20 November 2020

Update on the Covid-19 pandemic

Dear NOVA community,

Update as of November 20th:

Let us remind you that if you have any questions or concerns you can always direct them to the Health and Safety Committee (hsc@nova.edu.mk). We try to respond within an ambitious timeframe realizing the welfare of community members takes precedent. We’ve expanded our return to campus policy, allowing students to remain in quarantine for a total of 20 days since first contact with the infectious person, in order to come back to school without a PCR test. 

In order to ensure proper ventilation of classrooms, while managing indoor air quality, we’re going to be introducing a second air purifier into classrooms, during the heating season. This will allow for windows to be open for at least 10-15 minute, at the beginning of each class. We performed an internal study on how to best manage classroom air quality, to arrive at this conclusion.

This is probably the year when we need to reconsider all of our social engagements and family gatherings, as the latest wave of infections has been primarily driven by such activity. Although this might be very difficult, consider it as an investment in future such celebrations. The vaccine is here, but now the challenge remains to ensure we remain healthy until we have access to it. 

Update as of November 13th:

More so than covid-19 infections, staffing issues arising from precautionary quarantine, have made it very difficult to continue delivering the blended model for our grade levels on campus. Next week will be shifting temporarily to distance learning for our grade 6 students as we anticipate the return of faculty. We’re also seeing the strain placed on our Elementary teachers not just teaching their classes but providing numerous substitutions. We’re going to be introducing a schedule change for Elementary commencing from Monday, November 23rd. This will limit the specialty classes students will have in the first half of the school day to only PE/Dance, delivered in the school's auditoriums, and the rest on-line in the afternoon. The change will also shorten the transition to distance learning from home by 30 minutes starting from 1:30pm. Although this change might be disruptive, we believe it’s warranted to further enforce the bubble approach to grade level groups, in order to limit the risk of exposure to specialties who are coming in contact with multiple grade levels.

Update as of November 6th:

With the ever increasing number of cases in N.Macedonia, we anticipate more on campus cases. In order to sustain our efforts, we’re looking at changes to our Elementary blended learning schedule, to minimize the cross sharing of specialties amongst grade levels. You can expect information in the coming week from your division principal. These changes will have an impact on the student’s school schedule, in order to ensure we can continue with on-campus learning. We hope together with other positive developments, we would be able to extend on campus learning until winter break. We’ve gained valuable experience, that we hope to utilize for bringing Secondary students on campus down the road. 

The Health and Safety Committee met this Thursday, November 5th, to reconsider changes to our close contact quarantine policy, by reducing the length of time from 14 to 10 days, based on latest research, and also introduced a new policy on air pollution and our ability to effectively ventilate classroom spaces.

Update as of October 30th:

As we actively manage and contact trace community cases, we regularly receive questions of what would constitute a level 3 scenario according to our covid-19 risk matrix  where the whole school would potentially go into distance learning. One such outcome would be government mandated, the other would be where we have a sufficient number cases on campus, that would severely limit the school’s ability to deliver on-campus learning due to a lack of appropriate staffing. Such quarantine decisions, impacting staffing, will always be taken with the health and wellbeing of all of our community members. If we go that route, similarly to our reopening efforts, it will be subject to a two week reassessment. Based on our most recent CMT meeting, held this Thursday, October 29th, it was decided that we will continue maintaining the grade levels we currently have on campus, and try to sustain this status quo for as long as circumstances provide for it - meaning it could be days or weeks before closing, or we could potentially reach our desired winter break threshold. Another important decision reached was that immediately after winter break, the school will return in distance learning mode for all learners, for an initial two-week period, trying to accommodate travelers and address the higher transmission risk. Whatever we attempt to accomplish it will only be possible with your continued support and full adherence to safety protocols. An important point I’ve been asked to underscore is that students should remain home even when exhibiting the slightest flu-like symptoms.

Update as of October 23rd:

We feel fortunate to have started the school year early, providing two months of continuous learning. The pace at which we conducted our school reopening didn’t allow us to introduce higher grade levels to campus, but these decisions were primarily driven by factors we didn’t have control over. We remain mindful of this fact, and will work hard to ensure that all grade levels are included under the blended learning model, at some point in time during the school year, provided the right conditions.

Approaching the end of October, I wanted to thank you all for contributing to our reopening efforts. As of today, we’ve had minimal covid-19 exposure on campus and more importantly, the testing results from all staff and students, considered close contacts, have thus far returned negative. We have another cohort of students being tested today, and remain hopeful that these results will return negative. If that is the case, it further will reaffirm the importance of all safety protocols and policies we’ve put in place, but more importantly your commitment to abide by them. We’ve received feedback from multiple sources that the school has been highlighted as a model for how institutions should deal with a pandemic. Although challenging, I hope we can sustain this level of commitment until the end of the school year.

Update as of October 16th:

We’ve experienced an increase in covid-19 cases in Skopje and N. Macedonia. This week we also saw our first case of covid-19 brought on campus. After being informed of the positive PCR test, we quickly moved to implement our Scenario (Level) Four: Confirmed Case of Covid-19 on Campus. If you did not directly receive a message from the school in regards to the case and follow-up steps, it is because based on our contact tracing effort we deemed that you or your child had not had a direct contact with the infected person, and therefore there is no need for additional precautionary steps. Our commitment to privacy and confidentiality will remain, as this is a private matter for affected parties. We ask that you assist us in upholding these expectations.

This exercise has so far taught us that we’ve done well as a school. Advance planning as well as the safety measures and health protocols in place have served us well. This has reinforced the need we continue on our chartered course. Although we can hope for no new infections, they’re likely to emerge, so our ability to identify them early and follow through on policy will be key in our ability to continue on-campus learning. This is only possible if we have your full cooperation. We can only react once we’ve been timely and appropriately informed. Without your assistance our efforts as a school would have a minimal effect at best.   

Our most recent CMT meeting was held this Wednesday (October 14th), where we considered our future reopening efforts. In light of recent developments, it was decided that we cannot introduce any new grade levels on campus. We will again reassess this decision in a two-week interval. Please note that this process is not one directional and can potentially be reversed. We’ve also received word from relevant authorities that should the epidemiological situation continue to deteriorate, schools might be mandated to close. We’re closely monitoring all relevant data and will inform you accordingly of any new developments. 

Update as of October 9th:

The successful return of our sixth graders was this week’s highlight. It was the first cohort of Secondary students on campus, allowing us to put in action the division’s blended schedule, and address any shortcomings. Implementing a new schedule, a combination of the normal and distance learning scenarios, is a complex undertaking. The schedule will continue being a work in progress. We welcome your input, and will try to give it our due consideration as we try to improve the overall blended learning experience. 

We received positive parental feedback (125 respondents on the survey) on the first month of learning in the Elementary division. The survey reported that 98% of children are feeling happy at school, 97% of parents are comfortable with the health and safety measures the school has undertaken, and over 80% of parents are satisfied with the distance learning support their children at home have received. Feedback on our new on-line applications and tools was still reserved, with 40% of parents feeling it’s still too early to report on their roll-out. 80% of parents are happy with the amount of information shared by the school, while the rest feel there is an information overload. 

Update as of October 2nd:

Our return to school after traveling policy, part of the Reopening plan has been subject to discussion as it has impacted students whose parents are traveling. We understand that it has complicated matters, and limited students' time on campus. As we’ve stated all along we have adopted a conservative approach, but are continually looking to revise policy in light of latest best-practices and new findings/research related to the pandemic.The Health and Safety Committee will be meeting next week to look at how we can potentially revise our current travel policy to make it more friendly, while ensuring this change doesn’t significantly impact the safety and wellbeing of our community. We’ve adopted this approach to our whole reopening efforts, and will continually look for potential improvements. 

Update as of September 25th:

The CMT met this Wednesday, September 23rd, and considered the school’s continued reopening efforts. As in past meetings, we looked at the parent survey feedback for grades 6, 7 and 8 (18% of respondents were not willing to send their children to school, with higher grade levels having a higher percentage of reserved parents); the current local epidemiological situation, and our school's preparedness in welcoming this cohort of students back to campus. The consensus was that we are ready to welcome grade 6 students starting from Monday, October 5th, provided we don’t have a deterioration in the epidemiological situation or potentially a local community transmission. Once we have successfully integrated grade 6 students, we will consider higher grade levels. It’s important to stress that at this pace, it’s going to take some time before we can include high school students under the blended learning model. Our intention is to ultimately make the effort to bring them too on campus. In the meantime, we’re going to continue having a variety of opportunities that would ensure they have an on campus experience. 

Update as of September 18th:

We are happy to report at the end of another successful week. We were finally able to welcome our grade 4 and 5 learners, and with that have all of our Elementary students on campus, an important achievement. We’re now setting our focus on the Secondary division. By the end of next week you can expect a decision by the Crisis Management Team in regards to bringing grades 6 through 8 on campus. In the meantime, we will continue our distance learning support for Elementary School students that have remained home, and the whole grade 6-12 cohort. We’ve already began collecting feedback as to how our first three weeks of learning have gone, in the hopes we can learn and adapt. Should you receive a survey request, please make sure you respond, so your feedback is taken into consideration.

On the Elementary School side, our arrival and dismissal procedures have proven very effective. We can report that families have followed through on our screening requirements, and students on campus on safety protocols. This has allowed teachers to direct their primary focus on learning, instead of enforcing protocols. 

In the Secondary School the advisory support at the beginning of the day has served as an anchor to a student's day. We just had our first Community meet to underscore this important role for grades 6-8, helping parents understand how they can better utilize this important resource. This last Wednesday’s Community day was all about movement - celebrating a heart/mind connection, in line with our mission statement. On the following link you can see how the day unfolded. Starting from next week, we’re excited to introduce our Math Enrichment classes, to further build on student numeracy skills.

Update as of September 4th:

Our initial plan for inviting PreK 3 – grade 5 students back to campus, was stalled due to new Government regulations and approvals. Yesterday we hosted representatives from the newly formed Commission on the reopening of schools, who toured our facilities and verified our overall preparedness. We received very positive feedback, and were complemented on the work we’ve done to ensure we can reopen safely for our students. Today in the afternoon hours we received our second formal approval. Based on this outcome, we are going to be welcoming our PreK3, PreK4 and K grade students on campus from Wednesday, September 9th, and plan to welcome our grade 4 and 5 students on campus from Monday, September 14th. Once we reach these reopening thresholds, we will begin to consider including higher grade levels. We will make every effort to provide you with a timely notification of these decisions.

Update as of August 28th:

On August 27th, in the evening hours, we were contacted by a high representative of the Ministry of Education in regards to our issued Government approval from August 20th for the reopening of our school for face-to-face instruction for all grade levels (original Macedonian version and translated English version). We were informed that a new decision-making body, a Commission for the review of reopening requests for schools has been formed by the Government with ultimate oversight. The Commission was formed at the Government’s last session on Wednesday, August 26th (the official decision in Macedonian and English). According to the Ministry representative the creation of this new decision-making body had in effect voided the previous Government approval, for any grade levels outside of grades 1-3, and that we as a school are required to submit an additional request for the reopening of all other grade levels, subject to a new review at an upcoming session of this newly formed Commission. 

 

In light of the new circumstances, the CMT held an emergency meeting and decided to proceed with the reopening for grades 1,2,3 only, while seeking a second Government approval for all other grade levels. Although we were provided a verbal promise of a date, we are deciding not to make time predictions as to when this decision will be reached but to duly inform you once we have it in our possession. We hope it would be a matter of days versus weeks. We therefore will only be able to welcome students from grades 1-3 starting from August 31st. We’re also proceeding with student orientations as originally planned for our Secondary students, as this doesn’t constitute an actual commencement of school.

 

Update as of August 21st:

We are happy to report that the Government has reached a decision in regards to public schools’ reopening, and we’ve also received our formal reopening approval, independently of the public school system. We’ve also processed the parent and staff survey results, are completing our staff PCR testing, and have held our Crisis Management Team (CMT) meeting today, in which we formalized our initial school reopening model. Provided the current epidemiological situation, the Government's decision on school reopening, and our own school preparedness, we will commence the school year under the following models: 

  • Early Education Center and Elementary School (grades Pk3-5) under the blended learning model, with an opportunity for distance learning for families not yet in Skopje or not ready to send their children to school

  • Secondary School (grades 6-12) under the distance learning model 

As a CMT we would have a two-week revision cycle of this decision. In case of no local school transmission of the virus, and an improved local epidemiological situation, we will consider including more grade levels under the blended learning model. Should there be a worsening of the epidemiological situation, or local school transmission, we would consider reducing the number of grade levels allowed on campus under the blended learning or potentially have the whole school switch to distance learning. We would then again assess the situation in a two-week period, deciding how to proceed.

Update as of August 13th:

 The decision for reopening is based on our decision matrix, currently at medium risk, taking into account the following three important conditions:

  • the current epidemiological situation
  • our community’s view on reopening (families and staff)
  • and the formal decision and approval for reopening by authorities

Our epidemiological situation has remained relatively stable over the last couple of weeks. Our reopening parent survey returned results where 20% of our families were hesitant about having their children return for on-campus learning, and 10% of families were unable to return in time for the school’s commencement on August 24th. We are also in anticipation of the decisions and approval by the Government in regards to reopening. As of today this has not happened. In conclusion, the Crisis Management Team (CMT) at the meeting on August 13th, decided to delay the school's reopening for a week, with the school year starting from Monday, August 31st. 

We remain optimistic about our ability to reopen in the blended learning setting for at least some of our students. However, NOVA's CMT has decided to postpone the final determination on the commencement of the blended learning model. We have determined the further need to base our decision on the input of the full NOVA parent and faculty/staff community, as well as to await for a formal decision by the Government in regards to NOVA’s Reopening plan and the public schools’ reopening. What we can say with certainty at this point is that we plan to bring students to campus to introduce them to the new protocols, beginning on Monday August 31st and continuing to September 2nd. In anticipation of the decision, each division has determined a course of action to introduce the new safety protocols to students under carefully controlled conditions. We plan to lead the students through all of the new safety procedures, while also providing an opportunity for students to re/connect with their school and classmates. These connections will be especially important for our first-time NOVA students.