Administration considers policies amid Omicron, mandates

Mr. Mark Thorburn meets with a student on opening day

The 2021-2022 school year has been one of relative normalcy. EA week, reflections, lunch in the dining hall, and form meetings have returned, allowing students to feel a sense of community and brotherhood that many felt was lacking last year. Still, some restrictions linger: students remain masked and three feet apart, the dining has yet to reach full capacity, and students and faculty still await a full, upper school wide assembly in Centennial Hall.

     At the midway point of this year, the School’s COVID-19 Task Force, chaired by Assistant Head of School Mr. Mark Thorburn, continues to closely monitor local recommendations and case numbers.

“Our policy coming out of last year and going into this year has been to comply with the national, state, and local recommendations.”

Mr. Tyler Casertano

     “Our policy coming out of last year and going into this year has been to comply with the national, state, and local recommendations,” Head of School Mr. Tyler Casertano said.

     Some policies—such as masking, the quarantine and isolation charts, and contact tracing—are mandates: the school has to comply with them. Mr. Casertano described the process of how the school enacts policies in response to mandates and recommendations.

     “The COVID Task Force decides on the big picture policy, and then what that looks like is often up to the division head or other senior leaders,” Mr. Casertano said.

     Head of Upper School Mr. Mark Fifer outlined the goals he has for the upper school amid continuing restrictions.

     “We want to keep students engaged in in-person school programming as much as we can,” Mr. Fifer said. “And so that is the filter through which we make our decisions.”

     Mr. Casertano has the same mindset.

     “The Task Force met this summer to think about our priorities and our goals for the year. Right away, two goals emerged: keeping the community safe, and keeping the students and teachers in the classroom all year long,” Mr. Casertano said. “We didn’t want to have to go to any type of hybrid learning model. It was a priority to re-establish the form of education where students and faculty are fully present and engaged every year.”

     Through their meticulous planning, the school has achieved this goal.

     “We built our systems around making sure that if a student tested positive here on campus, other people around him would not have to be quarantined for 10 days,” Mr. Casertano said. “We knew that there would be moments with the disease on campus, and we wanted to limit the impact of that, both from a health standpoint and from a culture standpoint: we really wanted to avoid scenarios where you have to quarantine large groups of people.”

     In terms of external organizations, the school relies heavily on the CDC, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Montgomery County, and CHOP policy lab. The restrictions have led to some challenges.

“There are still remnants of COVID taht are lingering with us and impacting our ability to come together fulyl like we would like to.”

Mr. Mark Fifer

     “It’s been an interesting year because it is obviously a different health context from last year, and there have been so many more opportunities, but there are still these remnants of COVID that are lingering with us and impacting our ability to come together fully like we would like to to,” Mr. Fifer said. “I’m thinking about not being able to have the Third Form in Centennial Hall and not being able to do a school dance this fall, which are both not ideal.”

     The overall sentiment from students and administrators alike, however, is that the school has done a remarkable job maintaining and possibly reviving the sense of community and togetherness under these policies.

     As the Omicron variant emerges and policies begin to shift during the second half of this year, decision-makers will face more challenges.

      “We’ve talked with some experts locally about when we might see Omicron based on the modeling that’s been done over the last few days,” Mr. Casertano said. “The other thing we are waiting to see is if the vaccine is equally effective against this variant, and that would be hugely helpful in our thinking.”

     Mr. Fifer added, “Some of the pieces that will go into the extent to which Omicron will impact policy are information on vaccine efficacy and information on how transmissible Omicron is. Ultimately, as we’ve done with other decisions, we’ll look for guidance from external organizations.”

     Science Department Chair Dr. Daniel Goduti weighed in on vaccine efficacy against Omicron.

     “[Omicron] is a mutant strain of the virus [that causes COVID-19]. The question is did the virus mutate so much that vaccines no longer work,” Dr. Goduti said. “People were testing positive for COVID-19 but negative for the spike, suggesting that the mutation is in the spike. The spike is also what the vaccines are made to target, so the worry is that if the spike is mutated, will the vaccines no longer work?”

     Dr. Goduti explained that recently experts have suggested that this is likely not the case.

In brief, it turns out we’re not back to square one, so we should be okay.”

Dr. Daniel Goduti

     “They’re finding that recognition might be reduced, but it’s not absent. The big fear was that the virus is not going to be targeted by the vaccine, and we would be back to square one. In brief, it turns out we’re not back to square one, so we should be okay.”

Author: Mitav Nayak '22

Mitav Nayak has contributed to The Index since 2018. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief. Mitav won the fall 2019 Pennsylvania School Press Association (PSPA) Philadelphia-area Student Journalism Competition for Newspaper Sports Story Writing and was to compete for the state title in the spring of 2020 (canceled due to COVID).