NCSSM students initially returned to campus under a low-density model.


A semester at arm’s length: COVID precautions enable a safe fall

As 2020 ended — while North Carolina and the country recorded alarming, accelerating COVID-19 case counts — North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics looked back over the spring, summer, and fall at just three campus cases.

A single student and two employees at various times tested positive for the virus within 14 days of being on campus. Those people immediately quarantined off campus with either mild symptoms or none at all. Thankfully, there was no spread of the disease on campus. The thousands of hours spent conceiving, planning, and executing the school’s lower density framework for the 2020-21 school year, which changed nearly every single aspect of the residential experience while working to retain its most essential qualities, had succeeded, the numbers showed.

Fewer than half the usual number of students came to campus at once, with COVID-19 testing mandatory both before arrival and every several weeks while on campus. Strict safety protocols governed campus behavior, requiring masks and distancing, and NCSSM students understood the science and so followed those rules with few exceptions.

Taken together, it all allowed the fall semester to go as planned and now lets NCSSM look forward to bringing students back to campus for the spring semester starting in February.

“Thank you for putting in such great policies and protocols to support your students,” says Dr. Bethany Meighen, the University of North Carolina System’s Vice President for Student Affairs. (NCSSM is unique as a high school within the 17-institution UNC System.) “We wish you a lot of luck in the spring and look forward to working with you.”

Dr. Anita Jackson, the Medical and Laboratory Director for Durham County Public Health, who consulted closely with school leadership from the beginning of the pandemic, agreed: “You have just been … an example for all of Durham of how to … protect both your students, faculty, and staff and the community at large. It’s really because of you and the students and the commitment of your entire team that you’ve done so well.”

The partnerships with Durham County Public Health, the UNC System, a private testing lab called Accu Reference, and a host of vendors who provided cleaning, ventilation improvements, and other upgrades were key along with the contributions of every single employee, say Chancellor Todd Roberts and Vice Chancellor for Student Life Terry Lynch, whom Roberts tasked with leading the school’s COVID response. They say NCSSM is sharing its experience to recognize the dedication of staff and students and in hopes some of its COVID countermeasures might be useful to other schools and organizations.

“The success we were able to have this fall was the result of an incredible team effort,” Roberts says. “And obviously, we recognize we had good fortune along the way as well. You can still do all the right things, yet COVID can find you. But it was a real community effort.”

The last day before heading home for remote instruction, March 13, 2020, was an emotional one on campus, with students unsure when they would be able to gather on campus again.

In February 2020, before the first COVID-19 case was discovered in North Carolina and a full month before North Carolina was under the governor’s stay-at-home order, NCSSM leadership had to shift from monitoring the distant worry of a new viral disease and begin reacting to the threat it posed to the campus community.

NCSSM had canceled a planned February school trip to China after the novel coronavirus emerged in the country’s Hubei province. But at the end of February, the virus suddenly began spreading rapidly in Italy, where a different group of students and chaperones was wrapping up another educational trip. While the group was in the air on the way back to Durham, the U.S. State Department raised its travel alert level for Italy, warning Americans against non-essential travel to the country, up from a “practice enhanced precautions” warning issued during the trip — which was up from absolutely no travel alert when the students had departed North Carolina.

“We had been monitoring world events and taking part in UNC System update meetings about the coronavirus, but this was the moment when COVID became personal to us as a school,” Roberts recalls.

The students had begun wearing masks in public in Italy, stopped using public transportation, and did not visit Venice as they had planned, a northern city that was the epicenter of the Italian outbreak. But given the elevated alert, what should be done after they returned home? 

“With this new disease, it wasn’t clear what sort of risk it posed or didn’t pose to these students, or what was best to do, so we went into information gathering mode,” Lynch remembers. “Fortunately, over the years we had cultivated good relationships with the Durham County Department of Public Health, and we had a great school medical director in place in Dr. Sherry Starnes.”

Chancellor Roberts and senior members of the school leadership gathered on a conference call late that Friday night, Feb. 28, which went until nearly 1 a.m., consulting with Starnes and Public Health to determine what precautions needed to be taken.

After returning to campus, the students needed only close health monitoring, and none manifested symptoms of the virus.

Yet cases grew exponentially across the state and the U.S., and less than two weeks later, Roberts was seeking and receiving permission from the UNC System to do something drastic for the entire residential student body: Send everyone home March 13 and have them stay there — at least temporarily — for fully remote instruction. Two weeks after that, Roberts confirmed to the school community that the rest of the academic term would have to take place fully remotely.

“Given that we have responsibility for the safety of minors in lieu of their parents, and because I knew we were well positioned as a school to pivot to distance instruction, that seemed like the safest choice, even though I knew the students would be disappointed because they love being together on campus so much, which is such a crucial aspect of the NCSSM residential experience,” Roberts says.

After teachers, students, and families sprinted to adapt the remaining months of the spring 2020 academic term to remote learning and to complete spring courses (and plan to conduct summer programs completely remotely), the summer offered a window of time for the school to plan for the residential program’s fall 2020 semester. Vice chancellors, deans, directors, and others reached out to experts, read the available research findings, and made plans.

“How important it was, the attitude of the faculty and staff and students, with all the things we knew we couldn’t do, really thinking about what things we could do and how to do them safely and do them well to have school in the fall,” Roberts says.

Ultimately it was decided: students would have the chance to be on campus residentially, if they chose (or could remain fully remote if their family preferred). Students coming to campus would do so for about half the semester for a lower density model centered on single-occupancy dorm rooms rather than the usual roommates. Midway through the semester, the cohorts would switch places, with those who began learning remotely at home coming to campus.

Courses would be fully remote for all students if an instructor was unable to come to campus, or hybrid, with students both in the desks and on the screen if the instructor could come. The last two weeks of the semester would be fully remote to avoid bringing students back to campus after Thanksgiving — and in fact, not until spring semester begins in February, which has kept students off campus during the worst weeks of the pandemic. This meant that in a single calendar year, faculty taught in three different modes, face-to-face before the pandemic, fully remote in March, and then hybrid, notes Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs Katie O’Connor.

“Our incredibly dedicated faculty led with flexibility and grace,” she says. (Read in detail how instruction was adapted for the fall.)

The new Center for Advising and Academic Support (CAAS) had been readied to open this school year, which was an instance of perfect timing, O’Connor says, making it easier to make advisors available to all students virtually along with supports such as tutoring.

Dean of Mathematics Taylor Gibson wrote a computer algorithm and partnered with the Registrar’s Office to divide students into cohorts so that about half of each residence hall and half of the enrollment of each course would be on campus at once while maintaining diversity.

Before coming to campus, all students would have to test negative for COVID-19, and a sampling of students would be tested every two weeks. Human Resources concluded that employee testing could not be required, but the school encouraged employees to get tested and brought the lab company to campus to provide that testing. The school administered more than 2,000 COVID tests on 12 separate dates for the fall semester.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of large touchscreen classroom computers, cameras, microphones and other gear, purchased with a special gift to NCSSM Foundation, would make every classroom capable of teaching in any format, and O’Connor and Library Director Robin Boltz partnered with Deputy Chief Information Officer Justin Fleming and the IT team to procure and install them. Experts in distance education from NCSSM’s Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum team shared their tips and tricks both with their colleagues on campus and across the state, and faculty worked to modify their syllabi to work as best as possible in the new format. Many hundreds of lab kits for courses were assembled, boxed, and shipped to students learning remotely.

Masks, though controversial in many quarters and still not required by most retail stores at the time, would be mandatory for every single minute on campus that a student or staffer wasn’t alone in a private room, even outdoors, and the school would provide them. Physical distancing of at least 6 feet would be required (Roberts from the start eschewed the more common term “social distancing,” because he wanted the school’s plan to support social relationships, not seem to stand in their way). The school would be awash in hand sanitizer.

The cautious approach contemplated retreating quickly to fully remote instruction if required. But that wasn’t needed because the students and employees at NCSSM stepped up and did everything asked of them.

“I think that NCSSM students are very academic and analytical, and I guess because of that, students are more keen to follow guidelines very stringently,” said senior Amine Bit, who serves as a residential life advisor, or RLA. “For the most part, there was a very good public consciousness that, oh, masks and distancing work; let’s do it. People still needed to be reminded of it, and I think that the first, maybe, week of following guidelines was probably the hardest — had the highest learning curve.”

On top of all that, Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Robert Allen ordered campus buildings heavily modified. Bryan Lobby Desk was glassed in. A wall divided the serving line into the cafeteria to separate dine-in and to-go patrons.

Director of Residential Education Mike Newbauer worked with Shawain Loritts of Aladdin Food Management, the dining contractor, to incorporate Aladdin staff in safety procedures and to create pre-packaged options for students to take and eat on campus to reduce density in the dining room. And they even created an online ordering system for takeout meals from the cafeteria, something senior Benet Ge especially appreciated.

“I hope they bring that back; it honestly worked really, really, well, and there was never a single error with my order,” he says. “I would sit and eat outside on stone benches under a magnolia tree, and friends could sit nearby me but still be distanced.”

NCSSM Communications partnered with Student Services staff to create and display hundreds of COVID-19 safety signs and floor decals under the brand “Protecting Our CommUNIty” designating one-way walkways and stairwells, occupancy limits for rooms, and reminders to mask up — and they worked with RLA students to create an instructional video to orient returning students to the new safety measures.

Half the furniture in lobbies, lounges, the library, and classrooms was moved into the hallway by the Academic Programs and Student Life teams, and then loaded onto trucks by moving crews and sent to storage, with the remaining pieces properly spaced. Facilities workers and the school’s Fabrication Lab designed, built, and installed dozens of clear partitions wherever needed. Outdoor tents to be used for classes, studying, and evening social events went up on campus lawns.

An engineering firm evaluated all the ventilation systems and recommended extensive upgrades to air handlers, installation of finer filters, and the addition of standalone filtration units in certain spaces.

The facilities team worked all through the summer and into the fall, with ventilation improvements ongoing. Both repair and renovation funding and special COVID appropriations funded those upgrades. It was a massive amount of extra work for the staff.

“There has not been one day that I have heard any complaints from any of the staff members or managers in the Plant Facilities area,” Allen says. “They have really made the campus a better environment over the past several months.”

Allen also stepped up cleaning efforts, with “new procedures and techniques such as using electrostatic foggers and finding ways we can use our staff to keep the campus extra clean,” Allen said, noting that the school also brought in Anago Cleaning Systems on contract to clean residence hall lounges and bathrooms, a task that previously fell to the students themselves. 

 “I was surprised in a good way to see how serious NCSSM was taking it,” said senior Gaby Tucker about noticing all the changes to campus upon arriving. “I know a lot of us were really worried about us getting an outbreak. So from the first, seeing how Bryan Lobby was set up, the stickers everywhere for distancing and just the general attitude that everyone had about respecting distancing all the time was very reassuring.”

She added that people’s natural closeness to their friends was a much greater obstacle to following the guidelines than intentionally resisting.

“It’s easy to think, ‘I can trust my friend,’ so your instinct is you don’t need to stay far away from them,” she said. “People went to air hugs and we did a lot of outdoor activities. People would even touch feet from far away to signify to each other, ‘Ah, yeah, we’re friends.’ So there were still connections made and strengthened even though we had to be apart.”

The Student Life staff worked with students to remember to follow the safety guidelines outside of class, to design activities for each residence hall that included both those on campus and those away, and even reshaped the evening tradition of Happy Half, when students gather outdoors before evening dorm check to relax and socialize. Counseling Services offered wellness activities, tips for maintaining mental health, and connected students experiencing trouble with help and support. Communications, Academic Programs, and Student Life produced a weekly “Protecting Our CommUNIty” e-newsletter for students and families with updates on protocols, testing, and academic adaptations due to the pandemic.

At the December Board of Trustees meeting (via Zoom, of course), trustees marveled at the extent of these modifications and the success they enabled.

“I’m blown away by the quality and the magnitude of the work that’s been done, said Chair Mark Morgan. “We as a board are just incredibly grateful for your efforts and privileged to be partners.”

Roberts responded by saying, “It was a challenge for those who work on campus to figure out how to do everything differently, and it was a challenge for the students to adapt and go through the year in a way that they probably would prefer not to. But everybody just did an amazing job.”

While the rollout of two vaccines in the United States offers hope for the long term, the pandemic remains in a serious phase, and the school has extended its general approach to serve for the remainder of the school year, while remaining ready to adapt in case conditions change.

“We’ll again be working to navigate the pandemic safely in the months ahead,” Roberts said, “and we will have to keep monitoring conditions, responding to them, and seeking good guidance and partnerships. Most of all, we’re looking forward to a time when the worst of the challenges of the pandemic are behind us, and we can all be together on campus once again.”