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Winding down Covid protocols in our schools
We will soon be winding down all Covid protocols across our school network, other than those related to staff vaccination and testing. Yesterday we sent this note to all Higher Ground staff—at 100 Guidepost Montessori and Academy of Thought and Industry schools, at our Prepared Montessorian training center, and of course to our small think tank team at Montessorium.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, whenever the need for clarity has arisen, our approach at Higher Ground has always been to write. We write essays to articulate and explain our big picture view, and lay out our understanding for everyone to see—and then from that base we arrive at an aligned view in practice. Based on the reality that we’re reaching a new inflection point in our Covid experience, and on requests from many of you to better understand our direction, there is again need for such clarity. It is a good time for us to step back again and take a fresh look with an eye towards renewed alignment on all our practices.
At this point, all of you have experienced at least a few weeks of the Omicron wave. In some of our communities it is cresting, in others it is on the decline, and in at least some it has passed. For the former group, you’re in the thick of it, dealing with sick colleagues, sick children, and possibly a sick you. For the latter, you’re at the tail end of a very hard six week stretch.
We’ve instituted specific protocols in response to Omicron, and have implemented them across programs as fast as local cultural or regulatory conditions reasonably allow. Practices like “test to stay”, which enables us to use tests to minimize the spread of illness while still providing an education for most of our students, as well as increased PTO for school staff who get Covid.
The roughly six weeks that it takes Omicron to rise, crest, and recede is an exclamation mark at the end of a very hard hundred weeks.
The pandemic has hit everyone differently. Some have dealt with serious illness and the loss of loved ones. Some have suffered indirect effects, such as having medical procedures postponed, or navigating the choppy waters of social isolation and increased cultural fractiousness. Others have been more fortunate, but everyone has been impacted. It’s hard to believe that we’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of a public health emergency. It’s also hard to remember “the Before Time”.
There is no going back to 2019. But it’s very much worth taking Omicron as an opportunity to pause, zoom out, and reflect: where are we in the pandemic? Where have we been? Where are we going?
Where we’ve been
I cannot adequately describe how proud I am of the work we’ve done together. In March of 2020, I wrote the following:
The challenge presented by COVID-19 is in certain ways, as mentioned, unprecedented in our lifetimes and our societies. In a deeper sense, however, it is anthropologically normal. Part of the human condition—indeed, perhaps the paradigmatic feature of the human species—is the need to face down the diverse totality of threats from an indifferent nature, including novel disease. Our tools are what they have always been: foresight, wisdom, science, and the innovative products these make possible.
Today, two years later, we can say proudly that we have faced down a pandemic, and it has made us mighty.
Foresight, wisdom, science, and innovation have been our watchwords, and we have used them to guide us in providing an unmatched education in uncertain times. Human development cannot and does not pause. For missionary educators like us, a global pandemic is in scope. In fact, times like these underscore the importance of what we do. As Montessori pursued her work through the 1918 flu pandemic, through the Spanish Civil War, a global depression, and two World Wars—so we’ve pursued ours.
To continue supporting learning and growth, we have…
…pioneered virtual school, home school, micro schools, fully online teacher training, and new models of parent support. In doing this, we have leveraged the fact that, unlike traditional pedagogy, we do not have an approach that relies on compliance and in-person enforcement. Montessori provides a framework for supporting development that is not situational but transcendent; this fire of the gods that we possess has burned bright through the darkness of the pandemic.
…evolved protocols to offer in-person schooling. We’ve successfully solved for each unique situation from the early days of the pandemic, when everything was six-foot-distancing and surface sanitation, to a focus on limiting the social graph and masking, to doing everything in our power to make it easy for our staff to get vaccinated as early as possible, to our current testing-driven approach. Our ability to adapt enabled us to re-open incredibly early in 2020, and to continue to grow our physical school network alongside our virtual and at-home offerings.
…evaluated the advancing science. Early in the pandemic, we partnered with experts such as Professor Emily Oster and Dr. Amesh Adalja. We’ve continuously pored over a wide range of research, reasoning through conflicting hypotheses and policy advice. And we’ve used this to form nuanced, independent judgments about what, when, and where to tack, in response to new variants, to local health conditions, to onerous regulations and to widely divergent cultural perspectives. Throughout it all, we have never betrayed the responsibility of first principles thinking.
The Omicron wave has truly been different. It is milder, but much more contagious. Vaccines still help across the board—in terms of likelihood of infection, transmission, and severe illness—but breakthrough infections are the norm. In a school environment, there are real doubts about whether masking children, especially young children, helps at all.
Overall, our approach has by necessity shifted from focusing primarily on preemptive prevention—to dealing with potential cases—to focusing primarily on reactive isolation—to dealing with actual cases. Obviously, we are still trying to limit spread. Research in school contexts suggests that test-to-stay works, and indeed can result in less spread than defaulting to quarantine after exposure. But with Omicron, spread is going to happen. Coming to terms with that has been part of the challenge of this wave.
Where we’re going
The shift in our attitude towards Covid—from potential to actual cases, to targeting definite rather than possible illness for quarantine—is highly significant. It is a major re-orientation, and requires us to habitualize a totally new mindset.
We are taking a big step towards a world where Covid is treated like the flu, like RSV, like hand-foot-and-mouth, like noroviruses, like bad colds. When one gets sick with those illnesses, one stays home and recovers. Medical attention is sought and provided if necessary. And then, once you’re better, you resume life. This is not how the world, including us, has treated Covid. Given the last two years, it is no small thing to now adjust our approach.
Omicron is different from the flu, RSV, and these others diseases primarily in that it is novel. The novelty of the novel coronavirus has always been a big part of what makes it such a threat; with no existing immunity in the population, it can infect more people simultaneously. But Omicron is fundamentally similar to those diseases in that its risk profile is similar, especially for children, vaccinated adults, and those who have already had a bout with the disease.
We are rapidly approaching a world where we will think of Covid as “just” another disease. The “just” is somewhat misleading; all diseases carry some small risk of serious complications, and even mild or moderate illness sucks. Covid will always be with us. But distancing, masking, and an unusually low threshold for testing for it will not. Society-wide, the sunsetting of widespread use of those tools is coming—probably (hopefully) faster than you might think.
There were excellent reasons for putting precautionary protocols into place. But there are also excellent reasons for sunsetting them. It’s true that we’re never going back to 2019. But it’s also true that 2022 is not 2020:
First, and most importantly, we have vaccines. We’ve had vaccines for over a year. Not all people are choosing to get them—and we are not requiring them—but the option is there, and they help tremendously against all variants.
Second, there have been advances in our treatment of Covid. There is no silver bullet cure, but, for serious cases, there is a growing toolkit of medications and a growing repertoire of effective treatment options.
Third, we have more data. From early in the pandemic, it was clear that there were different risk profiles for different demographics. Children have always been spared the worst of the risk. And we now have much more data on the risk to children in general and schools in particular. The risks to children are not zero, but they are low. They are comparable to other common childhood respiratory diseases, and, overall, unvaccinated children are still at lower risk than vaccinated middle-aged adults (in some datasets, lower than even vaccinated young adults).
Fourth, we have had two years of spread, notably including the recent Omicron wave. While there will undoubtedly be new variants, there is now a vastly higher amount of natural immunity in the population. Immunity fades and isn’t perfect between variants, but the data suggests that it does help. We cannot be certain, but there is good reason to believe that Omicron may be the last wave of this size and severity.
We have effective pharmaceutical and medical interventions, several pandemic waves’ worth of immunity, and an increasingly clear picture of Covid risk generally and to schools in particular. These are the powerful factors that will soon allow us to move from pandemic to endemic, from Covid protocols to general health protocols.
We have, as an organization, made a conscious decision to move in this direction as quickly as possible.
A lot hangs on “as possible”. It includes global and local community sentiment, global and local health conditions, and ongoing, vigilant review of public health research. We know there will be new variants, know there will be new legal curveballs, and know there will be new unknowns.
We will likely never fully exit from the Covid pandemic. But we will exit from Covid as a public health emergency. And we’re planning on making that exit in weeks, not months.
Navigating the controversy
Covid has been more than a public health challenge. It’s also been a regulatory challenge and a cultural challenge.
The guidance from the US CDC has generally lagged the research by several months. And, even when it catches up, it has generally not prioritized children. And, even when it looks at children, it has generally not prioritized children who are not yet “school-aged”. Over the last six or so months, it has continued to, misleadingly, group children into the category of “unvaccinated” and offer distancing, masking, and quarantine guidance on that basis. (The national agencies of other countries, and international agencies such as the WHO, have taken a more sanguine approach to Covid in schools and preschools. US policy is uniquely conservative.)
Add to the mix that US policy is not enacted federally, but locally. State and county regulatory bodies wait for the CDC to update, then review, then update their own protocols—which get run through the prism of local law and politics. That leads to both more delays and huge differences in regulatory requirements.
No doubt there will continue to be places for some months where we cannot sunset Covid-specific protocols. But where we can, we will. And where we can push back against regulators, we also generally will—as we do when we license schools for real glass and floor beds. Our general view is that these protocols are a significant burden, often require programmatic compromises—or outright programmatic suspensions, in the case of classroom closures—and are no longer warranted by the risk.
The cultural challenge is more complex.
I know that many of you will not agree with the above approach. Some of you will disagree because you think that now is not the time, or that the public health emergency is not over, or that the burdens of Covid protocols are not particularly high, or that our generally independent approach to evaluating public health guidance is askew. Others of you will disagree because you think that we should have done this a year ago (or earlier), that we’re still slow playing our hand and over-blowing the risks. Others of you will have more specific disagreements, such as about the efficacy of test-to-stay or vaccines. Some of you, independently of whether you agree or disagree in part or in whole, will be parsing this through the lens of enduring personal loss.
Covid has been challenging as a pandemic. But, in my opinion—and I do not say this lightly, but with a full view as to the ongoing death toll of the pandemic—it has been as or more challenging as a cultural phenomenon. It has increased fractiousness, decreased social cohesion and trust, and severely politicized science under two opposing administrations. It has interacted with other divisive social trends in dark ways. It is plausible to me that, overall, as a society, we are less prepared for the next pandemic than we were at the beginning of Covid. It is certain that the pandemic has delivered a devastating spiritual blow to human solidarity.
To navigate Covid is to navigate this controversy. It can be confusing, infuriating, and exhausting. As educators, you’ve been on the front lines of both the pandemic and the culture war. Your views on the pandemic interface with those of this organization, with those of your colleagues, with those of your students’ parents. For the majority of you, there is not now and probably never has been perfect stakeholder alignment on a workplace Covid approach. Indeed, some of you have found yourselves in the middle of a civil war on this issue. Some of you likely experience this note as yet another salvo in this war.
We have tried, and I think generally succeeded, to approach Covid organizationally by reference to our shared values and mission. We have also tried and generally succeeded in allowing for local community variation where feasible and justified. We have tried and generally succeeded in where possible allowing for individual disagreement, which is the main reason for not mandating vaccines organizationally, despite tremendous—and, honestly, tempting—pressure to do so.
The view expounded here is our organizational direction. This is the Higher Ground position, the Guidepost position, the ATI position, the Prepared Montessorian position.
Our approach to Covid has shifted with changing circumstances and growing knowledge. But our philosophy of Covid has been the same: we treat Covid as a risk to be managed. How far we are willing to go in managing that risk depends on cost-benefit analysis.
The costs are myriad. There are the monetary costs of implementing additional protocols, such as paying for additional staff to meet a Covid-cautious schedule, or losing revenue from withdrawal due to classroom closures. There are also programmatic costs. To shutter a classroom is to shutter our programming and disrupt the student experience. Fragmenting a school schedule and modifying routines often compromises core programming such as the uninterrupted morning work cycle. And limiting the visibility of precious human faces during critical developmental times is not something we can take lightly. That our children have not seeing the beautiful smiles of their guides for years is not a small cost. There are also the costs of mental bandwidth and energy in communicating about and implementing policies that always have logistical overhead and edge cases.
The benefits have been more straightforward: the goal has always been to reduce the risk of a community member getting Covid.
The reason for moving to sunset Covid policies is that these costs—financial, educational, and psychological—are no longer worth the marginal health benefit. That judgment is based on a whole complex series of other judgments, about the medical science and the implementation realities of our pedagogical mission. The accuracy and honesty of this thinking are moral issues that we take with the highest seriousness.
Hopefully there will be alignment over time. I think there will be. I think the culture as a whole is moving in the direction indicated here—though we are moving more quickly than average, and that will create friction. But even where there isn’t alignment in judgment about Covid, please know that this is an area in which we value nothing more highly than the integrity of our thought and action.
Our philosophy of Covid has been to intelligently manage the risk, to neither ignore it or nor attempt to eliminate it at sacrificial costs. Right now, every in-person student and educator faces the risk of getting Omicron. The risks associated with Omicron are diminishing over time, due to the dynamics of the wave and the many factors described above. But they are real. And as we end more Covid protocols in the coming weeks, we will be increasing our relative surface area for Covid risk. There is no doubt that it would be marginally safer, strictly from the perspective of Covid risk, to keep more protocols in place.
But there is also no doubt that taking on more Covid risk is what our mission demands. These protocols cost money, energy, time, and good will, and all of these impinge significantly on our ability to support children in the process of growing up.
Covid has likely permanently elevated health concerns in school contexts. And it’s right to embrace concern for the health of our children, families, and staff. But this concern is compatible with exiting the state of emergency—indeed, exiting this emergency is what the ideals of our mission now demand.
This will take some time. There are many devils in many details that have been elided here. I haven’t provided a map; I’ve indicated a direction and a general pace, and perhaps I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered.
Answers and details are coming, and in the meantime, you should not feel shy about raising questions and concerns.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for working together with me to meet the challenges of educating children in difficult times.