Dear Parents,

Congratulations on the successful completion of the first academic week of the 2020-2021 school year! Even with all the uncertainty and new routines, there was something very comforting in seeing students and adults back on campus together again. Of course, while we all ache for a return to normal – that remains a ways off. Until then, we will continue to move forward one step at a time. 

To that end, I’d like share a few observations and lessons that we have gleaned over the last couple of weeks (please note that this email isn’t to announce any changes to our current mode).  

Timelines and Intentions (ACTION ITEM)

First, though, a quick update on our timelines for communication the coming weeks: 

Based on feedback after our Parent Town Hall, we have moved some of our communication milestone dates forward to give families more time to plan and arrange schedules. 

On August 28, we will communicate a decision about whether we will be moving forward with Orange mode. At that time we will also share with families which cohort a student is in — Blue (on campus Mon/Tues) or Gold (on campus Thurs/Fri). Should we transition to Orange, this new mode will start on Tuesday, September 8. 

If a student intends to remain virtual, a parent needs to complete the Virtual Learning Opt-In form in the Blackbaud parent portal (the same place you completed your CA:United Compact) by Wednesday, August 26 at 10am.  For this form, we will only need one parent to confirm. Students that opt for virtual-only learning will not be able to come on campus for flex days or other activities or sports. They will be able to participate in virtual flex day opportunities. Students that make this choice will need to remain virtual through Fall Break (October 9), at which point we will provide you an opportunity to reassess your decision.

If a student intends to return to campus in Orange mode, there is no need to complete the form. 

While lunch plans are still firming up, we do anticipate that unless we have inclement weather most eating will take place outdoors. If we do have to go indoors, students will be spread out across multiple spaces in multiple buildings. 

Should we chose to remain in Mixed Mode for a while longer, we will disregard the virtual choice made right now and allow all students to opt-in to on-campus activities as they see fit. 

Our Goal and the Landscape

Looking ahead, our ultimate goal is to bring our community safely back together.  While we have many wonderful tools to keep learning moving forward virtually, physical isolation takes a toll on us individually and on our community. 

Recently, we’ve seen a heartening positive trend in virus numbers in North Carolina, and Wake County specifically. The percent-positive metric in Wake County has moved from 8% on July 22 to 6% on August 20. At the same time, number of daily new cases (per 100,000 residents) has gone from 16 to 10. The R0 (naught), which tracks reproduction rates, has gone from .96 to .89. Because each person is infecting less than 1 person, it means that the rate of infection is shrinking in Wake County. 

Against this backdrop of positive data, however, are concerning reports of outbreaks related to school re-openings. As you are likely aware, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and NC State pulled the plug on their attempts at on-campus learning after only two weeks. While universities present unique challenges, we continue to monitor cases and research involving spread in secondary schools as well. 

What these outbreaks highlight is that metrics are but one piece of the puzzle in safely bringing people together. While we have implemented strategies to mitigate risk and reduce the opportunity for the virus to move from person A to person B on our campus, we cannot altogether eliminate it; the only way to do that would be total isolation. We will be successful if we can avoid an internal community outbreak – or “clusters” in the parlance that has been in the news recently.  

Unfortunately, simple math tells us that, even in the limited time that we’ve been on campus so far this year, the odds are that we have had people with COVID-19 among us. While we want to see community spread at a low enough levels to minimize those probabilities, to open our doors in any way right now is to accept that we could come in contact with a COVID-positive individual at school. 

This is a tremendously disquieting bit of reality — and it rightfully has some faculty, staff, parents, and students very worried. One of the hardest parts of the pandemic has been individually reckoning with our personal comfort with its risks, based on evolving science, incomplete information, the behaviors of others, and our own personal circumstances. To bring any large-scale community together right now requires transparency and trust. These are tough to pull off in the best of times. And, at the end of our second week of the school year, I think we still have work to do. 

So, what have we learned from the first two weeks?

Distancing is difficult

We are still finding our way on navigating the expectations for proper physical distancing. We did a pretty good job with orientation and flex day activities that took place in the classroom. It is much easier to keep distance when you are still and seated. More free-flowing activities were more of a challenge. While it was obvious people were putting in a good-faith effort to follow the rules, too often we found ourselves “drifting” closer together than was advisable or necessary.

It is important to note that we cannot create an environment where everybody will remain six-feet apart at all times. Six feet is not a magic number, and as we move around the campus there will be times we are closer. Some activities will also push those limits. The goal is to keep those moments brief and outside if possible. This is going to take more practice, as we learn to be aware of the space we take up and readjust to maintain distance once we are still again. We will also be continually re-thinking ways of doing things to make it easier to stay distanced.

Face coverings are essential

Those of us that wear glasses are still struggling with them fogging up a bit, but overall mask usage by students was outstanding. Finding a good fitting covering that doesn’t slip down off your nose is important. We need to be thoughtful when we remove masks to eat or drink, taking extra care to respect physical distancing and to put our masks back on as soon as possible. And, just because we are six feet apart, does not mean we should remove our masks in the presence of others. 

Daily wellness checks are not box-checking

We are working to transition away from the paper forms for the daily health checks that most of you used during orientation week. This should make the mornings go more smoothly and more safely. However, it is important that the daily health check isn’t just a proforma activity. It is really important that we all become in touch with our health and stay away from others when we are sick. Yes, many of those with COVID are asymptomatic, but those who do have any symptoms should not be on campus. Please take your temp in the morning!  Also, there are some symptoms that trigger a self-quarantine. This is important. 

That is a lot for a Friday afternoon. Getting used to these new expectations will take time. There has been A LOT to read and digest – and this is new for all of us! Thanks to everyone for working together to keep our community healthy. 

Have a great weekend!

Dr. Ehrhardt