From Without, From Within

An update from Director Vince Durnan on weighing COVID-19 metrics, our experiences with the virus at USN, and how we can mitigate the spread of the virus at schools.
Here’s the combination of conflicting sentiments aimed my way of late, and understandably so. In one ear — "have you seen the COVID-19 case number surge, and shouldn't that rocket us right back to remote mode, if numbers resemble the worrisome figure of late summer?" And in the other— “if our Divisional case numbers remain in the single digits, why can’t we remain in school in person?” How to reconcile these positions? Let me share what we’re learning:
Now that we have several weeks of lived experience at USN, we can introduce a second data set for consideration, going beyond the citywide metrics of new cases per 100K population, transmission rate, and test positivity figures. We have our COVID-19 tracker on our webpage, and we have our stories of who, how, and when regarding this virus.
What we’ve seen so far, and of course there’s no concrete guarantee that things could not change, is that cases arrive on campus via connections at home and almost exclusively asymptomatically. The students we're sending home for testing per CDC guidance regarding symptoms overwhelmingly test negative. And maybe most resonant with me, none of those who’ve been placed in quarantine, again per specific CDC stipulations, have to this point contracted the virus. Read that again, and understand why the conversation nationally is so lively on that topic. We’re not alone.
So what must be going on? Two things, from my perspective. First, what we are doing — deliberately, consistently, and hourly here at school — is working. We are not a source of community spread, from all we can glean. Secondly, in the wider community, people must not be doing what we are doing, simple and effective as it seems to be. The city, state, and nation’s uptick in case numbers strikes me (and many far more credentialed than I) as largely avoidable. While USN is being pretty good to Tennessee, Tennessee is not doing USN any favors.
Ultimately, those wider numbers must have some bearing on our own, but maybe not much. The third data set I’ve been chasing is the combination of experiences in area schools, whose names you would know. I was recently on a call to help organize that effort. They are seeing what we are seeing, which confirms much of what the country is seeing in schools with the resources and resolve to do COVID-19 mitigation. Check this great piece from scholar and researcher Melinda Buntin published Wednesday, October 21.
This all gets back to what's happening in USN households. The decisions great and small about where you go, what you do, with whom, and how will define our options as a school in coming months. You’ve been hearing that mantra for months, and now there’s some direct empirical foundation for the position. Understand that our faculty and staff are making daily efforts to be here and to do what’s needed to keep our doors open. Please keep making a plan for how your family is part of the solution as well. Please don't write yourself a COVID-19 fatigue-based pass to make exceptions to what you know to be the right path forward.
We’re digging deep here on campus to keep adjusting and steering toward what works. We’ll keep tightly adherent to CDC guidance, and maybe the broader school data about the efficacy of mitigation measures will be reflected in subsequent advisories. And next week, our faculty and staff will have the chance to begin the pooled testing we've been waiting for, starting our initiative for the asymptomatic testing that has been so helpful across the street at Vanderbilt University. Once we establish that routine, we’ll begin offering to students, starting with our oldest.
In short, we know the wider data are relevant for everyone in our city, and respect for that epidemiological reality should translate into even more careful choices in USN households, in your household. Let’s be more mindful than ever, and we can prove something of wider value as we preserve the chance to be here together.
Amazing not to be going on about the debate and the election, but that will need to wait until next week. I needed to get to this first. Take care of one another — think civic engagement and public health.
As committed as ever,
    • Director Vince Durnan

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