Dear SouthLake Christian Academy Families,

As we prepare to begin school, you will find in your email inbox a document listing our safety measures for the coming year. The final page includes a document for you to sign and return to the school. I will summarize our plans here and respectfully ask you to read this email in total and reserve judgment until the end.

What Has Changed

Here are safety measures from last year we have relaxed. We will no longer do temperature checks as students enter buildings. Students may now observe 3 feet rather than 6 feet of space between their peers. We will no longer do chapel in individual classrooms but will return to group worship by division in large well-ventilated spaces. We will restart our STEM Lab for students in grades JK through 4. Students may now work in groups and share classroom supplies when needed. We will resume all Middle School and Upper School sports and our athletic association plans to allow spectators. Contact tracing guidelines now exempt vaccinated individuals from quarantine if they remain asymptomatic. Individuals who were masked when exposed to COVID may also avoid quarantine if their exposure was otherwise low risk. Parents will once again be able to volunteer on campus. We based all these changes on updated health guidance and our own operational experience, and each change will improve our ability to teach.

What Stays the Same, For Now

Here are safety measures we will keep in place for the time being. We will continue to provide online instruction for students when quarantine or documented health conditions necessitate. As last year, we may on occasion move to online instruction for a short time following major school holidays as a buffer for people returning to town. We will continue to wash hands and sanitize surfaces frequently. We will continue to use HVAC filters rated MERV-13 or higher. We will fully utilize our outdoor spaces for lunch, play, and instruction as often as logistics and weather permit. We will continue to open doors and windows wherever possible. And now I turn to the subject of masks.

We will start this fall as we finished last spring, with all students, staff, and campus visitors wearing masks when indoors and on buses. We will begin to relax this requirement as soon as conditions allow us to do so safely. There are a few exceptions to our mask policy. Vaccinated teachers may deliver lessons unmasked when at a distance, and then mask as they move closer to students. When engaged in strenuous aerobic activity indoors, students may remove their masks. Those with a documented medical condition making masks unsafe to wear may request an exemption from our policy with a written recommendation from their primary care physician. We will provide students with mask breaks as often as needed. Students may use their own CDC approved two-ply re-usable masks if they hook around the ears, fully cover the nose and chin, and visible markings on the mask conform with school dress-code standards. We will also provide one washable cotton/poly SouthLake mask for each student who has need. And now, I believe you deserve the following explanation.

Delta Variant

Based on the best data available to researchers right now, here’s what we know. The Delta COVID variant swept through India and Great Britain earlier this year and now represents more than 80% of new COVID cases in the United States. As compared to previous strains of COVID, Delta appears to be about 50% more contagious, particularly for unvaccinated children and adults under age 50. Delta makes unvaccinated people sicker, and symptoms develop more quickly, leading to rapidly deteriorating hospital capacity and likely a higher mortality rate. While vaccines greatly reduce the risk of serious illness from Delta, data suggests vaccinated people can still become infected with viral loads sufficient to make them contagious even when asymptomatic. While admittedly limited in scope, the data on Delta so far gives us reason for more caution than we had just a month ago.

Public Health Guidance

In late July, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services updated its guidance to public and private schools asking for universal masking indoors. The Centers for Disease Control recently recommended the same, as did the Mecklenburg County Department of Health. I regularly consult with SouthLake parents who are medical doctors who work on the front lines of this pandemic, and they recommend the same. The people who study the research most and understand the science best are now all speaking with one voice. Last year we listened to these voices and opened school, stayed open all year, and finished the year successfully. Why would we suddenly ignore these same voices now?

A Difficult Decision

I have toiled over this decision because I am painfully aware this announcement will be a relief to some but a disappointment to others. And honestly, I am disappointed too. My own daughter would love nothing more than to begin her senior year at SouthLake without a mask. But my job is not to make the popular or politically expedient decision. My job is to make the right decision. With more than half our student population ineligible for vaccines, and many in the SouthLake community immunocompromised, I am simply not willing to take unnecessary risks with their health while the Delta variant surges. What would we be saying to these members of our community if we disregard their safety for the sake of our comfort? And if I disregard all federal, state, regional, and local health guidance and things go sideways, would I not be guilty of gross negligence? Are government health agencies perfect? Of course not. I have on occasion taken issue with some of their guidance and the timing and manner of their communication. But I have no reason to believe social media pundits or cable news outlets provide me with better data. Maybe down the road our protocols will turn out to have been overly cautious. I can live with that. When it comes to the health and safety of our people, I will gladly err on the side of caution. That said, schools in our region opening mask optional have already faced significant outbreaks and had to change their requirements. We know from both research and experience that masks reduce risk and maximize our chances of keeping our doors open every day this school year.

School-Wide Zoom Meeting

I know some will disagree with what I’ve communicated here. Fair enough. Every SouthLake parent has a voice, even if not a vote. But before you respond, I make this request. We will host a panel discussion with three of our school doctors on Zoom this Sunday afternoon, August 8, at 2:30 p.m. You will find the Zoom information in the email I sent, and we will record the session for those unable to attend. You may submit questions either in advance or in real time to slcaquestions@gmail.com and we will answer as many as time allows. If you view Sunday’s conversation and still have concerns, I will carefully consider all respectful dissent.

Conclusion

Right now, I know masking feels like an imposition. Some believe mask requirements cause division, but doing otherwise runs the same risk. The truth is this – nothing can divide us without our permission. Some believe masks are a matter of personal liberty. I view the matter differently. As a trained theologian, I see far more in Scripture and Christian tradition about communal responsibility. For a Christian school, the obligation to love our neighbor supersedes other concerns. Indeed, Jesus calls love for one’s neighbor one of the greatest commandments. Caring for those around us does not restrict our freedom; doing so is the only path to true freedom.

Matthew S. Kerlin, Ph.D.

Head of School

SouthLake Christian Academy

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