Phillips Exeter Academy

Phillips Exeter Academy

Many high schools are struggling with whether to allow students to learn in the classroom as COVID-19 infections surge across the U.S. But not the nation's boarding schools.

These schools have been mostly able to offer in-person learning with relatively few incidents, using a variety of intensive virus-mitigation strategies, according to Peter Upham, executive director of The Association of Boarding Schools.

About a third of the nation's more than 260 academic boarding schools have had COVID-19 cases, Upham said, but very few schools have seen outbreaks of more than just a couple students.

In many ways, boarding schools are like colleges, with most students living full-time on campus. But while colleges must deal with young adults, some of whom sleep off campus, boarding schools work with minors who are much more restricted and the schools generally have fewer enrollees. That gives administrators far more control.

"We're in a bubble," said Andrew Caslow, a student at Episcopal High School in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Alexandria, Va. "I still have to social distance and wear a mask, of course, but it's a small price to pay for being with my friends."

In early September, as Episcopal High School was getting ready to return to campus for the first time since the start of the pandemic, Caslow sent the school's administrator an urgent email.

Caslow's grandfather had died of covid-19 complications, and he had spent time while at home researching COVID-wise, a contact-tracing app rolled out by the state health department that's built on top of software developed by Apple Inc. and Google.

"Boarding schools are bubbles with the majority of students and staff staying inside the campus with only a finite number of people leaving," he wrote to the administrator. Contact tracing, he said, could help keep the school virus-free.

The school's medical director, Adrianna Bravo, was already in the process of rolling out a pandemic program that would include COVID-wise. But she was happy to receive Caslow's communication.

"It is a bright spot when we see young people caring so much about public health," she said.

Under the rules Bravo helped set up for the school, everyone returning to the campus needed to complete a test at home beforehand, and they were then retested on their first day back at school and one week later.

That regimen turned up only two students who tested positive, one before arriving and one the day the student got there. That student was sent home.

Once the students were seen as virus-free, she said, they were put into small cohorts that they attended classes with and ate meals with, a strategy aimed at keeping any potential outbreaks small.

"When we opened up school, we were in the red zone, implementing every mitigation effort to the max degree," according to Bravo. By the Thanksgiving break, she said, there were no cases of transmission on campus, though there was one false positive, which briefly put the school on high alert. With no new cases, Episcopal High School was able to relax some rules.

Students, for example, were allowed to socialize outdoors with others outside of their cohort. "I'm going to library, playing sports," Caslow said. "So much is relatively back to normal, or at least the new normal now."

Generally, there's an absence of national or state standards for boarding schools, Upham said. But most schools, he said, have their own strict rules on testing, masking and social distancing. Many have also cut the number of students allowed to gather together in dorms and classes and reduced campus density wherever they can, some with mobile residential areas.

Some schools are also updating their ventilation systems and filters to help clean the air. While that can be an expensive effort, it's worth it for schools that average $56,875 a year in tuition costs, according to a review by the Boarding School Review in October 2019.

Phillips Exeter Academy

Philips Exeter Academy in Exeter also made some drastic changes to its usual practices.

To cut down on the number of students doubled up in dorms, the school rented out a local inn for the year, and temporarily transformed it into student housing. Students were not permitted to play off-campus sports, and on-campus sports were t modified to decrease contact.

Masks were a must everywhere outside of individual dorm rooms, and students were allowed to eat only in their dorm rooms or outside as long as they maintained the proper distance.

Traditions like the annual fall sports showdown against rival Phillips Academy were canceled. And many classes were virtual, even with students on campus.

But as the fall session continued, some boundaries were relaxed, according to Katy Lilly, the school's medical director. The school added areas where students could dine near each other indoors as weather turned colder, and replaced the annual rivalry sports match with a school intramural sports day.

More in-person classes returned, with plastic barriers between students erected at the famous large round classroom tables that have become a hallmark of the school's approach to learning.

"We've said, 'Let's physically distance because we don't want to socially distance,' " Lilly said.

Measures taken elsewhere

The Hill School in Pottstown, Penn., hired a pair of Cornell University professors to conduct a risk-analysis of its campus, and wound up implementing a block schedule for classes as a result. And at the Thacher School in Ojai, Calif., the school installed a sewage-monitoring system to identify community outbreak.

Many boarding schools also offer classes to students who come in daily. The more commuting students and faculty a school has, the harder it is to maintain those boundaries, but Upham said most have nonetheless managed to "create at least a simulated bubble."

This month, when students return from their holiday visits to family, schools will have to do it all over again. And with case numbers now far higher than they were in September and October, the strenuous mitigation efforts that were once put aside, will likely be returning.

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