Mercersburg Completes Fall Term with Zero Transmissions of COVID-19

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

As students head home for Thanksgiving break, Mercersburg Academy is excited to mark the successful completion of a most unusual fall term. In the midst of a global pandemic, the school completed in-person learning while experiencing zero transmissions of COVID-19 among the campus community. 

Watch a recap video from the fall term. 

Faculty and staff greet families as students return to campus for the fall.

“At Mercersburg, we seek to balance individual humility with collective pride. It was our sense of individual humility which allowed our community to put the health and safety of others as a priority, making individual sacrifices to ensure our shared success,” says Head of School Katie Titus. “And yet, as we complete the fall term, it is a moment of deep collective pride. Not only did we have no cases of COVID-19, but our students enjoyed a rich learning experience on campus and in person, a privilege not all students were afforded this year. We did it, and we did it really well!”

“It’s a good example of resilience and being flexible,” says Chris Howes, assistant head of school for student life and culture. “Some of the skills we try to teach our kids we were actually having to model—which was not always comfortable—and we had to figure out how to deal with that discomfort in a way that will help us grow as a community. We weren’t trying to recreate what we had because we knew we couldn’t have that, so we were trying to create something new that was enough that we could still persevere as a community and enjoy each other’s company.”

In preparing for the fall term, the school made the decision to create two separate educational tracks; one for the more than 360 in-person learners, and one for the 80-plus students choosing to complete the fall term virtually through an enhanced distance-learning program known as Virtual ’Burg.

“I feel the school's response was very alert and timely,” says Ebube Onwusika ’21, who studied virtually for the fall term. “They kept us up to date with what was going on so we were never anxiously waiting."

Day students were given the option to board on campus when it became clear that a number of boarding students wouldn’t be able to get to campus for the fall term. “One of the ways to mitigate risk is to have as many students as possible live on campus to cut down on the number of people coming and going,” says Anna Crouch, director of admission. “We were really excited to be able to offer all of our day students (minus those students whose parents work at the Academy) a boarding bed for what we felt to be a very fair and highly-reduced fee for the fall term. Not only would these day students be able to have a boarding experience, they would help further protect our community by living on campus.”

Crouch says day parents were pleased that their children were able to live in the dorm, giving them peace of mind in a protected environment and making it possible to go to class and attend activities in person without any interruptions.

Once it was determined that students could return to campus and some day students would board, the question became how to keep everyone safe on campus. To that end, Mercersburg established protocols that all students needed to follow: COVID-19 testing prior to arrival, COVID-19 testing on the day of arrival, and strict quarantining in their dorm rooms until a third COVID-19 test was administered five days after arrival. And throughout the entire term, no outside visitors were allowed on campus to allow the school to maintain as controlled an environment as possible.

“The school put in place a comprehensive, science-based plan to allow students to safely return to campus, live amongst peers and faculty, and engage in in-person learning and extracurricular activities this fall,” says Kristin Butterfield Vickery ’88, P ’18, ’22, who co-chairs White Key, the school’s parent volunteer organization.

Head of School Katie Titus delivers food to students
during the initial quarantine that all students observed
at the start of the term.

“If you follow the science of it, COVID-19 goes in 14-day cycles, so we started off really conservative so that if someone was positive, only a few close contacts would need to quarantine,” says Howes. “Then we eased up. Then we waited about 10-14 days for our next ease-up. It’s a combination of navigating both physical health and safety and social-emotional health.”

Part of supporting students’ social-emotional needs included accounting for some transition time to each new change. As Dean of Students Jo Wrzesinsky explains, “I think we did a good job of telling them why and then giving them time to adjust.”

During the initial lockdown, Director of Student Activities Trini Hoffman and the Office of Student Life provided virtual activities and delivered any required supplies to each student’s dorm room. For students attending school virtually, they could also participate in these events from home, and as restrictions began to lift and students could mingle outside for activities, students on campus could call their friends to share the experience with them. School leaders also listened to student feedback and adjusted accordingly.

“We heard what the kids wanted and tried to follow through and really deliver on what they wanted to make the most of what we could do within our parameters,” says Coleman Weibley, assistant dean of students.

“We learned that anything is possible,” says Hoffman. “As tired as the faculty and everybody may be, it reaffirmed that everybody is here for the kids, and things are possible, but you need to think outside of the box, and I think Mercersburg is pretty good at that.”

Throughout each phase of opening, the school kept the on-campus community safe through the use of phone apps: a contact-tracing program and a daily health and temperature check that asked each individual whether they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. 

Reminders about safe behavior also popped up all over campus conveying two themes developed by the Marketing and Communications Office: “Mask Up Mercersburg” and “Weather the Storm.” 

“By creating visual signs around campus, asking our community to participate in a social campaign, and creating video content, we were able to reinforce the message of why following the rules was crucial in keeping our community healthy and safe,” says Amy Marathe, director of strategic marketing and communications. 

Academic Dean Jennifer Miller Smith ’97 says that teaching faculty have been adaptable and were great about following COVID-19 precautions during the fall. Some classes met outside when weather permitted, and tents with tables and chairs were made available to classes to make outdoor instruction easier. 

Students study outside with their bag lunches as classes get underway.

“For some faculty, it was difficult because they had to change their whole course to fit into such a short period of time [with our new block schedule], but everyone is doing their best, and I think that it has led to some interesting changes,” Smith says.

To that end, Wrzesinsky says the school learned that everyone has to work together and head in the same direction—the whole “it takes a village” mentality.

Of course, part of that village during a pandemic has to be health care professionals. This fall, Mercersburg partnered with Meritus Medical Center in nearby Hagerstown, MD, and Dan Henderson ’85, who assisted in getting the school’s entry testing completed, according to Director of Health and Wellness Services Dr. Laura Nickerson.

“When dealing with a large volume of tests, it was imperative we get results quickly, and [Dan] had easy and open lines of communication,” Nickerson says. “He has also helped us troubleshoot some unusual testing situations related to students traveling back to their home countries and requiring uncommon testing or times.”

Nickerson says the school’s partnership with Meritus was integral to Mercersburg’s fall success. When a student exhibited possible COVID-19 symptoms, the school’s Rutherford Health and Wellness Center was able to obtain COVID-19 test results within 12 hours, which is very uncommon. 

“Other than utilizing rapid tests, which are generally not as accurate, no one else was able to boast this,” says Nickerson. “We were able to deliver tests directly to the lab itself, and they were run quickly if received first thing in the morning. We had a direct line of communication with [Meritus’] administration that helped us troubleshoot issues quickly and effectively.” 

Students enjoy social activities outside during the fall term.

The school also posted a COVID-19 dashboard on its online parent portal, where parents could access testing results (with no personal information included) for the community.

“When you entrust your children [to a school] in the middle of a pandemic, you need to have a strong sense of security in their care, and [the dashboard] was a key piece,” says Nickerson. “Simply taking the time to answer family and student concerns on a one-to-one basis was valuable as well.” Nickerson attributes the fact that the school remained COVID-free this fall to solid planning, supportive administration, and nimble responses to changes.

“We are thankful for the thought, creativity, and energy with which Mercersburg's faculty and staff approached life on campus during this unprecedented time,” Vickery says. “What could have been an uneasy decision to return our children during a global pandemic to their home away from home was, in fact, reassuring, knowing that Mercersburg had prepared so thoroughly. While the 10-week fall term wasn't always easy, every single member of the school community sacrificed ‘normal’ comforts and activities for the success and well-being of the whole community.”

As Mercersburg looks toward the winter term, the school is optimistic about continuing what worked in the fall and making adjustments as needed. For instance, the school is working on more advanced solutions to help with contact tracing.

From students and parents to faculty and staff, Mercersburg’s success this fall and into the remainder of the year depends on everyone doing their part. As Nickerson says, “Along with a group of dedicated employees as well as committed students and just sheer luck, all these factors combined to make a strong semester for us. Many other schools have not been as fortunate. I feel really strongly the team did a great job with this in such an unknown and unusual situation. We had a vast team, and everyone had input as we went along that contributed to the overall success of the term.”