COVID-19 Response and InformationMarch, 2020
We are thrilled to announce that Saint Thomas Choir School will be opening the 2020/2021 school year with a temporary residence at the Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, CT! Fresh air, a large, idyllic campus and most importantly, the ability to learn, sing, socialize and play together in the safest way possible.
We have been spending the last two weeks of our school year at camp at the Incarnation Center for decades. Thus, it was a natural thought when we began our scenario planning for 2020/2021 to consider this familiar campus as a possible, temporary home for our school while we wait out the COVID crisis.
Our re-opening plan is predicated upon the idea of the school being a self-contained, germ-sharing pod in which the school will take a number of precautions at the beginning to establish the pod and then will be able to remove some of these restrictions, allowing the boys to play together, learn together, and sing together. We feel that, under the current pandemic conditions, this plan is be the safest way for us to bring our community back together in person, and will provide the best experience for our students and teachers.
We will also be able to provide a robust musical experience for the boys under Dr. Filsell’s direction, and plans are underway to establish a schedule that offers the choristers the opportunity to perform in several services each week for our pod-community in Connecticut under the oversight of a chaplain, helping the boys to stay connected to Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and helping them to continue the tradition of musical excellence upon which the Choir School was founded over 100 years ago.
In formulating our plans, a Fall 2020 Scenario Planning Working Group was assembled of school administrators, faculty members, and medical personnel. The Working Group has been meeting once or twice each week since early May to discuss scenario planning. Members of the Working Group have focused on different areas of school life, and have spent hundreds of hours reading articles, studies, and governmental guidance; speaking with infectious disease experts, pediatricians, and school medical personnel; working with experts in risk management and in school legal issues; attending many webinars produced by NYSAIS, NAES, NAIS, OESIS, NATS, OneSchoolhouse, NEASC, and the Klingenstein Center; meeting individually with over fifteen heads of other independent schools; and meeting frequently with other key stakeholders in the Saint Thomas community. The goals of our planning are to be prepared to educate the students safely regardless of how the pandemic shifts, and to be able to provide a positive educational experience to our students consistent with our mission and our values.
All of the conversations generally during the COVID-19 crisis and particularly in planning for Fall 2020 have served as powerful reminders of how strong and resilient our community has proven to be, and of how lucky we are to have such a talented, committed group of educators and dedicated, engaged families and students.
We have divided the academic calendar into quarters for this upcoming year, and will re-evaluate the plan in advance of each quarter. After our time at Incarnation Center and a two-week vacation, we will either be transitioning back to New York City if health and testing conditions allow us to do so, or making a planned transition to distance learning.
As always, all of our plans throughout this pandemic are subject to change at any time: flexibility will continue to be our watchword as we monitor the ongoing medical developments, health conditions, and government requirements to make sure that we are keeping our community as safe as we possibly can.
Timeline of actions and decisions taken
March 2: The Choir School advised parents that it was closely monitoring the growing crisis, taking steps to reduce student exposure according to guidance issued by the New York City Department of Health and advised parents to be mindful of CDC travel restrictions when making Easter break travel plans. A letter and Frequently Asked Questions Guide from the New York City Department of Health with information about the coronavirus and general flu prevention measures was distributed.
March 10-15: Under the guidance of Interim Head of School, Amalia Francisco, faculty quickly developed and implemented a plan for distance learning using Zoom and Microsoft Teams in all subjects, including choir, voice, and instrument lessons. All of the boys were instructed in how to use Zoom, including a full, practice day at school prior to the boys leaving to trouble-shoot any issues and ensure a smooth transition.
March 15: All students returned home, bringing their school-supplied laptops with them. Residential faculty and staff remain at the school and are following all protocols to remain healthy and safe. All other faculty and staff are working remotely.
March 17 and 18: Ms. Francisco hosted two online meetings with parents to present more information on the Choir School’s plan, give parents instruction in how to use the Zoom platform, and address any questions and concerns from parents.
March 18: Distance learning began with a full schedule from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm. All regular classes continue with both faculty and parents reporting a successful transition to virtual classrooms. Father Turner reiterated the Church’s commitment and ability to maintain the Choir School and the entire Saint Thomas community during this uncertain period and into the future.
March 20: Plans for virtual student recruitment begin to ensure that prospective students and their families can continue to move forward with their applications and auditions.
May 15: The Fall 2020 Scenario Planning Working Group, composed of Mrs. Wentling, Mrs. Allman, Dr. Gilbert, Ms. Hruska, and Ms. Francisco, began meeting weekly to talk through the different possible scenarios for Fall 2020. Our goal was to think through the number of different paths the pandemic might take over the next several months, and to prepare so that we are ready for whichever scenario we find ourselves in both in September and as the year carries forward. Always, we worked to keep the health and well-being of the boys and of our entire community at the center of our thinking. Throughout this process, we have come to realize that flexibility and nimbleness will need to be our watchwords as we move forward: with so much information changing so rapidly, we will need to be prepared to adapt to shifting circumstances, perhaps without much advance warning. By engaging in scenario planning at this stage, however, we prepared our school community to able to take a path that has already been at least roughly charted, and to move between such paths if necessary.
August 8: As a result of the current state of the pandemic and New York’s updated guidance about school reopening, the Choir School Committee, Vestry, and school and church leadership have decided that we will be opening the 2020/2021 academic year with a temporary residency at the idyllic Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, CT, where we will conduct all of our school activities for the first quarter of the academic year.
September 13: Following two weeks of social restrictions and a COVID test for faculty and students alike, we opened our school year with carefully a orchestrated schedule of students drops offs to ensure we continued to socially distance. Thus began our germ-sharing cohort plans: separation from the outside world, small groups, mask-wearing, and a second round of COVID tests.
September 25: We did it! After our initial two weeks of social distancing and a second round of negative COVID tests for our entire cohort, we received the all-clear to remove masks, eliminate restrictions and have a small slice of normal in the Connecticut woods. The boys had their first full choir rehearsal without masks or distancing, and the joy at being able to sing together again after seven months was palpable.
October 6: After much discussion and deliberation, the school leadership has decided that during the second quarter (November/December), following our return from Incarnation Center, the boys will participate in distance learning beginning on Wednesday, November 11. We are confident that this will allow us to continue providing an excellent education for the boys, building upon the foundation of our time together at Incarnation. While we are disappointed that the boys will not be able to sing together in person during this time, we must follow the guidelines set forth by the New York State Department of Health and Department of Education in order to keep our community safe.
November 11: Remote learning begins again! After a week-long break, all students and faculty resumed school via Zoom.
December 10: To develop our plan for the third quarter, we took a close look at the surveys submitted by parents, whose input was invaluable to us as we continued working to make the best decisions possible for our entire community. We have done our best to align our planning measures with the information submitted by both the parents and the faculty while also complying with the health and safety guidance we continue to receive from the New York State Department of Health and the New York State Department of Education. The Scenario Planning Working Group has also continued to read the updated guidance and information emerging nationally and at the state and local levels.
Our Quarter 3 plan is to allow students to return to our campus in New York City in limited numbers and for shorter bursts. We are planning to break the school into smaller groups –and thus to reduce density throughout the school building as a means of keeping the entire community safer–by only bringing back a few grade levels at a time in person (Group 1: 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 8th graders; Group 2: 5th and 6th graders). The grade levels who are not learning in person will continue following a distance learning schedule, with some slight tweaks to take into account the teachers’ in person and online commitments. Each group of students will return for a three-week period, with a week of break in between.
We hope that this short burst model will be sustainable for our entire community, particularly given the masking and distancing requirements that the boys and faculty will need to follow while the boys are on campus in person.
While the boys are back on campus, we are planning for them to participate in choir rehearsals with increased safety precautions in place. Parents will also have the ability to opt in to their son singing during church services throughout his time learning in person. Boys whose parents choose this option would be singing in two Sunday services and four weekday Evensong services during their three weeks on campus. Strict safety precautions would be followed at church, including dedicated spaces for the boys and closing the church to the public and parishioners while the boys are singing.
January 11: Quarter 3 begins with all students attending school remotely via Zoom.
January 15: Our first cohort arrives back in school. This is the first time since March 2020 that students have been in residence in school. Strict safety protocols are in place, including single dorm rooms, 6-foot distancing at all times, 12-foot distancing while singing, masks-wearing, and daily contact tracing.
February 1: Immediately upon being notified that a kitchen staff member tested positive for COVID-19, we notified families that, out of an abundance of caution, we were closing our campus and that students would be returning home. Based on our contact tracing, we believed that this individual had no close contact during his/her infectious period, per CDC definition, with any of the students.
February 8: Campus closing recap — we were glad to see that our emergency protocols worked so smoothly to ensure that our community was protected. As of today, no students who were in residence have reported becoming infected with COVID-19. Within two and a half hours of being informed of a positive case among our kitchen staff, we had made our decision to send the boys home and called all families to discuss pickup logistics. Within ten hours of our first notification of the positive test, all but one student–whose parents were heroically driving through the snowstorm–had been picked up safely and efficiently. We pay special tribute to the residential teachers and staff members who leapt unflinchingly into action on Sunday afternoon to ensure that the boys were fed, packed, entertained, and ready to go with very little notice. While sending the boys home early is not the outcome any of us would have wanted, it is a possibility during COVID. We are proud of all members of this community for the way they executed our emergency plan and heartened to know that our safety precautions–masking, distancing, regular testing, symptom checklists, contact tracing, and preparedness to send students and staff home quickly–are doing their job to keep all of us as safe as possible.
We will continue to update this page and send out emails to all community members on changes to this fluid situation and appropriate responses for our community.