Dear Stevenson Families,
With just a few days to go before we begin our teacher conferences, I write—on behalf of all Stevenson employees across all three divisions—to once again express our gratitude for your patience, trust, good humor, and constructive feedback as we’ve successfully launched the fall semester. I also write to share our regret that we will not be able to welcome you and your family in person to our campuses for Parents’ Weekend. But the central purpose of this letter is to review our timelines and plans as we continue to navigate our way through the pandemic, and begin to look forward to resuming campus instruction. Here are the headlines:
- We remain sincerely but guardedly optimistic about being able to provide safe campus instruction for PK–12 students ready and able to return in January.
- We are deep into our planning for this return.
- You will receive a comprehensive return handbook at the end of November.
- By early to mid-December, we expect to have enough information—between state guidance and local county data—to confirm our specific return dates.
- Families that prefer for their children to remain at home until we reach the lowest level of risk will still have access to remote instruction.
- Before the end of this semester, we intend to test an approach to safely providing outdoor fitness activities for PK-12 students. What we learn will help us design our approach to athletics for all students when we return to campus.
- We are actively exploring options to relocate our middle division students to one of several well-appointed sites reasonably close to the Carmel Campus in order to provide for adequate physical distancing upon our return, and should be able to make an announcement soon.
- The state of California has created a waiver for schools located in counties with the highest risk of infection to provide campus instruction to PK-6 students. The rationale for the waiver depends on unproven theories regarding transmission, especially in indoor settings. Given the risks, our commitment to safety, and the quality of our remote alternative, the School will not seek this waiver until the relevant research is conclusive.
Anticipated Return to Campus Instruction in January
Soon we will be as ready for campus instruction in January as we were in September, and we remain determined to open our campuses once it is safe to do so. As you’ll recall from the introduction to our recent survey, at the end of November we will distribute a revised plan, which will update our July edition of Planning to Return. We intend to confirm our return dates by mid-December, which is when we expect to have the information we need—between state guidance and local county data—to be both confident and accurate about next semester. Of course, the pandemic has taught us that rapidly changing conditions can outstrip even our best-laid plans.
For those of you who choose for your child to return to campus instruction as soon as our campuses reopen, stay tuned for announcements regarding virtual orientation activities that we’ll schedule in the weeks before our return dates, and related on-campus events in the days before classes begin—crucial training that will serve to align our expectations for all aspects of what that experience will be. Our goal will be to provide your family with reason to be confident in our ability to safely provide effective campus instruction without sacrificing all joy, and also to be alert to the potential risks. For those of you who plan for your child to return to campus instruction only once the risks are even lower than they may be in January, we will continue to provide superb remote instruction. And all families should rest assured that if state or county guidance, county data, or a community outbreak requires us to return all students to remote instruction for an indefinite period, we’ll be ready for that possibility, as well.
In the meantime, grounds for hope abound as we ramp up for our return to campus instruction in January! In our recent survey, almost 87% of respondents indicated their support for campus-based outdoor fitness activities for PK-12 students in what remains of this semester. We are confident that we can do so while reasonably preserving participants’ safety: these activities will be held exclusively outdoors, for no more than an hour, with maximal physical distancing in wide open spaces and essentially no exposure to surface transmission, and therefore represent a much lower risk to all concerned than does classroom instruction currently. We are therefore designing programs, tailored by division, that we will soon submit for county approval as an initial step in our return process. Students will be assigned to small, stable cohorts—mixed grade (by division), co-educational, and carefully supervised—and adhere to all relevant safety and physical distancing protocols.
These measures will help us develop an approach to athletics in the spring semester, especially outdoor low- or non-contact sports (baseball, swimming, golf, tennis, cross country, and track and field), in which over 88% of families would permit their children to partake upon our return to campus. [For outdoor contact sports (football, soccer, lacrosse, water polo, and field hockey), almost 57% of families would permit their children to participate; indoor sports (basketball and volleyball) were a distant third, with just below 35% of respondents favorable to their child’s participation.] Please keep an eye out for more information in the days to come.
As a further demonstration of our optimism for and commitment to reopening this coming semester, we are actively exploring options to relocate our middle division students to one of several well-appointed sites reasonably close to the Carmel Campus. Doing so will provide the additional space we need in order to enact adequate physical distancing for all PK-8 students. With these negotiations still in progress, we look forward to making a welcome announcement soon. Insofar as the Pebble Beach Campus is concerned, a combination of modifications to our buildings’ ventilation and filtration systems and the provision of supplementary tented learning spaces will provide ample room for physically distanced instruction.
California’s Color-Coded Tier Framework and Monterey County’s COVID-19 Data
In late August, 38 of the state’s 58 counties were in the purple tier, indicating that the virus is widespread. Today, Monterey County is one of just ten that currently occupy that category. This last week, our 7-day average number of cases per 100,000 people was 10.8. The county has to reach 7.0 or lower to be eligible to move into the red tier, which is the next lowest. Currently, our score is 8.3, based on a 26% increase in cases during the week ending October 10.
Monterey County therefore remains in the purple tier for now. Though no one can predict the future, some local public health experts think that we may reach and remain in the red tier before the end of the calendar year, barring the unforeseen, even though the county’s numbers may then continue to “sawtooth” (oscillating between the red and purple tiers) afterwards. For high schools to be permitted to reopen, a county must reach and remain in the state’s red tier for two full weeks. Additionally, existing state guidance that prohibits boarding schools from reopening their dormitories will need to be modified in order for us to welcome our boarding students back—something we anticipate being able to effect at the county level, as some other California boarding schools have done once their counties moved out of the state’s purple tier.
Some of you may be wondering: how much riskier is it to live in a purple tier than in a red tier? Dr. Geraldine Taplin, an infectious disease specialist at our local hospital and one of our many consulting experts, explains that for people working in frontline occupations (including teaching, hands-on medicine, and retail) or saddled with careless housemates, the highest degree of caution is warranted until we reach the lowest level of risk, especially if they or people with whom they are in close contact are in high-risk groups. Meanwhile, for people fortunate enough to have more control over their exposures than those in frontline occupations, Dr. Taplin advises that the key contributing factor to their safety (regardless of their county’s tier) is careful adherence to protective behaviors, such as masking, physical distancing, and hand sanitation.
Regarding the State’s Accommodations for PK-6 Students
Despite the fact that the state of California’s purple tier reflects that the virus is widespread within a county, and that people residing there are at the highest risk for infection, the state has created a waiver by which schools in purple counties can provide campus instruction to PK-6 students.
Additionally, the state has allowed schools to provide campus support—without a waiver—to small cohorts of students who require “occupational therapy services, speech and language services, and other medical services, behavioral services, educational support services as part of a targeted intervention strategy or assessments, such as those related to English learner status, individualized educational programs and other required assessments.” We understand that some schools have interpreted this guidance to mean that students outside of these categories may return to campus for classroom instruction. Having consulted several times with Monterey County Public Health, we have been advised repeatedly that such an interpretation is a violation of the state’s guidance, and against the law.
Insofar as the aforementioned waiver is concerned, Stevenson has not applied for one, for reasons that we have shared previously, and that merit review. We observe the following:
- The waiver is premised on unproven theories regarding transmission among children, and between children and adults. Though the latest research provides grounds for measured optimism, its authors admit their findings remain inconclusive and are complicated by significant flaws in data collection and analysis.
- The waiver process lacks fundamental rigor, as this example from Santa Clara County demonstrates. The counties’ evaluation of schools’ applications does not uniformly include either site visits or scenario-based table-top tests of schools’ capacity to follow their plans. In other words, schools are not in every case obligated to actually demonstrate their capacity, commitment, preparation, or training to deal with outbreaks in any meaningful way. This “honor system” ensures uniformity on paper, but not in practice, and therefore may not adequately protect the safety and health of students, students’ families, school employees, and the communities surrounding these schools.
- Of the more than 1000 schools that have applied for waivers, all but about a dozen or so have been approved. While this high approval rate may mean that most all of these schools’ plans are sufficient to protect the safety of employees, students and their families, and surrounding communities, it seems equally likely that this high approval rate reflects that the waiver process is an instrument by which the ultimate responsibility and liability for adverse outcomes is being transferred to families, just as the federal government has done to states, states have done to counties, and—by way of the waiver—counties are now doing to schools.
- State guidelines direct schools to close when there are multiple cases in multiple cohorts at the school, or when cases within a 14-day period hit at least 5% of the total number of teachers, students and staff, depending on the school’s size and physical layout. But families may not report COVID-19 symptoms and/or not seek tests for fear of the programmatic and social repercussions of doing so. Presumably, no family wants to be known as the one whose infections caused an athletics contest to be forfeited, or that returned all other families’ students to remote instruction. This is a challenge that will remain significant even once we reach the red tier, but by then the risk of infection will be reduced.
But why, some may ask, should potential flaws in the state’s waiver process matter to us if we have developed an excellent plan? Why shouldn’t the School treat the waiver application as the pro forma exercise it may be, and implement the approach it designed for September? Because our plan was designed to meet the challenges of the state’s red tier and below, which are considerable enough. Monterey County remains at the state’s highest level of alert—a status that by definition argues for the highest level of caution—and for which there is arguably no plan possible that does not depend inordinately on good luck. Simply put, we are unwilling to count on good luck to protect the health and safety of our students, students’ families, school employees, and the communities surrounding our campuses—especially when we have proven our ability to deliver an alternative that preserves much, though hardly all, of what we cherish.
While some schools around the state have used the state’s waiver to reopen their campuses to PK-6 students while the local risk of infection is at its highest level, it’s worth noting that our School’s families are not broadly convinced that doing so is the right course of action. Among those who responded to our most recent survey, 51.8% of families with students in the grades currently served by the waiver (PK-6) would either not allow their child to return to campus instruction while the county is in the purple tier, or remain undecided about doing so, and 22% do not plan to permit their children to return to campus instruction even once Monterey County is in the red tier. Regardless of what happens in Monterey County, those feelings may soon change in response to national trends, which are now moving in the wrong direction.
How You Can Help
With this information in mind, those most eager for our return to campus instruction can help us reach that common goal by fully committing to the well-established behavioral pillars included in The Pirate Pledge. While our ultimate success may well depend on sweeping actions that only a federal government can take, we can each contribute in small but meaningful ways by remaining disciplined about wearing cloth masks, physical distancing, regular handwashing, and staying especially vigilant during holiday travel.
Beyond that, join us in advocating at the federal, state, and county level for more funding for contact tracing and genetic epidemiology, so that we can better understand emergent patterns of spread in the schools now providing campus instruction in high-risk areas, like Monterey County. Also, lend your support to surveillance testing and massive scale proactive testing. “If bars and restaurants are open and schools are closed,” writes Carl T. Bergstrom, a professor of biology at University of Washington who has emerged as a leading expert regarding the pandemic, “if fans fill stadiums but kindergarteners are on Zoom, if billions of dollars are waiting to be used on testing but we say that opening schools is too costly...we cannot pretend we are prioritizing education.”
Another way you can help prepare for our return, if you reside on the Monterey Peninsula or live within reasonable driving distance (including the greater San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California): click on this link in order to volunteer to host one or more (virus-free) boarding students later this spring, should we suddenly need to effect a short-term closure of the dormitories, or while those students make arrangements to return home if the duration of the closure is likely to be longer. At least 35 boarding families will need to identify such a local host in order to return for campus instruction. Your willingness to step up in this crucial way will be deeply appreciated by all concerned, help knit our world together at a tough time, and demonstrate your dedication to the values that make Stevenson the community that it has been, remains, and must always strive to be.
Practicing Optimism in Adversity
Our hard times teach us that being human is something we are meant to do together, and that to practice optimism in adversity is an act of courage. That said, to invite optimism these days is to perhaps seem disingenuous, or worse, oblivious: to the broad impact of the pandemic, recession, systemic racism and the protests against it, the looming U.S. presidential election and its distressing energies, recent California wildfires, agonizing family bereavements that have befallen some in our extended community, and the struggles that some families face as they shepherd young students during remote instruction. No one has emerged unscathed by the events of the past eight months, and some in our community have been impacted in profound and even irrecoverable ways.
So where shall we look for hope free of delusion? Right here. While our students miss their friends and the sense of sanctuary our campuses provide, and look forward to regaining the liberty to live without pandemic-related restraints or fear, many are discovering inner reserves of discipline and building their capacity for self-advocacy as learners. Though our teachers miss the daily joy of bearing witness to their students’ growth in person, their commitment and morale remain admirably strong. You are as eager as your fellow Pirate families and we are to have all of the children back on campus, savoring all the moments that make the School so special, but also generally recognize the need to prioritize safety, social responsibility, and learning quality in relation to other competing values—especially while there is still so much that remains unknown about the transmission and long-term effects of the virus on those who recover from it.
Optimism isn’t the only thing we need to practice. Living in civil society sometimes requires that a few of us yield up our preferences so that others’ reasonable needs can be met. Wearing masks is a good example. Some may feel that to wear a mask compromises their freedom, but the freedom not to get infected by someone who refuses to wear a mask, when circumstances warrant such compliance, has become a crucial part of freedom’s practical definition.
Similarly, where other schools are placing people at incrementally greater risk by providing campus instruction while the virus is widespread, our community has accepted the temporary burden of varying inconveniences in order to protect students, school employees, and the communities that surround our campuses. This is what it means to embrace the hard right over the easy wrong, one of the axioms that stands at the kernel of our School’s inception and culture. As we know, crises impose limits, and not everything we value can simultaneously claim the right of way.
Looking Ahead to a Brighter Future
Since the pandemic began, Stevenson has been dedicated to doing much more than just muddling through. Last spring, we all pivoted on a dime in ways that few other school communities did, ensuring both safety and continuity—key ingredients in sustaining our students’ confidence and well-being at a disorienting time. This summer, our teachers leaned in yet again, and are now delivering a quality of instruction that surpasses their prior efforts. Though no one prefers this mode to our traditional one, our students are learning and growing, in part because 100% of our teachers’ time is being devoted to their instruction and connection, rather than trying to simultaneously monitor their adherence to COVID-19 protocols. Our students’ and teachers’ resilience is a constant source of inspiration. Though there have surely been a few bumps along the way, and each new day illuminates room for continuing improvement, we can all take pride in the outcomes their efforts have produced.
When we return to campus instruction, our challenges will evolve. For example, many of us will need to redouble our commitment to the well-established behavioral pillars upon which The Pirate Pledge is based. We observe that we have some work to do in this regard as a community: according to our recent survey, 71% of families are “extremely confident” that their child is able and willing to comply with the School’s strict safety guidelines, while only 23% of respondents are equally sure about other people’s children.
Some families have called with clarifying questions about the School’s approach to tuition credits relative to remote instruction. Please direct your questions that are not answered here to Ed DiYanni, the School’s chief financial officer.
In closing, I know how difficult these past six months have been. Your sacrifices on behalf of your children are nothing short of heroic, and your discipline in trying to meet each day with both resolve and good humor is entirely admirable. You inspire me, and everyone with whom it's my good fortune to work. Though I am thoroughly confident in our team’s approach, and choose consistently in the direction of guarded, grounded optimism for the future, I join you in sometimes having moments of doubt and concern as a parent, especially when my daughter has the occasional bad day. Have we ever faced so much that involves so many unknowns, and with the stakes so high? Has it ever been more important to stay united, albeit at a distance? Have the words of our School prayer, adapted from the writings of our namesake, ever been more relevant? Let me end, then, with confidence that our community has “the strength to encounter that which is to come...brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all change of fortune,” I invite us all to do our level best to remain forever “loyal and loving to one another.”
Dr. Kevin M. Hicks '85, P ’29