Relaxed COVID Protocols Signal a Return to Normalcy


Hotchkiss Communications

Mr. Craig Bradley, head of school, greets students at lunch.

Harkness tables replaced socially distanced desks and stir-fry and waffle stations replaced grab-and-go meals as loosened COVID restrictions marked a return towards the school’s pre-pandemic state. 

In May of 2020, the school announced that all students must be fully vaccinated upon their return to campus this fall. Only students with documented medical or religious conditions were granted exemptions. By early October of 2021, the school predicts that the vaccination rate will be over 99% for students and over 98% for campus adults. The immunization of the school community reduces risk of any potential spread of the virus or serious infection, allowing the school to relax some of its COVID policies.

On arrival day, each student submitted a negative COVID test result and completed an additional pooled saliva test on campus. Students who were unable to obtain a vaccination in their home country received theirs on campus, requiring a quarantine period of seven days. Parents and guardians were able to accompany students to the MAC for registration but were prohibited from entering the dorms to reduce unnecessary risk.

Beyond the initial rounds of testing, the school also eliminated weekly surveillance testing for vaccinated and asymptomatic students. Unvaccinated students, however, will continue to test weekly. Further testing and masking protocols will be in place for students who travel off-campus. For breakthrough cases, the school will then carry out contact-tracing to identify close contacts. Vaccinated and asymptomatic close contacts will no longer have to quarantine. Instead, they will follow further masking and testing procedures until they receive a negative test result.

The school also lifted masking requirements outdoors. Currently, the State of Connecticut requires all students in schools to wear masks indoors until September 30. However, if the State decides to lift the restriction, Dr. Zach McClain, medical director, expects the school to further loosen restrictions on masking indoors. Dr. McClain said, “We have a campus with [a] majority of vaccinated people, who are being careful and doing all the right things… Our hope is that, because of the environment that we have created here in the community, we’ll be able to take [our masks] off soon.”

The COVID committee has also decided that, because of the community’s high vaccination rate, it is no longer necessary to enforce social distancing. Mr. McKibben said, “As long as we remain masked, at least initially, and are in areas that are well ventilated, I feel less of a need to continue to mandate or attempt to mandate [the] six-foot distancing rule.”

Perhaps most notably, the updated protocols have prompted a return to the school’s pre-pandemic academic, athletic, and arts programs. The school announced that all classes will be in person, and the option of learning remotely will no longer be offered. Moreover, the school plans to bring back its complete athletic and co-curricular programs. Students on interscholastic teams will be able to compete in the Founders League, in which all schools have mandated vaccinations for their students, as well as regular testing and masking for student-athletes. Fati Salifu ’22, a member of Girls Varsity Soccer, said, “They say purposeful practice makes perfect, and [last year,] we were stuck inside, and [we didn’t have] the chance to play. As a soccer player, I live to compete on the field [so] I’m looking forward to improving myself and having fun again this year.”

The school’s dining services have also returned to their pre-pandemic state. The school discontinued dining in the Ford Tennis Courts and replaced boxed meal pickup with the school’s traditional dining options, including a hot food line, salad bar, panini presses, stir fry machines, and other meal prep stations. In addition, the plexiglass walls that previously separated tables into individual eating spaces have been removed. The school will continue to offer outdoor eating spaces and has encouraged students to utilize this seating in order to reduce population density in the dining hall. 

The on-campus COVID protocols have also introduced a greater sense of freedom in the dorms: students are now allowed to enter each others’ rooms and congregate in the hallways. Opportunities for interdorming, mixers, and large dorm activities have also opened up. Mr. McKibben stressed the significance of these changes on students’ experience at the school. He said, “[Students from the classes of 2024 and 2025] haven’t really experienced what it’s like to be at Hotchkiss [in a normal year]… [Residential life] is part of the essence of being at Hotchkiss, and our capacity to be able to do that again is going to be a gift.”

The school is prepared to respond to potential COVID outbreaks on campus. On Wednesday, September 8, two individuals tested positive for COVID and 15 close contacts were identified. Close contacts will be required to wear masks outdoors and to eat their meals in their rooms or outside. In addition to the follow-up COVID testing for the entire school community on Thursday, September 9, there will be an additional round on Sunday, September 12.