Covid: three pandemic years in — looking back
Most schools in central Texas reopen this week, and the overwhelming majority of them will have no meaningful COVID protections in place, much less a multilayered approach that would drastically reduce the risk of spread of COVID within their school communities. Needless to say, they will have no meaningful Monkeypox protections in place, either.
At Abrome, we still have three weeks until the first day of our 2022–2023 academic year, and have yet to put out our finalized pandemic plan for the coming year. We expect to do so in the next ten days, and expect it to be similar to our plan for the past year. Our last academic year wrapped up only five and a half weeks ago, on Friday, July 9th, and we finished our third pandacademic year without a single known case of COVID in the space. The following day I posted a twitter thread that briefly touched upon the multilayered approach we took to stop the spread of the disease. In the hopes of encouraging school leaders, teachers, staff, parents, and students who believe there is nothing they can do to protect each other from COVID in the current political and social environment, I am including the full text of that thread, and where appropriate I expound on what we did and how these practices can be implemented in their schools. I will also address some of the criticisms that many people brought forth. Disclaimer: snark.
Our 2021–22 academic year just ended yesterday.
We just finished our 3rd year without a single case of COVID-19 in the space. That means not a single person was exposed “at school.” Doubly impressive given the transmissibility of the current variants.
How did we do it?
First, we prioritized community care over white, upper middle class, reactionary insecurity. We recognized early on that COVID was falling heaviest on BIPOC communities, the immunocompromised, those without access to quality healthcare, etc. All our decisions centered them.
[This really bothered a lot of folks. A quick check of those who complained showed they were disproportionately COVID deniers, anti-maskers, and anti-vaxxers. Yes, I know that those terms are politically charged and may be viewed as pejoratives but in this case it is simply a statement of reality. Surprisingly a select group of COVID minimizers, advocates of only vaccinating people, advocates of only mandating masks, and blue check influencers (official accounts with large audiences) glossed over this and later claimed that our practices that centered BIPOC communities somehow harmed Black students because they were not stuck in school. Note: learning loss is not a thing. And even if it was, it would not be a sufficient excuse to risk exposing kids to COVID, or their parens, guardians, or caregivers.]
Second, we acknowledged that nothing we do impacts only those at Abrome. All Facilitators (“teachers”) and young people (“students”) go home to families, friends, and into other communities each day. If we were to spread COVID at Abrome, we’d spread it elsewhere, too.
[Some OPEN SCHOOLS NOW people (who argue that we just have to get kids back in schools [as if they haven’t been back in schools] and who are overwhelmingly middle class and upper middle class white people) and COVID minimizers argued that kids were more likely to catch it at home than they were at school. True. But this is a foolish argument against preventing spread at school because when a kid brings the disease home from school then everyone in their family becomes at risk of being infected. The disease does not magically not spread when a kid brings it home.]
Third, there is no such thing as a harmless single case of COVID that someone with “a healthy immune system” can overcome. Each case has the potential to seed a superspreader event. Each case has the potential to host a mutation that can become a new variant.
So we focused on two things.
1) not bringing COVID into our education community.
2) not spreading COVID if it did find its way into the community.
To not bring it in we started with going remote during periods of very high spread. This was easy in the spring of 2020 when all schools chose to do the same. It got much harder in 2021 & 2022 when society bought into the argument that kids and teachers should accept infection.
We also had each family conduct a daily COVID screening. If someone showed up having not completed it we did it with them in-person before allowing them to enter the space / join the group.
It worked. During every wave we had some students or staff get infected outside of Abrome, but because of our practices none brought it into the community (which would have then spread out beyond the community).
To not spread it if it snuck into the community we acknowledged that #COVIDisAirborne. We mandated masks whenever indoors. KF94, KN95, N95, or better. Zero indoor “mask breaks.” And folks had to go outdoors to eat.
Outdoors they had to wear masks when close to each other.
And we went outdoors for the entirety of the 2020–2021 academic year! In the Texas heat! This year we had at least one cell of people outdoors pretty much each day except when we went remote during Delta and Omicron. During very high levels of spread, everyone went outdoors.
[One OPEN SCHOOLS NOW and blue check influencer accused us of being remote most of the time, while wealthy schools “used their resources to keep kids safer in person.” Well, we are not a wealthy school, so we didn’t have those resources (assuming they meant money), and they conveniently glossed over the fact that we were not largely remote.]
We also filtered our indoor air. Each room was equipped with HEPA filtration systems or Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, each with a CADR that would deliver at least 6 ACH per room based on room volume, and 8 ACH in bathrooms. That also required calculating the volume of each room. See, maybe you will use need to know that math in the future!
“Sure, but you can only do that because you’re a well-funded private school!!”
Wrong. We are not a rich private school. Our sliding scale tuition give us only 40% of the tuition per student that the local public schools receive. We just prioritize community care!
[And that tweet was prescient as that same OPEN SCHOOLS NOW and blue check influencer attacked our plan because “MAKING ACTUAL SCHOOLS SAFER REQUIRES INVESTMENT” while completely ignoring that we did on the cheap what schools with an annual budgets that ran into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars refused to do anything to clean their air.]
On top of filtering the air we ventilated the indoor space. We opened windows and created lots of cross flow. We used CO2 monitors as a proxy measure for ventilation. When the readings went above 650 we cranked the AC and opened the windows further, if it hit 800 we vacated.
We implemented capacity limits indoors, for each room and for the total number who could be indoors at any given time.
We also broke our community up into smaller and smaller groups/cells as cases rose. And pushed them outdoors. It is safer outdoors.
If someone would have inadvertently come into the space / group infected, the smaller cells limited the pool of people who could be exposed.
No one came in infected (as much luck as it was preventative policies) but even if they did the number they could infect was capped.
[Some critics pointed out that we were lucky and that we could not attribute no one bringing COVID into Abrome or spreading it within the community to our practices. As if we did not acknowledge that luck most certainly played a part. But luck does often favor those who prepare.]
When the CDC catered to politicians and corporations and said that local spread should not be the driver of how we choose to meet, we ignored them. When the CDC said that we could drastically shorten quarantine and isolation periods, or not require testing out, we ignored them.
[Sorry for also ignoring you, the OPEN SCHOOLS NOW blue check influencers who insist upon a one-size fits all solution that requires multi-billions of dollars of investment from the same government that is actively trying to convince us that we should just live with COVID.]
Next year we will also have a vaccine mandate except in very rare cases of medical necessity (everyone in our community is vaccinated already).
[This only got push back from anti-vaxxers. The vaccinate only crowd only took issue with everything else we wrote.]
The pandemic has really tested our community. Centering community care has put a big dent in our enrollment. But we understand our obligations toward our families, our community, and our society.
And that was the thread.
The COVID minimizers, OPEN SCHOOLS NOW people, and blue check influencers also came out in force to attack us for being too small to take seriously. Side note, the COVID minimizers, the vaccinate-only, the masking-only, and blue check influencers do seem to be causing much more harm than the COVID deniers these days. This was our response to them:
So the fact that we are a very small education community seems to really gall some people, convincing them to shout that our approach to Covid is irrelevant because of our size. Because if we don’t have at least 100 enrolled there is nothing to learn from our efforts.
We are a Self-Directed Education community that rejects the practices and structures of schooling and instead focus on centering community care and honoring the autonomy of young people. We will never become a large school because we are not what most parents want. 👍
We consider ourselves to be a liberation project, acting prefiguratively to serve as a model for others to learn from and to replicate if it speaks to them. We strive to be an anti-oppressive space, and one of “a million experiments.” Let those experiments propagate!
It is that mindset that allows us to center community care over white, upper middle class, reactionary insecurity. It is precisely because we are not a conventional school that we were able to focus on limiting the risk of exposure and spread through layered mitigations.
Some say that what we do cannot work for everyone because we go outdoors and then go remote when there is uncontrolled community spread. Or because we start at 10a. Or because we charge tuition.
We cannot be all things to all people. We don’t try to be.
We are one experiment. Ideally there would be many schools taking Covid seriously so that there were many more options for families. Even amongst district public schools. But we don’t get public funding, so blaming us for not being free and available 24/7 is weird.
They angrily argue that what we do cannot be scaled up to all public school systems.
Yes. And no.
Yes, public schools, just like conventional private schools, serve power and the status quo. Even where communities overwhelmingly demand safer schools, most schools cannot even mandate masking. Our approach cannot be easily scaled up because it doesn’t serve power.
But no, what we do can be scaled up to all schools because the measures are readily accessible to all who have the courage to push back against politicians and corporations, even if they have to do so in a renegade fashion. Investment is not the problem, priorities are.
The most closeminded position of all is that because of our small size that nothing we do is relevant, or somehow scaling up is not possible. What do people think schools are? Are they not large buildings, that are broken down into grades and classrooms?
Everything we do could be scaled. Mandated masking, monitoring air quality, ventilation, CR boxes or HEPA filters in classrooms, cohorting, daily screenings, quarantines & isolation that is not truncated and requires a test out, going outdoors, going remote.
Are they really arguing that layered mitigation measures are not feasible? Or are they saying that schools with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in annual budgets cannot afford it? Or are they just telling you to get vaccinated and look away?
We’ll still be here.