by Oona Lundgren, Staff Writer, November 2022

Attentive listeners of assembly might notice that there are some buzz-words that few mornings pass without mention of. Minds may jump to words like “community,” “respect,” or the infamous “unprecedented,” but perhaps the most frequently mentioned phrase over the past year has been the “medical advisory group.” Almost every COVID-19 update is reportedly backed up by the support and expertise of our very own medical advisory team. Operating at any degree of normalcy during the pandemic has required much administrative effort behind the scenes, but there remains a fog around the decision-making process that governs all activity that is (or isn’t) happening on Campus Drive.

So what is the medical advisory group? The group consists of medical professionals within the community, such as parents, school nurses, and members of the administration. “We are not the one’s setting the policy, we are guiding [Head of School Cathy Hall, Ph.D.] with data and information based on what we know from medical practice,” Dr. Wilton Levine, MD, an anesthesiologist and Director of Perioperative Service at Massachusetts General Hospital and a member of the committee, said. The administrative decision-making and advisement are symbiotic. “This group adds an important layer of confidence to our decision-making, lending their outside expertise as a lens to support our decisions around health and safety,” Head of School Dr. Cathy Hall said. She described the meeting schedule as irregular, typically called in when prompted by the members’ own concerns, parental feedback, or current news. For example, when pressing situations like the recent spike in the Omicron variant raises concerns in the medical community and beyond, community input leads to meetings of the group to determine a response. “I typically involve the group when we reach a big juncture where we anticipate making changes to protocols, such as most recently when we planned for how to return after winter break. I will often share our planned decision or questions we are debating with them to invite their input and to benefit from any insights they have,” Hall said. 

Over the pandemic, other independent schools have formed similar committees to provide guidance. However, most often these are external groups of hired medical consultants, as opposed to the more community-based approach at Nobles. Consultants at other schools are not involved or related to the school community, with some even being out of state. The pandemic has allowed profitable careers to be built off of medical advice, with many institutions in need of a medical perspective to validate their response. Nobles chose instead to tap parents, professionals, and leaders involved directly in the community. “Having members of the Nobles’ Community involved in this process allows the community as well as the school leadership to have a voice,” said Levine. The medical advisory group held conversations with faculty and other sectors of the community, making itself visible to more than just the administration.

The group deals with ongoing issues at the junction between medical safety and the overall well-being of the school community. “We talk about how mental health plays into COVID response,” Levine said. “We have really recognized how relationships have been impacted by the past year. We want students to be able to be together […] but to do it safely.” The progress Nobles has gained this year—including returning mask optional—is only possible with the continual influx of data and the measured optimism of the group. Particularly in the return to school this past fall, vaccines played a critical role in allowing the Nobles campus to return to a state of semi-normalcy. “It has been very important to me that we stay true to our reopening principles at Nobles. This year, they are physical health and safety, social-emotional health and safety, and reconnecting our community,” Hall said. “I make decisions through the prism of those three key principles as the situation continues to shift around us.”

 An obstacle that schools have faced in returning to normalcy is the financial burden of maintaining COVID-19 safety. Testing, separation, sanitation, and a steady supply of personal protective equipment are expensive, even for a school as well-situated as Nobles. Fortunately, the bulk of the costs was ultimately covered by the school and contributing donors. “During a special time of added costs, we ask our donors,” Chief Advancement Officer George Maley said. “We’ve had about $4 million of added costs over the last year, and our donor base gave us over two and half million dollars.” These resources proved vital to maintaining any semblance of pre-COVID education, but is certainly not a given in other, less wealthy school systems. Among the many aspects of inequality that have been raised during the pandemic, the vast socioeconomic privilege from which Nobles benefits is achingly apparent. “At no point did Nobles make a decision that was primarily financial. At no point have we said ‘testing is expensive, we need to do less. The school leadership and finance team have figured out how to make it work,” Levine said. Maley echoed his sentiment, describing the “food chain” of COVID-19 policy. “My role is further down,” he said. “The leadership comes to [Advancement] and asks us if we can find the money.”All in all, the contributions of the medical advisory group and administration have allowed the Nobles community respite in the fall. However, especially as the state of the pandemic changes, the group is still coping with questions. “We know wearing masks prevents illness. The question is the risk-benefit of preventing infection versus building relationships,” Levine said. The same uncertainty applies to the necessity of testing. It’s unclear to even the senior members of the group when testing will no longer be required. The future of the disease remains obscure. Levine added, “The educational community is on a bit of a rollercoaster. I think life may be a little bit of that back and forth for a while.” Nonetheless, optimism endures. “There are many reasons to be very optimistic as we approach the other side of the Omicron surge, and we will be looking to pivot away from some of the changes we made this month as soon as we have the data to support it,” Hall said. “I’d be thrilled to get rid of all the COVID measures once it is safe.”