It’s probably safe to assume that when Karen Penny decided to pursue a career in healthcare, she never imagined a scenario in which she would have to send hundreds of vials of saliva through the mail, every single week.
But that's exactly the kind of scenario that confronted Karen, a registered nurse and Holderness School's new director of health services, during her first year on the job. And there have been plenty of situations just like that. With the threat of COVID-19 lurking over the 2020–21 school year, Holderness took unprecedented steps to ensure the health of the community: requiring masks indoors and out; practicing social distancing; and conducting pooled saliva testing of all students, teachers, and staff on a weekly basis. Those tests were an intense logistical undertaking that required Karen and her Health Center staff to create spreadsheets, assign barcodes, administer tests, and mail the school’s 450 saliva samples to a lab in New York City for testing every Tuesday.
So how did it all work out? For the most part, all tests would come back negative within a couple of days, leaving Karen and the rest of the school to proceed with business as usual. But when testing turned up several positive cases in January, the Health Center quickly transformed into a contact tracing command center. Within hours, the school had managed to quarantine all positive cases and their close contacts, effectively halting the spread of the virus on campus. It was a stressful time for the new director and her staff, but the school’s success in stamping out the virus was proof that the months of planning and daily meetings with the school’s COVID response team had paid off.
“It’s been quite the year to take over as director, but I think it’s gone well,” Karen said during an interview this spring in the Health Center. “I think hopefully when we look back at our pandemic year we can say that we did the best we could and we would hopefully change very little. Nobody’s had to do this before.”
It was a year of firsts for everyone on the Holderness campus, and it was a year that required constant vigilance on the part of students, teachers, and staff. Every cough and sneeze was a potential cause for concern, and it was something Holderness students took particularly seriously. “Especially in the fall we had students coming in with all kinds of symptoms – a slightly runny nose, a little bit of a headache – because nobody wanted to be the first one,” Karen said. “Nobody wanted to be patient zero. The kids have really stepped up and taken responsibility for their health and the health of their peers.”
The arrival of vaccines in March marked a turning point at the school. Karen noticed a profound sense of happiness and relief in faculty and staff when she began administering their Moderna vaccines in early March. It was a nice change of pace for Karen, who wasn’t used to seeing patients smile, laugh, or cry tears of joy when receiving a vaccine. “It was really exciting to be here and be able to participate in that,” she said. “It definitely felt like a celebration in here.” Students were just as enthusiastic about the vaccines. In April, the Pfizer vaccine became available to students ages 16 and older. Less than 24 hours after students became eligible to register for that vaccine, 116 had signed up to receive a shot.
The sense of relief accompanying those vaccinations was a welcome respite for Karen, but she isn’t declaring victory over COVID-19 just yet. Instead of planning a well-deserved summer vacation to celebrate her first year as director, she’s already planning summer meetings. As the current school year comes to an end, big questions are emerging about the continued presence of COVID-19, and how Holderness will adapt to this persistent virus. She’s doing everything she can to find the answers.
“We already have meetings scheduled for when school is out. I think it’s going to be: what is next year going to look like? Are we still going to be testing every week? Will we still be testing students who have been vaccinated? Will we still need to all wear masks?” Karen asks. “The vaccines are excellent and really good, but I think that it’s going to open us up to a whole new set of challenges, for sure.”
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