Operating During a Pandemic
Updated: Jun 25, 2022
By Harry Smith
Ms. Northey, Deputy Head of BISB and our COVID Coordinator, has played a crucial role in allowing BISB to be open this year. She went to the State to get BISB’s reopening proposal approved. She also facilitated the roll out of the testing program for the school. I interviewed Ms. Northey about how the school has been able to stay open while keeping everyone safe in the BISB community.
How has BISB ensured the safety and protection of the faculty and students' health during the COVID-19 pandemic?
At the start of the pandemic back in March 2020, none of us could ever have anticipated that the entire world would still be dealing with the aftermath of the COVID-19 virus 16 months later. When we closed the school on Thursday, March 12, 2020, we honestly thought that it would be for a week or so, and then we would be back to normal. Little did we know!
During Lockdown, Mr. Nicholas and I started working closely with the State, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Boston Public Health Commission to try to understand the ever-changing guidance that was being released. As a private school, we are not required to follow DESE guidance but are required to follow both Boston city, Massachusetts State, and Federal guidelines.
We very soon learned that any reopening plan that we put together would likely need to be amended, almost daily. Nevertheless, we knew that we would do all we could to reopen BISB for in-person learning as soon as we were allowed to.
We started by reviewing the non-negotiable guidance for the reopening of schools, which amongst other things, required all schools to upgrade air filters, install water coolers in each class, and make toilets and sinks touch-free. We were also required to purchase an enormous amount of PPP for staff and procure endless amounts of hand sanitizer and disinfectant.
As we moved forwards, we did all we could to educate and support staff and BISB families around the BISB reopening plan, including holding virtual town hall meetings to outline new protocols. We also made it very clear that despite what the state required, we would do more. This led us to implement extra safety precautions including creating safe bubbles of students, a daily Health Screener, and vinyl screen dividers on desks between students.
Once people were comfortable with the safety measures in place for in-person learning, we then looked at options for families who may be more vulnerable and need to take part in a remote option. We agreed upon a blended option for students who could not attend
school, where these students could stream into live classrooms. This provided almost double the workload for teachers, in an already stressful time, but everyone stepped up to ensure that all BISB students were still able to access their learning.
As the year progressed, we adapted our protocols very slightly, as and when needed. We also put in place a dashboard that tracked the public health data for our community. We were able to see that by being transparent and proactive, the community started to build trust in the protocols, and more remote learners started to come back to school.
Finally, and in order to make sure that we were doing all we could to mitigate risk, we put the school forward to be part of a pool testing program at the Broad Institute. Each week every staff member and student are tested to ensure that the school is free from COVID. In the testing, up to ten swabs are put into one test tube to be tested together. If the tube returns a negative result, then all ten individuals from that pool are considered negative. If the pool returns a positive result, then all ten individuals need to retest individually to identify the positive individual. Once a positive individual is identified, then the regular quarantining protocols kick in. Whilst taking a huge amount of time and coordination, this testing has provided members of the community with an added layer of security.
We have offered individual testing after a holiday or break, to catch any positive individuals before they return to school and avoid them having close contacts within the school, which would result in a whole cohort being quarantined.
In the event of a positive test, what precautions do you and BISB take to continue the wellbeing of the school populace?
When the State released information around what was determined to be close contact, we felt as a school that, to remain open and keep our school community as safe as possible, we needed to be more careful.
We, therefore, agreed that, in an abundance of caution, despite the inconvenience to families, it was safer to quarantine a whole grade when a student tested positive. By being this cautious, we have managed to contain the virus at its outset, and not allow it to be transmitted to other students within the school.
Are there any methods you would suggest the school incorporate for a more efficient testing scheme?
The only thing that I believe could make the process more efficient would be to have a more efficient way of retesting the individuals from a positive pool. There are ways to do this,
however, since we're part of the initial trialing of Pool testing in schools, this is not an option for us.
What is the school’s approach to testing when it comes to fully vaccinated people?
The school has decided to continue to test fully vaccinated people, as there is not enough data or evidence worldwide to show that vaccinated people aren’t still capable of carrying and transmitting the virus. Currently, in the school, the majority of students are under 12 and not yet vaccinated.
We thank Ms. Northey for offering her insight in this article. We are hugely grateful to her persistence as the COVID Coordinator under such stressful and difficult circumstances.