When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam closed all public and private schools on March 23, students at the all-boys private boarding school in St. George made a rapid transition to distance learning, like many other students across the country.
Next month, Blue Ridge School plans to reopen with all students back on campus, by keeping students and staff of the school in a “bubble” of safety from COVID-19.
“Teachers were amazing in their creativity, and students—I just was blown away how tapped in they remained, even the seniors,” Headmaster William A. “Trip” Darrin said of the virtual end to the spring semester. “I was especially proud of the way that teachers and students creatively went about projects through a distance learning format.”
Despite the relative success of the virtual school model, Darrin admits that part of what makes Blue Ridge School special is the campus and the lessons in self-governance learned by students living away from home for the first time.
“No matter how impressed I was with our teachers and our students, distance learning is a fraction of what the overall experience is when we have students on campus,” he said. “The character education that we deploy, the residential life experience they have—learning independence through living in the dorms and learning how to get yourself up in the morning, how to get yourself ready for the day, structure your time, do homework without your parents around, those kind of skills that they need to grow up and get ready for college—those are some of the things that happen outside the classroom and really require that interaction between the mentoring teacher-educator and the student.”
With an anticipated fall enrollment of just 150 students living on its 750-acre campus, Blue Ridge is uniquely positioned to be able to protect its students and staff by creating a “safety bubble,” according to Darrin. Additionally, 80% of the faculty also live on campus.
“We’re bringing the students back in two waves, so for the first two weeks that every student is back on campus, we can do a modified quarantine period where they live by themselves in their own room,” he continued. “And then we’re testing them when they get here. At the end of those two weeks, assuming everyone’s negative, we then collapse them into doubles, disinfect and sanitize those rooms and bring back the next 50.”
Starting last March, Headmaster Darrin formed a task force to begin planning the return-to-school operations. Chaired by history teacher Vinton Bruton and with input from the dean of academics, campus security manager and other representatives of various aspects of the school’s operations, the team worked in cooperation with medical staff and the Greene County Health Department to ensure their plan met every safety standard possible to get the boys back to school.
“They are required to get a (COVID-19) test done within a week of their arrival to campus, and then they have to show us the results in order for them to be authorized to come back,” Darrin said. “And then they’ll be tested again upon arrival. We have purchased 700 PCR (polymerise chain reaction) tests and have contracted with a lab in Glen Allen, Virginia, so we’ll be able to have the results back within three days of that first test.” PCR tests detect the presence of an active infection as opposed to antibody testing, which checks for the body’s immune response to a current or past infection.
The school will also have dedicated facilities for isolation or quarantine should any student test positive and need to be treated or sent home. Blue Ridge students hail from 23 states and 17 countries, so the testing and quarantine are critical to establish the “bubble” of safety for students returning from such varied circumstances regarding COVID-19.
During the modified quarantine at the start of the semester, all students and staff will wear masks when they are not isolated. However, once all have tested negative, those living on campus will be mask-optional. For the few staff members who do not live on campus or for any visitors or vendors, a combination of mask-wearing and testing every few weeks will ensure no one unintentionally brings the virus to campus during the course of the semester.
One unique component of Blue Ridge’s reopening plan is the stipulation that every staff member and student will wear a health-monitoring wristband that is specifically designed to track symptoms such as body temperature, oxygen levels in the blood and heart rate, Darrin said.
“There’s lots of technology being deployed by schools across the country as ways of keeping their communities safe,” he said. “Each band has its own unique code and what happens is that the application on the phone is constantly seeking out other wristbands that are nearby, and if a student comes within six feet of another wristband, it just records that data, the code of that other wristband. If that kid then tests positive we can go back and check that (data) and know which other students or teachers he came into contact with.”
If one of the wristbands records an elevated temperature (above 100.4 degrees) or other red flag symptom, the school nurse will be immediately notified to check the student or staff member and he would be kept in isolation until he could be tested. Contact tracing would be done in collaboration with the local health department utilizing the stored data from the wristband and associated smartphone app.
“We are working very closely with our parents, and they are in support of this plan because they believe that it protects the safety of the community,” Darrin said.
“Everyone who’s trying to do life since this pandemic started, you know, there’s just a flood of information and the information’s ever-changing and ever-evolving … it’s so easy to lose your way,” he continued. “I’m just so proud of this task force because they held to the lucky things that we have as a school community here, like the remote location, the high degree of control over access to our campus, the fact that we’re 100% boarding and the fact that this area of Virginia has had a low transmission rate. Early on this team decided that they were going to pursue this ‘bubble’ strategy and I’m just so grateful that Greene County has been—comparatively—a very safe place to be.”
Blue Ridge’s fall trimester runs from Aug. 27 to Nov. 13. After Thanksgiving break, students will engage in distance learning until their holiday break on Dec. 18 to minimize travel to and from the campus. The current plan is to return to campus in early January.
For additional details on the school’s reopening policies and procedures, visit