverford has to reopen campus, Dr. Nagl said, “We’re very, very fortunate to have those resources [Virtue Village] to use. We simply didn’t have enough space otherwise,” Dr. Nagl said. “So there are schools across the country that are putting tents up, which is okay in September, but not so great in December. The great thing about Virtue Village is that each room has its own individual HVAC system so it [the disease] doesn’t transmit around the whole building.

     A challenge arose with using Virtue Village for upper schoolers, though: the new middle school was not completed until two weeks before reopening, meaning that the timeframe for middle school teachers to move out of the space and for upper school teachers to move in was short. 

     Describing the process as “falling dominoes,” Dr. Nagl said, “We’re working hard right now. We’re not as far along as we usually would be in terms of preparing to have you guys back, partly that’s because we’ve got a whole lot more square footage to take care of than we used to.”

     On a lighter note, other steps taken by the dining staff have made it possible for those who signed up for the meal plan, to continue to enjoy having Blackjack Chicken, despite the inability to gather in the dining hall. 

     “The good news is that we are still going to have Blackjack Chicken. It’s going to be in a wrap.” Dr. Nagl continued, “But not being able to have lunch in person—it’s one of everybody’s favorite parts of the day, the energy in the lunchroom—is going to be sad.”

     The dining staff have, to keep as much of the dining experience as possible, created a system where boxed lunches will be packed in the morning and then sent to the 45 advisories in the upper school, 19 homerooms in the middle school, and then seven pods in the lower school.

     “So it’s almost like a door dash system,” Mr. Gold said.  

     While some of COVID’s impacts on the daily operations of the school have a concrete solution, the replacements for other aspects, such as special events with large gatherings, are more ambiguous. For example, the possibility of a physical version of the opening day tradition under the Walk of Virtues for this year’s Sixth Form and Kindergarteners is in question. Nevertheless, Dr. Nagl remains hopeful such events will occur in person, even if it means postponing them until they are deemed safe. 

     “And so what I told the parents is we will do those things as soon as it’s safe to do them. If we get fortunate and Dr. Fouci comes through with a vaccine by the end of the year and we’ll all be able to have it inside us by March and we’ve developed shared immunity, maybe, the day we get back from spring break, the Sixth Formers will walk the Kindergarteners through the Walk of Virtues. So we’re hoping to hold on to as many experiences as we possibly can. And we’ll do them virtually if we have to and in person when we can safely,” Dr. Nagl said. 

Pt. 2: The Cost

     All these precautions to create the safest environment possible come with their inevitable costs. Student and staff safety as the school’s top priority and the CDC, CHOP, and governor guidelines, however, leave no room for anything less. 

     “We can’t cut corners when it comes to health and safety. You always have to be within the guidelines of what the CDC is saying, and what CHOP guidelines are for children, and what the governor is saying. We always stay within those rules; we don’t do less for sure.” Mr. Gold continued, “If we are providing an educational service, and it costs money and we’re committing to that service, we have to spend the money on what it takes to pull off that service.”

     In a typical year, the budget is balanced with tuition and fundraising, as the school is non-profit. The cancellation of trips and activities and lack of transportation costs this year help to offset the financial impact presented by the new precautions, but the school will still be operating at a loss. 

     Mr. Gold said, “It’s an unusual year. In the end, there is a business underneath, and you have to run the business smartly, and it’s got a balance itself. If we had to do this year after year after year like this, I don’t think we could do it because of all these extra costs.” 

     The spending funnels down into three main categories: people, technology, and facilities. In terms of people, the school has hired more teachers because students are in smaller class sizes. Additionally, the cleaning staff and custodial staff has increased to ensure the campus is disinfected at a frequent rate.  

     “So normally, like in the past years, you go to school and at night they clean the buildings and then you come back in and the buildings are clean and we usually have a one-day porter that goes around and you know cleans some of the bathrooms. But now we added two additional people for the day to clean high traffic areas,” Mr. Gold said.

     The school has also invested in new machines for the custodial staff that have the ability to disinfect rooms faster and more thoroughly than a human would.  

     We invested in these clorox ionizers, I think they are like Foggers,” Mr. Gold said. “They come in and they can do a room in five minutes. And then, the room is sanitized.”

     Similarly, new technology has been implemented around the classroom. In order to provide flexibility, cameras have been added to record all classrooms and the school’s licenses for online education tools—from Zoom, to Canvas, to Big Blue Button, and even Google Meet and Google Classroom—have been upgraded to enterprise versions that provide more capability, but cost significantly more. The goal with all of these investments is to provide both students and faculty continued education, regardless of the situation. 

     “In theory we can be flexible.” Mr. Gold continued, “If students are out sick they can watch the class live for that two weeks if they’re quarantining. Or, if a teacher has to stay home, they can teach from home to that class or, if they have to split a class up, [they can continue teaching] because you have the cameras. We’ve always had the ability to go out to the internet, but they couldn’t see into the classroom. So that’s what those cameras allow: it gives us flexibility, and that’s a big investment.”

     Another program that the school has purchased is the Magnus phone app. The symptom-based self-check in each morning will hopefully mitigate the risk of transmission by students who possibly show infection of the coronavirus. 

     Mr. Gold said, “Every day you have to check that in and if you haven’t done that you’re not going to be allowed into school. So hopefully everyone’s going to get that into their routine, and it’s really a self check to make sure you’re not showing symptoms of it.”

     The final aspect of the spending centered around facilities—upgrading the HVAC system; stocking hand sanitizer, face masks, and disinfectant wipes; plexiglass dividers and signage; et cetera. 

Pt. 3: The Risk and The Payoff

     The financial implications and even, as some would argue, the risk of reopening campus pale in comparison to the value of an education in person. Safety is inarguably the top priority, but the school’s of mission educating and preparing boys for life remains at the institution’s core. 

     “Even with the money, we do have a balanced budget. We don’t do a budget where you know, we’re creating this super fund. It’s all about providing the service to meet the mission. We think it’s [the cost of reopening campus is] worth it.” In regards to safety, Mr. Gold continued, “If after putting all these things in place and we thought it was too risky, I don’t think we would do it. But, we think we can do it and we believe it’s safe.” 

     With an in-person education, the administration and multiple faculty report to believe, relationships are able to be built more effectively than virtually. The ability to establish new connections in person has rallied excitement among the faculty for reopening campus.

     “They [the faculty] all think learning happens better and relationships build better in person. As wonderful as Zoom is, it isn’t the same.” Dr. Nagl continued, “We will work hard to keep you guys safe and keep you apart from each other, which is hard for humans because we like to be close to each other—we’re social animals. The anticipation and the excitement I think far overweighs the concern for almost everybody.”

     Furthermore, Dr. Nagl cited the potential detrimental effect on mental health and learning capabilities when in a virtual setting. All these factors made the decision to reopen campus, at least for the start of the year, more necessary for Dr. Nagl.

     As he said, “So it was really important to us, particularly as we start the school year as we welcome you boys on the campus, as we welcome new faculty on to campus, that we start in person and go in person as long as we can to establish the norms of the new school year and to build relationships that are going to be essential if some or, God forbid, all of us have to go into virtual Haverford again at some point this year.”

     Dr. Nagl also emphasized that the in-person experience is critical for the younger boys in especially.

     “The younger you are, I think the less effective virtual education is. Again, so some of our other schools who don’t necessarily have all the room and all the resources are just having the littlest learners back,” he said.

     Still, even if confirmed cases were reported in the school, plans are set in place and the precautions taken make it so that only a controlled portion of students and or faculty would be required to learn virtually for a period of time. These protocols were inspired by the research conducted on schools in other countries that have already reopened.

     “We’ve been watching closely what’s happened in Germany,” Dr. Nagl said. “Germany has had half a section go out because of a suspected COVID case and those six or seven kids learned remotely and all the rest of the kids stayed in class. They had whole sections for a whole classroom go out for two weeks, get cleared, and then come back in. So those are the sort of things that we expect as challenges going forward.”

      All things considered, the school’s ability to remain open rests on the choices of the students and their families.

     Dr. Nagl said, “The choices families are making with our boys over Labor Day weekend, in particular, but literally every day, are going to determine how long we are able to stay open. The faculty are taking social distancing and mask-wearing and all those sorts of things pretty seriously. [Hopefully,] we can stay open as deep into the fall and winter as possible and, with any luck at all, all the way through until a vaccine is created.”

Author: Jeffrey Yang '22

Managing editor Jeffrey Yang has written for The Index since 2018. He previously served as news editor. His feature "Fords immigrants under the spotlight: Mr. Kan's citizenship odyssey" earned a Gold Key from the 2020 Philadelphia-area Scholastic Writing Awards.