Ensuring Educational Continuity in the Pandemic

Ensuring Educational Continuity in the Pandemic

Frequently Asked QuestionsSchool-Based Hybrid Learning

Our PlanCommunication from Head of School to McLean School Parent Community

May 7, 2021

As you know from my March 21 letter, this fall McLean plans to return to our pre-pandemic schedule, with all students in school five days a week. We are so looking forward to welcoming your children–our students–back full-time into the classroom so that our experts can do their best job of teaching the way your children learn, and your children can benefit from relationships with their teachers and their peers.

While we don’t know what the pandemic will bring this fall, we are optimistic. Transmission and test positivity rates are down locally and nationally. Vaccination levels are rising, and vaccines are becoming available for younger children. In Montgomery County, for example, 55% of those eligible have received at least one shot, while transmission and test positivity rates are at their lowest points in over a year. Students sixteen years and older are now eligible for vaccination, and the minimum age may drop to twelve years as soon as next week. On Tuesday The New York Times reported that Pfizer plans to seek authorization to vaccinate children as young as two years old by September, meaning that virtually all of our students, faculty, and staff could be vaccinated by the start of school, or shortly thereafter. Scientists agree that COVID-19 vaccines are both safe and effective, and a key to ending the pandemic.

With this promising context, not just McLean, but nearly all independent schools in the region are now planning for a return to a five-day in-school schedule. With the exception of students in quarantine, we will not offer hybrid or home-based learning unless pandemic conditions force a change. While the return to a normal schedule is welcome news for most, I know that some in our community continue to have concerns about the safety of returning to campus. We have grappled extensively with possible alternatives, without finding one that would be viable. Our choice of approach, and the reasons behind it, are explained below in the question and answer portion of this letter.

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This will be a major shift for the school, and your views are important to us. Please join us for a town hall-style Zoom meeting at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, May 12, so that we can get your thoughts and answer your questions. We hope you will also provide input through a brief survey following the question and answer section below.

It’s been a long year. I’m so grateful for the patience and perseverance of our students, parents, guardians, teachers, staff, administrators, and trustees. We are indeed better together, and I am confident that we will emerge from the pandemic stronger as a result.

With deep gratitude and optimism for the future,

Michael Saxenian

Questions and Answers on McLean’s Fall Opening

Question: Why return to full-time in-school instruction?
Answer: As educators, we know that the vast majority of students do best–academically, socially, and emotionally–with in-school instruction. And, with vaccines ever more widely available, we expect our school environment to be even safer in the fall than it is today.

Question: But our child is doing fine at home. Why not continue concurrent hybrid instruction so that families can continue to choose?
Answer: As has been widely reported in the press, concurrent hybrid instruction is extremely challenging for teachers, not only at McLean, but across the country. This is because staying connected with students both in the classroom and at home at the same time is difficult, as is monitoring how they are responding to instruction and adapting as needed. Furthermore, students can become disconnected from each other, and students at home are often not fully present. These are difficult circumstances not only for teaching, but also for learning and classroom management. Hybrid instruction five days a week would lead to teacher burnout and attrition, to the point where we might not be able to maintain our program.

Question: I understand that the school needs to return to five-day instruction, and that concurrent hybrid teaching is not an option in that format. How about offering a fully virtual, home-based instruction track?
Answer: We just don’t have enough teachers to make this possible, particularly since students are in different classes or groupings throughout the day, based on their needs and levels of skills across subject areas. Even if we had enough teachers, we know that students benefit most from McLean, academically, socially, and emotionally, when they are in school with their teachers and their peers. That time together is essential for their growth, learning, and development.

Question: How many students remain in home-based learning this spring?
Answer: Many of the families who were in home-based learning when we launched our concurrent hybrid approach have returned to school. Today, only about 12% of all students are learning from home, mostly in the Upper School, where families and teachers report that home-based learning is most effective as a result of students’ more advanced developmental phase.

Question: Will everyone still need to wear masks and maintain distance in the fall?
Answer: It’s too soon to know. Vaccinations may be a game-changer. As always, we will follow the guidance of the health authorities.

Question: Will vaccinations be required?
Answer: We haven’t decided yet, but the advice we get from public health experts is that vaccinations are important not only to protect the individual student, teacher, or staff member, but also their families and the broader community. We see vaccinations as a key to keeping our school community safe, and to playing our part as global citizens. If we do require vaccinations, students with a medical contraindication will be exempted.

Question: Will COVID-19 testing be required?
Answer: Similarly, we don’t yet know. We are hopeful that vaccinations will eliminate the need for continued testing.

Question: Wouldn’t it be better for my child, who has been anxious during the pandemic, to continue to learn from home?
Answer: Many students’ anxiety increased in the last year, and some do feel more comfortable learning from home, but educators and psychologists agree that for most, engagement at school is a better way to adapt to heightened anxiety than avoiding social contact by remaining at home. In fact, we encourage parents to consider reintroducing students to the school environment this spring, rather than waiting to do so in the fall, when the transition may be more difficult due to even more time away from a school setting.

Question: What if my child, or a family member, has an underlying health condition that puts them at higher risk?
Answer: Every family needs to weigh risks and benefits, and decide what is right for them. As noted above, regional transmission rates have fallen precipitously, and we believe that our school is a safe place for gathering. McLean has implemented CDC recommended safety strategies including masking, distancing, screening, ventilation and air purification, and disinfection. Epidemiological models indicate that our twice-weekly antigen testing, backed by confirmatory PCR tests, provides greater security than less frequent PCR testing or, at some schools, no testing at all. Vaccination–either for the student, or for other family members–may also provide additional protection for some higher risk families.

Question: Why did so many students have to quarantine last week? Does this indicate the school might be unsafe in the future?
Answer: We continue to believe that the school is a very safe environment, and that most or all of the infections last week occurred outside of school. The number of students required to quarantine last week was driven by the regulatory environment. At McLean, Montgomery County regulations, which are based on CDC guidelines, govern who needs to quarantine. These regulations assume that individuals who spent more than 15 minutes over 24 hours within six feet of an infected individual over the prior two days have been exposed, and therefore must quarantine. Last week we reviewed class lists to determine who had been in class together with students who tested positive. In some cases we were not sure of seating arrangements, so we had to quarantine full classes. We have now rectified this with assigned seating, which will dramatically reduce the number of people who may have been exposed should another student test positive. We have also tightened up on other areas of possible exposure, such as eliminating indoor lunch except in highly inclement weather. Rising numbers of vaccinated community members will make it safer still by the fall.

Question: What if my child needs to quarantine for COVID-19
Answer: With vaccinations, we believe that there will be less need to quarantine in the fall. However, if the health authorities determine that a student, or a group of students, need to quarantine, teachers will use hybrid instruction to include them in classes for the relatively brief quarantine period.

Question: What if my child is sick with the flu, or some other non-COVID-19 illness?
Answer: Young people who need to quarantine due to COVID-19 are most often without symptoms, and able to learn easily from home. Students with other illnesses who are too sick to come to school are most often symptomatic. They should be resting at home, and not joining classes online. Therefore, we do not plan to offer hybrid instruction for illnesses other than COVID-19. Instead, we will treat these as excused absences, and teachers will assist students in catching up, as we did before the pandemic.

Question: Why return to normal instruction when COVID-19 is still in circulation?
Answer: The United States may not achieve herd immunity by this fall, and much of the world is far behind in vaccinations, so we can expect COVID-19 to stay with us for some time to come. It may mutate into less virulent forms, more akin to the flu or even the common cold. On the other hand, it is also possible that our vaccines will be less effective against new, more virulent variants. Whatever the future brings, as long as we can operate safely, it is important for us to return to our normal schedule, which serves our students so well, academically, socially, and emotionally. If conditions worsen substantially we will return to hybrid or home-based instruction.

Please take this brief survey so that we can incorporate your thoughts and preferences into our planning.