So Far, So ...

Penned from a tiny desk in Pittsburgh, Director Vince Durnan's review of the first two weeks of school calls for optimism and a continued commitment to public health.
Good — I’d say we’re off to a very, very good start, considering the public health headwind we face despite our demonstrated commitment to combat it. The rosy numbers of early summer gave way to our state languishing in the top ten in the nation ranking for states being battered by COVID-19, and now further distinguishing ourselves by the alarming number of those cases in children. Scanning the numbers as I, and perhaps you, do each day underscores the difficulty of our setting relative to virtually everywhere else on the planet — and still our elected officials fiddle. Even on that landscape, even for me as one of those immunocompromised people referenced as needing to be extra careful, cause for optimism exists.

How so, you might ask? Let’s start with our enviable vaccination numbers for eligible students, faculty, and staff. Even on my frequent conversations with colleagues nationwide (say nothing of those with local folks), our 97%+ figure holds up like a beacon. It’s so high, in fact, that the upcoming Board discussions about formally requiring immunization, in the wake of formal Food & Drug Administration approval to confirm the absolute safety of doing so, may be practically moot. Vaccination remains, notwithstanding the virulent nature of the delta variant, as the single best protective measure for us individually and collectively. 

Past that, modifications in Centers for Disease Control close contact and quarantine definitions have substantially curtailed the need to send students home — something we did in scores and scores of cases a year ago once we returned in person, with virtually no observed spread from in-school experience. But those were the best rules available, and we followed them to the letter. Now they’re different, as our weekly posted summaries will bear out.

Our commitment to community health remains second to none. No more desk partitions, revealed to be of marginal mitigation help, no more one-way halls, but when it comes to masks, we mean it, and at lunch time we are distanced and outdoors to the fullest extent viable.

The mask question which provides such a flash point and lamentable political point-scorer affecting districts now facing closure in many cases is mercifully not, in the main, divisive for us. That said, I know that asking our youngest to wear masks while bunching together during recess time on the playground is chafing some of you at home. My promise is that we’ll continue to assess, in concert with teachers’ wisdom and our Medical Advisory Board, and we’ll adjust as the beet-red case number color for our region hopefully fades in coming weeks. We want to reclaim every bit of normal that our landscape makes prudent.

And if you’re still reading, and you’re wondering, I hope, what you can do at home, here are two ideas, based on what we’ve seen so far: first, banish the thought that USN is so safe that it somehow grants you immunity in what you choose to do away from campus. For us to do all this and you to throw caution to the wind on your own time (which, by the way, far exceeds hours spent at school in a given week) puts the whole enterprise in jeopardy. Last year and this, our younger students, the ones still unvaccinated, mostly caught the virus from their parents. It’s just that simple. And please, as you consider the disarming truth of that statement, understand the huge difference that your own vaccination makes.

Second, in a connected point, when it comes to activities you schedule/permit/tolerate for your children, understand that transmission from kid to kid is likely to happen away from school. Consider your risk budget management from that vantage point. Beyond the fact that classmates may gather unmasked without any malice aforethought, there’s the whole question of spending time with young people from other school communities that may not observe mitigation measures as intentional as ours. Not to suggest a totally isolationist approach, but my fervent hope is that your efforts at home are as intentional as ours at school — it’s that simple. Especially right now in the blaze of new cases around us.

A year ago we didn’t know when the vaccines would come, when we’d be able to be in school, how we’d best prevent community spread. Today we know exponentially more, facing a challenge that’s epidemiologically greater given this variant, and our collective response has been inspiring. Let’s lean in, knowing that time is our ally, not our adversary, household by household, and let’s appreciate what we’ve made possible together. No one feels this challenge more than I, and I’m looking forward to being back inside our hardworking building starting next week. It’s one of the safest places around.

Yours in all of it,
Vince Durnan

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