Update to Academy Families — November 20, 2020

Bell tower an flag
November 20, 2020

Dear St. Johnsbury Academy Families, 


This has been an intense few weeks, as COVID has come to our world, so I know it is the main topic on most people’s minds. I’m eager to address comprehensively some of the many questions and concerns that have come up over the past few days, as we prepare for the (welcome!) Thanksgiving break next week.


First, that the Academy has been able to stay open in-person is a tribute to months of hard work of our entire dedicated faculty and staff, and in particular recently our COVID Response Team. Their work collaborating with the Vermont Department of Health on contact tracing, determining timelines, and connecting with people has been extraordinary; and most of what I am able to report to you is a result of it.


Keeping You Informed

While our goal is always to share helpful information with you when we do learn of a case, and provide as many details as we are able* while respecting confidentiality, we understand that it can still feel confusing and alarming not to know all the details when you are sending your child to campus. Some have found it helpful to hear in more detail the contact tracing process, so we are providing a guide to that as an appendix to this update. I hope it will also be reassuring to you to know that we have actually had no cases of in-school transmission here at SJA. In all cases, the transmission of the virus was a result of individuals attending parties, gatherings, and social events like the ones that are now not allowed in the state of Vermont.


What We’re Considering

A number of you have reached out to ask if we are considering going virtual-only, and even to urge us to do so, given the four cases we’ve now seen in the last few weeks. I want to be clear that, as we have said from the start, we will not hesitate to go virtual if we determine that there is a COVID-related reason to do so, and we will make that decision in conjunction with the Agency of Education and the Vermont Department of Health. It is always in our minds as an option. A reminder that our main considerations for going virtual are:


  • If there is a Vermont State mandated lockdown.

  • If the Department of Health or Agency of Education moves schools to Step One status.

  • If the Department of Health advises or requires it.

  • If faculty or staff absenteeism means that we are not able to operate to our safety standard on campus.


This past Tuesday, many of our faculty and staff were able to be tested for COVID thanks to the state’s initiative to provide tests to essential workers. Over the next few days, these test results will be coming back, and it is possible that some of our faculty and staff will have to quarantine as a result.


So far we have been able to provide substitutes for teaching faculty who have responsibly stayed home either because they didn’t feel well or have been tested themselves. We hope to continue to do that as tests come back negative. If we do end up with a shortage of staff, it is possible we will need to move to online instruction temporarily. Remember that our faculty and staff have been preparing to do this since the summer, and we should be able to make that transition smoothly. We are aware that virtual learning will present unique difficulties for those with unreliable internet access, and we are working on solutions for those families


Staying Open for our Students

But we are trying hard to keep campus open for those students—most of them—for whom in-person learning is critical. That includes those who work in the shops or the studios, or who need every day learning support, or who depend on our meal program. But it really includes most of our students, as much recent data shows. Just yesterday, a joint press release from the American Academy of Pediatrics Vermont Chapter, Vermont Academy of Family Physicians, and the Vermont Medical Society stressed the importance of being in school.


Keeping schools open is crucial because kids need consistent in-person learning. Children and adolescents exist on a different timeline than adults. Growth and development is measured in weeks and months. Development is rapid and exciting, but that also means that when opportunity is missed or delayed, that lost time can be unforgiving for children. We continue to see that schools are not a main driver in this pandemic. (Press Release: Protecting Communities and Schools, November 19, 2020)


Here is the release in its entirety.


Finally, we know that for some even knowing all of the data and science does not change how you feel. So if you are more comfortable doing so, you can of course keep your student home (please let us know if that’s what you decide) without any penalty or problem on our end. But know that if school is open, it means we feel comfortable with the level of risk here on campus and confident in being here taking our customary precautions.


What You Can Do

We are counting on families to help us as we enter this season—and one of the most important things you can do is to limit your holiday and other travel or gathering according to new Vermont requirements (no travel beyond Vermont, and no gatherings of more than one household). These limitations feel pretty terrible at this holiday time, but we must take them more seriously than ever. My own family has parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Massachusetts, and we would love to visit with them. But of course we won’t: we want even more urgently to protect our SJA community from COVID-19.


So please consider the following guidelines:

  1. Do not travel outside the state of Vermont except for essential reasons.

  2. Do not gather beyond one household.

  3. Avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people.

  4. If you have family members returning from college, please follow Vermont’s quarantine rules upon their return. (And enjoy having them home!)

  5. If you do travel or gather despite these requirements, be honest with us about it, let Sarah Garey know (sgarey@stjacademy.org), and do not have your student return to campus on November 30th—they can join their classes online until they have quarantined and have a negative test.


Nothing about this is fun or easy, so we thank you for helping us do what’s needed, even though it’s tough. We will look forward to days of Thanksgiving in the future—particularly since it appears likely that we will have a vaccine in the not-too-distant future. Making these sacrifices now might feel a little easier knowing that there is an end in sight.  But that doesn’t mean that we ease up on our health and safety measures—the more we stop transmission now, the faster that end to the pandemic will arrive. 


I hope that this information has helped ease some of your minds in these difficult days. We would also like to offer you an opportunity to hear more from me and members of the leadership team about our current thinking on this and next semester and to answer your questions. We will hold a Family Zoom Forum in webinar format on Monday, November 23rd, at 7:00 p.m. If you already have questions you’d like to submit ahead of time, please share them with our Zoom coordinator David Baker at dbaker@stjacademy.org. As always, too, feel free to email the Covid Response Team at CovidResponseTeam@stjacademy.org.


Please sign up for the webinar at the following link: https://stjacademy.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_sITkE7CxQva4kVMjgtxRlw 


Finishing Strong

With only four and a half weeks to go in the semester, we are eager to focus on finishing the semester strong, and our students have been working hard and continuing to accomplish great things in the classroom, on the fields, and in the kitchens, shops, and studios. All of us have been finding more room for fun this month despite the cold; students are running for student government; and seniors in particular are reaching out to help us find ways to make their year special by being creative and keeping as many Academy traditions as we can.


Interim grades came out yesterday, along with a note from our Academic Dean, Hank Eaton. Please take this chance to check in on the progress of your student. It’s time for all to buckle down and be diligent—they can still change an outcome that might not look promising. Please help us to reinforce the messages about staying connected with teachers, communicating with us, and helping us offer them the right support. We couldn’t be more eager to work with your students and help them succeed. 


Thank you, SJA families, for your continued support. Beyond safety, ahead of academic success, know that our chief concern is the emotional health and well-being of all members of our community. So please keep partnering with us in these final weeks of the semester as we look to keep students engaged with their classes, to keep campus safe, and to finish this unprecedented semester as strongly as we can.


I hope you will join us on Zoom next Monday, and I hope you’ll have a (safe, local, small) very happy Thanksgiving with people you love.


Take care, be well, and keep in touch,


Dr. Sharon Howell



*In our last alert, we did leave out a detail that some have since suggested would have been reassuring to know. That is the latest positive case, on 11/17, had not been on campus since 11/10.


Appendix – SJA Contact Tracing Process


Over the past two weeks we have worked closely with the Department of Health around our few positive cases. In these cases, the DOH has asked us to help formulate a list of close contacts; People you have been with in social situations less than 6 feet apart, for more than 15 minutes two days prior to the onset of symptoms.  We have been able to provide seating charts and attendance list when necessary. Because of our due diligence with classroom capacity, seating arrangements, students and faculty staying home when they do not feel well, and the wearing of masks, our possibility of close contacts in the classroom are very low. This is a good reminder that in Vermont case transmission has not be in schools, but out of school at social gatherings.  


Here are the steps we follow as we learn of any individual case: 


  1. We learn of a positive case of COVID-19 in our school community

  2. We contact the Vermont Department of Health. The DoH now has regional coordinators and can be very responsive—e.g., most recently we have been able complete this process within one day 

  3. We collaborate with DoH to develop a “line list” of people who could be close contacts, and a timeline of where and when the positive case was on campus or with other members of our school community

  4. Members of our COVID Response Team work with faculty, staff, and/or families to confirm whereabouts and contacts for positive individual 

  5. Sarah Garey (Health Center Director) and the DoH communicate with potential close contacts, notify them if quarantine/staying off campus is required, and help them understand next steps

  6. Depending on what the CRT and the DoH determine, we take the following actions: 

    1. If there is no in-school transmission, and we have enough faculty and staff to do so, we stay open in person

    2. If there is no in-school transmission, but we have too many employees out, we consider moving to online instructiontemporarily

    3. If there is in-school transmission, we move to online instruction temporarily as we gather information 

    4. If the DoH determines there is an outbreak at the Academy, they activate their outbreak response coordination, and we move to online instruction immediately

  7. We communicate as swiftly and transparently as possible with our community

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