A Thought Experiment

What scenarios is USN considering for school as concerns grow regarding the novel coronavirus? Director Vince Durnan shared the following column in division publications sent late Wednesday, March 11.
We remain in the realm of the hypothetical and speculative, as I type, with regard to a COVID-19 case presenting in the immediate USN community— still no evidence of cases here at 2000 Edgehill. While we experience the relative luxury of that position, let’s think about possible paths forward together, understanding that events in days and weeks ahead may well end changing in ways we have endeavored to avoid.
 
Still, there’s probably use to be found in tracing the progress of thinking about the virus as the world has traced its journey to becoming a pandemic. We started weeks ago, understandably, wishing that any threat could be contained in a single Chinese province, and then that it could be limited within that single nation. Then we hoped to keep cases away from our hemisphere, then just away from our country, then our home state, then our region, then our city, and perhaps now, given the mayor’s announcements of confirmed instances in Nashville, to finally keep cases from our households. At each point, we’ve been reminded of the connectedness of the modern world, even as we’ve ramped up efforts at prevention.
 
It does feel though, given this progression, that expecting to construct some medical moat to completely avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus is proving to be more than optimistic. So let’s imagine what might transpire from here forward, knowing that we’re only in the realm of the theoretical— but engaging directly in this thought experiment, informed by what we’ve learned. Let me propose two very different paths, then add yet a third possible option given historic precedent.
 
To start, we could see the challenge as episodic, responding case by case if they arise, as it appears many schools and districts are currently preparing to do. What that means is that each time someone gets sick with this virus, we shut down the school for all grades and programs, then do an even better job of cleaning and sanitizing everything, provide as much chance for teaching and learning to continue as distance and technology make possible, then wait for some prescribed number of days (maybe 2, maybe 20), and return to campus with fingers crossed that the next case does not appear anytime soon. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the next case would not appear right away, or even while we’re on hiatus, and so things could go for weeks or months. OK, no comedy. Honestly, that’s kind of state of the art in the independent school world right now, absent any other insights, and it’s fundamentally reactive.
 
By contrast, and far less audible so far, would be a conversation about COVID-19 being a new normal in our schools and communities. This perspective would include an understanding that setting the threshold for closing at a single instance, unlike the 15% to 20% absence rate that would trigger closure for other illnesses, would prove unworkable and indefinitely disruptive. From this vantage point, we’d stay open even with diagnosed cases in our school community, just as we would if there were cases in other schools or nearby institutions. Guidelines about self-isolation for families and quarantine for directly affected individuals would apply, as would all other preventative practices and guidelines.
 
Of course, this second path risks generating many more cases and potentially puts some adults at risk, even though the lethality of the virus seems extremely low for children. It could read as us not doing our part to help tamp down the pandemic while we all wait for the vaccine to arrive, presumably many months from now. So what is a responsible school to do? This approach feels both inevitable and a long way off.
 
The third path, which admittedly would ask much more of us, leans directly on the 1918 “Spanish” flu experience as a point of reference. While there’s no unanimity of opinion, several studies across the decades have indicated that a range of U.S. cities slowed the number of cases by closing all schools, churches, and public entertainment venues for several weeks at a time, simultaneously. Remember, that devastating flu killed maybe 50 million people globally, through a series of cycles during wartime, as defense industries needed to press on uninterrupted. It may not be a perfect analog. Readiness to sacrifice as a measure of patriotism may well have exceeded anything we could expect today, and self-isolation means no hanging out at the mall, others' homes, or opportunistic vacation travel. Do we have that community will?
 
What seems like a good discussion to foster is how, depending on community transmission rates in Nashville, we would follow the direction of Metro Health (or another appropriate agency) to do something at scale, including all venues where crowds of people gather, USN included. I’ve had a series of conversations with fellow school heads on this topic already. One-off efforts, however earnest, fall short of the potential benefit of a broader strategy, and of course my hope is that we don’t reach that urgent point, but I’m listening hourly in the event that we do.
 
Take a little time to think all this through on your end. We’ve done a nice job so far of avoiding the inclination to panic. As we prepare for the unpredictable, it’s helpful to consider possible scenarios, knowing that we will continue to receive great advice and counsel from the experts in our direct orbit. Thanks for doing your part.
 
Will keep you posted,

Vince Durnan
Director
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