January of 2020 saw a small wave of momentum that was building toward the highest enrollment seen at San Marcos Academy in recent years. There were inquiries in admissions on an almost daily basis. There were new ideas for course offerings and programs to be introduced in the next school year. In the background there was some noise about possible travel restrictions, and a virus spreading in the Wuhan province of China. We had no idea at that time what was on the horizon.
In March a directive came down from the Governor’s office to close schools just as we went into our spring break. Closures and isolation had begun all over our country. A group of dedicated teachers, instructional technologists, and administrators were assembled during that week to formulate a plan for instruction to continue by asynchronous delivery online. The coordination required was extraordinary as was the effort of the SMA staff to be the first school in the area to begin uninterrupted service to students the week after spring break. We were extremely proud to be ahead of the curve in delivering instruction before any public, private, or college institution in this area. Our delivery was much more sophisticated than other options at that time, and we considered the alternative of developing this capability further.
The plan was a good one, and we dealt with flaws quickly. There were some connectivity issues, but we had hotlines setup to deal with them on the same day. However, we began to notice that something was missing for many students. It was difficult, if not impossible, for our elementary staff to personalize and differentiate instruction effectively with the constraints. Their students were starved for the contact of daily classroom activity. It was more important for them to have the ZOOM contact than the instruction. The reassurance of classmates’ faces and teachers’ digital presence was of great importance, from what many parents were telling us. More than once I was told by a lower school parent that their child seemed depressed.
Our preteen and teenage students had different levels of success and some failures dealing with digital media. We witnessed instances of anxiety and depression in a number of students. We were keenly aware of social, emotional, and psychological struggles occurring within our extended SMA family. Not being in school was impacting us more than the virus itself. Old friends in the public education arena told me that large numbers of their students’ whereabouts were unknown through school closures and subsequent online learning efforts. We knew where all of our students were, but we could not help some of them in a digital platform.
In May of 2020, immediately after the closure of the school year, Dr. Guenther asked that I assemble a task force of parents, staff, and medical professionals to design protocol for reopening and conducting the school year of 2020-2021. We had several physicians available for consultation along with the assembled team of parents, staff members, and nurses. We assigned numbers and percentages to our developed, four stage, Communicable Disease Action Plan. Specific protocols and procedures were set up for every contingency we could anticipate at that time, and we added others as the need arose throughout the year.
Stage One called for normal school procedures for instructional delivery with heightened sanitization procedures and optional personal protective equipment. Stage One ranged from zero absences up to fourteen percent absenteeism on any campus. At fifteen percent Stage Two would be triggered. This allowed student choice for delivery of instruction either in person or by digital platform. PPE could be required, and protective barriers would be in place in classrooms. Other procedures included one-way hallways and cohort groups wherever possible. An absentee rate of twenty-five percent could put us into Stage Three which would have put us back into a lockdown protocol similar to what we endured in the spring of 2020. We had no intention to go there, just as I won’t mention Stage Four and its protocols.
It is important to note that we opened under Stage Two protocols even though we never approached the absentee rate necessary to trigger that level. These protocols remained in place into November 2020 even though we ran the majority of the fall semester without a single case of COVID among campus staff or students. In fact seventy-three percent of the days we were in session this year were without a single case of COVID with staff or student.
Undoubtedly, prayer played the biggest role in our success, whether it was a protective hand from the virus or wisdom to go down the right path. When Dr. Guenther assigned me the responsibilities of monitoring all cases and test results; it could be said I prayed without ceasing for a very long time some days. The idea of an advanced stage in the CDAP frightened me for our students. When we did have a breakout within the students in January, the anxiety was palpable within our student body. “Are we going to close? We won’t shut down again will we?” It could have happened, and did to a number of schools in Texas when they resumed. San Marcos Academy never had to close.
Much credit must go to the installation of X-Plus UVC (ultraviolet) apparatus in our air handlers. Clinical trials have proven these to be 97 – 99 percent effective in the eradication of pathogens and allergens in the air passing through handlers. This is much more effective than any other single method of sanitization we could have employed. We also employed others, such as electrostatically charged atomizers to broadcast a fine mist of sanitizer which would cling to surfaces for an extended period of time. There were a number of other preventative measures taken including PPE’s. If we had relied solely on those, our results would not have been so good.
Having begun my career in education as a teacher and coach, I have been accustomed to being second guessed when it came to decisions, and this year took me back to my roots. I am aware that we have differing opinions within our clientele when it comes to quarantines, masks, and protocols. I am also keenly aware that I am not a medical professional, although I am a former biology teacher with a fundamental understanding of virology. By reading many studies, and not listening to media and the talking heads alone, I’ve learned quite a bit about COVID-19. It is deserving of precautions and measures to protect human lives. It should not be feared beyond reason or logic. Life is to be lived, and we should not shut it down for a virus whose mortality rate is admittedly lower than some of the sensational projections of 2020.
What we learned by coming back to school to serve our families is that they are healthier and happier overall when school is in session. We coped with the pandemic which is now an endemic. We did so when many said we were foolish and there would be dire consequences. We learned that SMA has been here since 1907 through the great depression, droughts, world wars, and recessions, and we are still here doing God’s work in his kingdom.
The old coach and athlete in me enjoys a good contest. Battling a virus is not a game, but we fought through this year with a combined effort of personnel, students, and parents, and SMA won. So, have an end zone dance and spike the ball! As in all seasons, don’t celebrate too long though; it’s time to get ready for a new one. Let us pray that it will be one of full recovery and normalcy. Let’s dedicate this new season to the last two classes that missed out on a few of the traditions and celebrations that are a part of life at this venerable institution.
*There is so much more to this story, and so many people deserving of thanks. My thanks to the task force, SMA staff, families, and Drs. Lee and Whisenant.
–By Mr. Bob Wiegand, Senior Vice President and Chief Academic Officer, SMA