| Sarah Heinonen
WILBRAHAM – Wilbraham Monson Academy’s (WMA) Head of School Brian Easler wants families to know that the school experience may be different this year, but they have made it as safe as possible.
“We took every precaution we could think of and layered them,” he said.
Easler explained that WMA is structured like a college but is the size of a small high school. This allows the school to take safety precautions that it could not were they a larger institution. One of these precautions is the rigorous coronavirus testing policy. WMA has contracted with the Broad Institute in Cambridge to test all students, faculty and staff twice a week, with no more than two days between tests. Day students must also be tested before arriving on campus.
The dormitories will open, but will not be filled as they are in a normal year. Easler said the sizable population of Chinese students who went home for the summer are unable to return due to the pandemic. They will still be attending remotely, but while they paid for a dorm room, it will sit empty. As of last week, Easler said 85 boarding students were returning to on-campus accommodations and more than 130 were expected by the first day of class.
Boarding students are under a strict quarantine when they arrive on campus. They must self–quarantine in their dorm room for five days, during which meals are delivered. After that, the students are allowed to walk around campus. The students are tested three times over the course of their quarantine. By the first day of school, Easler said the school will have conducted more than 1,000 tests.
While day students who test positive will have to isolate themselves at home, WMA has converted a handful of offices with attached full bathrooms into temporary quarantine and isolation rooms. There is also staff in place to conduct contact tracing should it become necessary.
"By mid-September, we will analyze data from our first month of testing and determine the regimen going forward,” the school said in its reopening plan.
Rather than receiving any pushback from parents on the testing policy, Easler said parents are “ecstatic” about the steps the school has taken.
Masks will be worn in all areas inside buildings, as well as on the campus grounds. The exceptions to the mask mandate include “when a person is in a room by themselves with the door closed, when a person is eating or drinking or when residential students are in their assigned family units,” according to the reopening plan. There will also be labeled mask-free zones at the north side of the Athenaeum, the west side of Binney Hall by the Rubicon and the grove at south end of Winchester Field.
Two washable cloth masks will be provided to each student, but they can also bring them from home, as long as all masks contain the student’s initials and are worn over the nose and mouth.
WMA made major changes to several of its buildings and classrooms to ensure a distance of at least 6 feet could be kept. Walls were removed to make rooms larger in some buildings, while others were retrofitted to create more classrooms. The newly completed 4,800-square-foot STEM Lab Mattern Science Building will also be used for socially-distanced classrooms this year.
There will also be outdoor classrooms at the east side of the Mattern Science Center, the north side of Old Academy, the south side of Binney and the south end of Winchester Field. The areas are covered by large sun sails and can accommodate up to 17 students spaced at 6–feet apart.
In the dining halls, there is plexiglass between tables, which have also been spaced out and limited to four people per table. Alumni Memorial Chapel and the Campus Center have been repurposed as additional dining halls.
Easler said 287 air purifiers were purchased so that there could be one in every classroom and indoor shared space on campus. Additionally, ionizing filters were added to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and the air will be cycled every 12 minutes. WMA has also hired a third-party cleaning company to assist with touch-point sanitation.
When it comes to academics, Easler said the quality of the education will remain high. Students will be attending class five days per week and WMA’s hybrid program allows kids to go to school, access to a remote platform, and the ability to switch back and forth as needed.
The platform used by the school this fall is called Canvas and it involves, in part, streaming in-person lessons taught by WMA faculty to remote students.
Overseas students will be able to access their classes and homework through the system.
To get ready for the new platform, teachers and administrators were given comprehensive summer training on Canvas and the hybrid learning curriculum. So far, Easler said, fewer than five families have opted to go completely online.
Instead of seeing a reduction in the number of students attending due to the fear of the virus, Easler said they have seen a dramatic increase in interest from families.