Launching a Hybrid-Flex Educational Model

February 16, 2021

Head of School Sam Houser announced a new hybrid educational model that to create more in-person time for boarding and day students with faculty. The change will mean there are more frequent interactions between the boarding and day student communities to make the best use of both space and faculty instructional time. A distance learning option will still be available, and as has been the case all year, families and students may opt into that at any time.

Going to school and running a school are both very complicated in a pandemic, as we all know. No decisions made under these circumstances are easy, and they are not going to be universally popular. Nevertheless, sometimes difficult decisions need to be made, and as head of school that is my responsibility. We are committed to offering the best education we can, and we are best suited to doing that in person when and where feasible. I am comfortable being unpopular with some in the name of doing our best to prepare you for college and your adult lives. Anyone who does not like this decision is welcome to be upset with me. But it is not OK for day and boarding students to hold one another responsible, as students did not make this decision.

After sitting through advisory council last month and observing the depth of academic difficulty some students are facing, and after conferring with counseling services, the Student Health and Wellness Center, and hearing constant feedback from parents, students and faculty about students’ academic and personal struggles and needs, and after reviewing the public health guidance and the COVID testing data available to us, I have determined that now is the right time to make changes.

We are not returning to normal George School, but increasing face-to-face instructional time between on-campus students and faculty. For some, the distance learning model is the perfect choice, and in fact some of you have thrived in it. It will remain an option for anyone who cannot be on campus or who does not wish to be.

Teachers are to be celebrated for the hard work they have done to make the model we have as robust as it is. Thanks to them, we are in a position to make the upcoming changes.

Our new hybrid model will allow students to be in class physically with teachers, while others can participate remotely. Masking will still be required in classrooms, labs, etc. We will maintain physical distancing—following guidance from the CDC and others. To accomplish this, I expect we will break students into groups (Groups X and Y), where the X group is with the teacher one day and the Y group is participating remotely, and then on another day, the Y group is with the teacher and the X group is remote. (Distance learners will continue to participate remotely as you always have.)

This is meant to keep the groups of students at a manageable number in classrooms with physical distancing. Because boarding and day students in most classes are not evenly balanced, having boarding students in person one day and day students in person another day isn’t feasible across the school. Lunches for boarding and day students will still be served separately. Our spaces for lunch service in the Main dining room and on the south end of campus are very limited, and until the weather warms up and we can be outside, we have to limit access to them.

Teachers will start piloting this hybrid model the week of February 22. Some of you may be asked to participate remotely that week, so that we can test the model. Up to the start of spring break, boarding students who do not wish to be in person with teachers and other students will be allowed to take classes from their dorms where a hybrid model is being used.

With the Friends Schools League, we also will have a limited winter sports season, and I expect we will have a spring season too. More on this below.

In addition to receiving feedback and ideas from the people I mention above, I have weighed the following factors in arriving at this decision:

  • Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP) and state and local health departments all state that schools are not at risk of significant viral spread, if the schools take remediation measures like masking and physical distancing.
  • Local infection rates, hospitalization rates for COVID, and test positivity rates are falling.
  • Our testing partners have proved to be available and reliable, returning results in the time they promised and providing follow-up tests when needed. Testing is also more widely available in our region off campus than it was even in January.
  • Specific to boarding students—they are not living in a total bubble now, despite how it may feel. While some boarding students may never encounter day students, many do—in shared arts and science studios and labs, in rehearsals, and in the hallways outside of classrooms.
  • Daily health screenings for all students and adults will continue, as they are an important way for you to check your health and for staff to spot patterns in symptoms within groups of people (like dorm residents).
  • Twice weekly wastewater testing (which started in January) has showed no measurable viral matter in the school’s wastewater. This wastewater testing is important because it gives an early sign of an impending outbreak in a community. People shed viral matter before they are symptomatic (or if they are asymptomatic). Having wastewater testing means we can spot a problem before an outbreak and get a headstart on limiting it.
  • We started testing for all students and adults once every two weeks since the start of January, and since the start of the school year in September, we have had few cases of COVID among students. None of those cases can be traced back to spread at school, but rather to exposure off campus—often when a family member brings COVID home and other family members are infected.
  • We are planning an abbreviated varsity season in swimming and basketball. Most or all swimming will be virtual. Athletes in any sport who compete against other schools will be tested twice a week, in addition to being tested with their boarding or day student cohorts—meaning there will be weeks when our varsity athletes are tested three times. We will know more about them and about their status with the virus than we know about any other people on campus. We can quarantine or isolate anyone who tests positive.
  • Athletes leaving campus will go to the school hosting the away game, compete under tight conditions that include masking throughout the games and a very limited number of people in the venue. And they will come straight home again. They will not stop for dinner or socialize with others. They are under school supervision and strict COVID management protocols the entire time. The same is true of the schools we will compete against, and we will only compete against schools testing their athletes and making the results known to us. Visiting teams will be under the same tight controls.
  • Hospitalization, test positivity, and infection rates in Bucks County are trending down overall.
  • The present decision is only about structured time like classes, rehearsals or performances, and games. Day and boarding students at this time will still dine separately as I note above, and will not have free social time together.

With these considerations in mind, with the layers of testing, we now have in place, and with the ability to intercept an outbreak before or at its early stages, in my judgment, we are in a position to offer you a better overall academic experience than we have so far this year—and to introduce a limited competitive sports program to join the arts programs that many are already participating in.

Let’s all understand that nothing is entirely safe. That was true in life before COVID, and it is true now. It is also true that what feels safe to one person may not feel safe to another. Our feelings are important, but on their own, they cannot make decisions for the entire school, as they are as individual as the people who have them. The model we have used of (mostly) separating boarding and day students is not totally safe nor totally without risk. We adopted it in the fall when testing was unavailable or was very limited and expensive. We now have the opportunity to move to a new model that manages risk with the benefit of more data and better protocols than we have had at any point up to now. And we will continually evaluate it and improve upon it based on what we learn.

While I recognize that this is an emotional matter for many, there is no scientific or medical reason not to make this change—while preserving masking and physical distancing and ongoing testing and health screenings, and with constant monitoring of our local public health environment.

February 20, 2021

Before and after March break, all students, boarding and day, will be allowed to access classes remotely should they wish. We have heard from many that this would help their transition into hybrid-flex and I am glad this will be possible.

Starting Monday, February 22, some in-person sessions between 2:15 and 3:30 p.m. will have boarding and day students present. Some faculty will be piloting hybrid teaching techniques that will allow distance learners and students not wishing to attend in-person to join classes remotely. If new content is covered, the class will be recorded for those who cannot attend.

Starting Tuesday, March 16, all classes will follow this model, allowing a safe number of day and boarding students to attend class in person while others join remotely.

The number of people on campus on a given day will be carefully managed. Our goal is to maximize every student’s chance to have significant quality in-person time with their teachers. We believe we will have enough study spaces to accommodate day students who choose to be on campus even when joining classes remotely.