Caught in the Middle

Amid COVID-19 fatigue, it is increasingly important that we remain dedicated to following public health guidance. What makes USN possible right now is our ability to form consensus around issues that may divide the world beyond our Edgehill Campus.
By Vince Durnan, Director
So good to be back at school post-Thanksgiving, even if it may feel like we’re waiting for a big COVID-19 shoe to drop. The current interval of possible increased transmission, so much discussed nationally, set against the backdrop of so much local virus activity, is enough to rattle even the most untroubled minds. And yet our experience continues to provide a case for optimism and a reminder of the efficacy that accompanies some basic public health commitments. We still, though, end up at decision points that place us in the center of highly polarized issues—and as much as I wish that was otherwise, I’m grateful for the good sense of the USN community.
Let me share a few examples, just for catharsis’ sake. A recent flash point emerged around winter sports and extracurriculars in general. Two weeks ago, the Metro Public Health Department shared a message “strongly urging” all schools to suspend those activities until January. Take a look—not subtle. Leaving aside the fact that it was a single tweet, sent late on a Friday afternoon, without any accompanying measures documented on their website, it was a clear and urgent request—one that Metro Nashville Public Schools immediately acknowledged and shortly thereafter asked us to endorse as well. Meanwhile, most other independent schools reserved the right to just do as they saw fit, continuing with games and competitions, not to mention travel, club, and rec leagues proceeding as they had planned, perhaps with a nod to the now familiar "Rule of 8." A collective “meh.”
My mind went immediately to last spring, when every school’s boilerplate statements included something about “following all guidance from the Metro Public Health Department to the letter.” What has happened in the intervening eight months? COVID-19 fatigue runs deep, and now we take that kind of guidance as a suggestion, as government orders have morphed into sincere requests. I can confirm that we still feel a basic responsibility to listen when the health department speaks, but the current state of things sure does put us in the middle of a situation that seems destined to be bad for public health. And those leagues continue to recruit, dividing the wider community into defiers and compliers, as case numbers surge. We’re left to find our own path, intramural, cohorted, preserving practice time as we watch things play out for now.
There’s a similar circumstance connected to our interest in doing asymptomatic testing, something that seems to yield such benefits for higher education (example at Duke similar to ours). But most schools and communities regionally prefer not to know what their results might be, choosing to deal with only that which they absolutely must. We see as a nation the consequence of eschewing testing, relative to what has happened elsewhere on the planet. Other independent schools around the country require regular testing for students, especially around any vacation time, but locally that’s just a non-starter. Our voluntary and grateful participation in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center research study leaves us in a position at neither end of the testing decision spectrum. And understandably I hear frustration from both poles, as we work to get this right.
And what about the question of travel? On a call this week with members of USN’s Class of 1991, amazingly now in line for their 30th reunion this spring (fingers crossed), there was some surprise that we did not ask families to submit their travel plans for Thanksgiving or ask them to quarantine upon return. My response was that we’ve asked unceasingly that people consider the effects of their choices on others, that ultimately we have no real enforcement capacity, and that my trust runs pretty deep in our collective capacity to do the responsible thing. And then there’s the sad reality that Nashville might be one of the most risky places to be in the first place. There again, we’re choosing a middle path, relative to what’s happening in the broader school world. And based on what we learn this time through, we’ll set our sights on the best plan for returning in January.
You get the picture. What’s making USN possible right now, and really what has buoyed the school all along, is our ability to form consensus around issues that may divide the world beyond our campus. That capacity is being tested and, I’d argue, strengthened, by the furnace blasts of COVID-19.
One more topic—this would normally be the time when we’d send two delegations, one of students and one of faculty & staff, to a 7,000+ person conference sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, the decades-old People of Color Conference. You may remember that we helped host the gathering two years ago in Nashville. It’s a crucial source of support, inspiration, and belonging for members of our faculty and staff, and this year it has to happen remotely, rather than in St. Louis as originally planned. So in the midst of all else that’s happening, a number of my colleagues are busy on our behalf in the anti-racist work to respond to the other pandemic—last summer was the beginning and by no means the end of that work for us. We simply cannot ignore that mandate if we want USN to measure itself by the highest national standards and to model best practice for our students.
Special thanks extend to our friend and colleague Professor Rich Milner across the street at Peabody College for hosting the first Racial Justice in Education and Society Virtual Conference on Saturday, December 5. We have 20 more faculty and staff signed up for those sessions—and we are proud to be a co-sponsor. The work continues, even as it might be tempting to put our heads down and sprint to December 17 and the respite it will bring. We can’t take a single day for granted.
Let’s keep finding the resolve and reasons to agree,

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