After almost two weeks of exclusively remote learning, we look forward to the start of classes on campus for some of our students on Monday, September 28. This day comes after many months of planning by our faculty and staff to ensure a return that prioritizes the health and safety of our entire community.
While we are excited to mark this milestone in the 2020-2021 academic year for the students who will be able to join us in person, we are also deeply committed to our students who will remain remote for the coming months. I am confident that those students who have chosen—or for reasons beyond their control, were required to make the choice—to learn remotely will have an experience that will meet the St. Mark's standard of excellence.
For those students returning to campus next week, life will be different than it was when they last attended classes in person in March. Students will wear a mask almost all the time. They will participate in a daily health check, and they will not be able to travel throughout campus as freely as usual. At this point, we are all used to some restrictions and a certain "new normal" that COVID-19 has forced upon us. It is my belief and my hope that returning to in-person life at St. Mark's, with all of its compromises, will provide those students who are able to be here with an incredibly positive experience, both academically and outside the classroom.
St. Mark's recently retained Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc. (EH&E) to assess readiness for managing operational impacts associated with COVID-19 while reopening and resuming operations. A representative from EH&E recently conducted a walkthrough of the School and a review of documents, as well as interviews with faculty and staff members.
The collected information was compared to best practices for reopening provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc. (ASHRAE), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).
EH&E reported that "St. Mark's has developed a robust and mature plan for reentry in accordance with best practices. In EH&E's experience, St. Mark's planning is in line with or more advanced than similar independent boarding schools. Additionally, St. Mark's has the infrastructure in place to respond to changes in their population, the community, and in guidance in a timely and thorough manner."
Following are some of the health and safety measures St. Mark's is taking this fall:
- Students, faculty, and staff will be tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis until the end of October, at which time the frequency of testing will be evaluated.
- St. Mark's has implemented an attestation form which requires students, faculty, and staff members to make a daily declaration confirming they are free of COVID-19 symptoms. This form is to be completed daily to minimize exposure from any potential cases.
- The School has arranged its curriculum and schedule to space all students at least six feet or more during classroom instruction. In addition, installation of maximum occupancy signs will be completed this week.
- St. Mark's has augmented cleaning and disinfection practices. The School is using EPA-listed products and procedures to ensure effective cleaning and disinfection. Non-porous surfaces will be cleaned multiple times per day, with a focus on high-touch surfaces. These plans are aligned with CDC guidance. Hand-sanitizing stations are located throughout the buildings and in every classroom.
- The School has installed HEPA-filtered air cleaning units for some of its spaces to supplement mechanical or natural ventilation. Classrooms now have an air turnover rate of six ACH (air changes per hour), meaning all air in the room turns over every 10 minutes. (see A below) Heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) upgrades are in progress in the kitchen and serving area.
- We will increase ventilation naturally by keeping windows open if weather permits, or mechanically, by running HVAC systems, bathroom exhaust fans, etc. in residential areas with mechanical equipment. In addition, the School will incorporate the use of portable HEPA-filtered air cleaners in shared and common spaces.
- Touchless faucets have been installed in all restrooms, including in dormitories. (see B below)
- The School has installed physical barriers, including sneeze guards and partitions, in serving and dining areas. We will offer additional mealtimes for each daily meal in an expanded time window to decrease the number of students in the dining areas and dining lines at a time. (see C below)
- If an adult or student is found to exhibit new symptoms of illness while at School and cannot leave immediately, St. Mark's has a newly renovated Health Services Annex building for community members to temporarily quarantine or isolate.
- The School has installed large outdoor tents to provide more functional outdoor space to support classes, meetings, and campus activities. Any furniture in these spaces will be arranged to allow for social distancing. (see D below)
- The School is providing single occupancy dorm accommodations for a vast majority of boarding students. The limited number of double occupancy rooms have been configured to maximize distance between beds, will incorporate the use of physical barriers, and will be equipped with portable HEPA-filtered air cleaners.
These are just some of the many measures the School has taken in the interest of the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff members as we return to campus. Thank you for your support and partnership as we prepare for this important step in our 2020-2021 academic year.
John C. Warren '74, EdD
Head of School