Every morning, senior Zachery Ingle, 17, arrives at Subiaco Academy and stands in line with fellow students, waiting for his jelly bean. Strawberry and green apple flavors are his favorites.
While it’s a fun treat, it’s more a vital part of a multi-layered screening for the COVID-19 virus, in this case to detect a loss of taste. The school has used both typical and clever tactics in the hopes of preventing an outbreak for boarders and day students.
“You can tell if it’s sour or super sweet, and just their reactions to it. Because they can always tell me, ‘Oh yeah, I’m good,’ and not be good,” said school nurse Barbara Wilhelm, who has spent six years at the academy.
Since the pandemic began, the school -- with 138 students on campus and two virtual -- has had just seven student and two faculty cases, with no in-school transmission. In March, all students were sent home, and the school moved quickly to virtual learning for the rest of the semester. Going into the fall, safe in-person instruction was the priority.
“We learn we’re made in the image of God; we’re social beings and that sticks with us,” said Ingle, student body president who has attended Subiaco for six years as a day student. “I think we all realized the truth that we are social and thrive off of social interaction.”
Headmaster Dr. David Wright said the academy strictly follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Arkansas Department of Health guidelines.
“We’re all about following science and the experts. If we do what they’re telling us to do, we’ll stay open. If we don’t, we’ll face a major outbreak and shut down,” which no one wants, he said.
Wilhelm, a nurse for 27 years, begins checking boarding students, faculty and staff around 6:40 a.m. and then day students up to 8:20 a.m. A screen uses facial recognition technology and takes every student’s temperature. She asks standard questions about cough and fatigue but also personally assesses students, asking them everything from what they had for dinner last night to when they went to sleep. She evaluates questionable students at the infirmary. Should a student need to be quarantined, the school uses the old dormitory with 36 rooms available.
“On Tuesday nights it’s basketball, so on Wednesday, ‘Did you play hard last night? I saw that dive you took, are you sore?’” Wilhelm said. “It’s also a way to build some trust with them so if they do feel bad, they don’t automatically go to quarantine. Let’s talk about this, let's figure this out.”
Students, and staff if they choose, then get a jelly bean or another type of candy and take a whiff of essential oils to test their taste and smell. Wilhelm also reminds students throughout the day about hydration, suggesting athletes drink six to eight bottles of water a day and other students four to six.
“If your students are staying hydrated, they have way less symptoms and they get better way quicker,” Wilhelm said.
After check-in, students sit in spaced-apart desks in the classroom, have stickers on the floors to remind them of distancing, and masks over the nose and mouth are mandatory.
“We’ve harped on it, stressed it from day one. There’s no arguing. We remind them frequently ‘if you didn’t like being online last spring, we didn’t like it either,’” Wright said.
Teachers wipe down their classroom with disinfecting wipes after each class and sanitizing fogging machines disinfect the building at least once a day. Plexiglass surrounds each seat at the cafeteria lunch tables, giving students their own space.
Thanks to the tenacity of the school financial administrators, Wright said money from state and federal grants has paid for needed equipment and tools, including PPE for teachers and staff, touchless water bottle fountains and touchless sinks in the bathrooms. The Well-Being Initiative, which Ingle started and is chairman of, provided water bottles for all students.
Sports, music and clubs have continued with distancing and mask wearing, with special masks purchased for the Jazz Ensemble. While the ensemble generally performs off campus more than 30 times throughout the year, this year they’ve stayed on campus.
“The sound of the band is still the exact same. We still put our passion into it,” Ingle said.
The toughest part for most students has been the increased separation between boarding and day students, Ingle said.
“The brotherhood has still stayed the same even though we’re not able to interact so much together,” he said. “The time we do have now together is a lot more valuable.”
Like a family living together, boarders are not required to wear masks in the dorms.
“We’re coming up with creative, fun activities for them on weekends,” Wright said. “I think that will help our culture at the school as well, really building that brotherhood.”
Wright said weekend activities for the teenage boys are “all about food” -- pizza, wings, Mexican — coupled with movie and game nights. The Outdoor Adventure Program, established in the fall, gets the boys moving. (See sidebar)
The commitment to safety and in-person instruction has paid off. Enrollment increased by two students thus far from the 2019-20 school year. In August, 43 new students came in, with six joining after the fall semester started. It was more than normal starting after the semester began, as many schools did not decide until the last minute whether they’d go virtual or a hybrid schedule, said Dr. Marion Dunagan, assistant head for enrollment.
“They know the schools are trying their very best, but they’re frustrated with their child’s performance. They don’t think their kids are learning at their full potential, and they want to try something different and get back to full-time, face-to-face learning,” Dunagan said.
Seven new students were admitted so far this semester, with more inquiries coming in. All but one student came from public schools.
“This is not a dig on other schools at all, but teenage boys and heavy virtual learning don’t mix very well, that’s just a fact of life,” Dunagan said. “Boys need to be out there running, burning off steam … to learn effectively.”
Like many boarding schools, Subiaco Academy has taken a hit in international enrollment. For the past few years, because of the political environment and strained relationships with some countries, enrollment has been lower, hovering around 15 percent. Last year it was 10 and now it’s 5 percent, with no new international students enrolled for the 2020-21 school year. Dunagan said parents overseas view the United States as a “hotspot” for COVID-19 but hopes for more enrollees in the future, as international parents view education in the U.S. as important for being globally competitive.
“We love international students,” she said. “They really make a difference for our school. We think it gives our students more experiences that they’re going to have when they hit higher education. A more diverse student body is something we strive for.”
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