Baylor School parents, alumni express concern over COVID-19 measures

Staff file photo / The sign at the entrance of Baylor School is photographed Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

A group of Baylor School parents and alumni - who also happen to be medical professionals - are concerned by what they see as lax COVID-19 prevention protocols on campus as the highly contagious omicron variant drives a record-breaking case surge and several other area private schools ramp up mitigation measures.

In a letter sent to Head of School Chris Angel and Board Chairman Ryan Crimmins, nearly 20 medical professionals with ties to the school call for "a multifactorial approach to mitigate spread on campus," including universal masking, improved indoor ventilation, promotion of vaccines and rapid antigen testing to identify those who are contagious.

"Significantly more transmissible than [the delta variant], omicron cases seem to double every two to three days, evading immunity from recent previous infection and vaccination to some extent," said a copy of the letter, obtained by the Times Free Press. "Over the summer, the vaccinated population and those with prior infection were able to help curb the spread of current disease, but this is not the case with omicron."

The letter goes on to say, "While the initial indicators show potential for a milder course in those who are vaccinated, there is still significant risk, not just with hospitalization and death, but with long-lasting post-infectious side effects, especially given how transmissible omicron is. The vaccinated population at Baylor will likely avoid serious illness, but we cannot say the same for the unvaccinated students and their family members."

(READ MORE: Chattanoogans needing ICU beds face challenges amid omicron surge)

Baylor officials did not answer a series of questions about COVID-19 on campus, including what prevention policies are now in place and what percentage of students and faculty are currently infected, but offered the following statement from Angel, who declined an interview request for this story.

"Baylor continues to consult with a trusted team of medical advisers, and we are in frequent communication with our families regarding any changes in protocols and procedures due to COVID-19 variants. We are extremely proud of our entire school community, including the hard work and diligence of our own on-campus health center professionals who serve all of our employees and students," Angel's statement said.

Baylor alumnus Dr. Peter Rawlings, a retired pediatrician and a past president of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society, is one of those who signed the letter asking Angel and Crimmins to rethink the school's COVID-19 strategy. Rawlings said the letter this month was the second sent to the administration from clinicians concerned about COVID-19 policies since the start of the academic year.

"I would love to see them be masking, at least, and they may not have to require vaccinations, but at least encourage them," Rawlings said. "Fortunately, the children don't seem to be getting as sick, but that doesn't mean that they can't get tremendously sick, and also if they get sick, they can take it home to their parents."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County student survives rare syndrome linked to COVID-19)

Rawlings said that Baylor was much more aggressive about COVID-19 prevention last year under former Headmaster Scott Wilson, who retired at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

"It really pleased me, so I'm not 100% sure what made the big difference," he said, acknowledging that Angel is in a difficult position because he's new and COVID-19 has become highly politicized.

The Times Free Press interviewed numerous other Baylor parents, alumni and current and former employees about the situation, and the vast majority declined to comment on the record, saying they feared retribution for themselves or their children.

All who were interviewed shared their frustration over the school's COVID-19 response and skyrocketing cases on campus, though they did say there are other parents who are happy that the school doesn't have a mask mandate and more robust mitigation measures.

(READ MORE: Poll finds Tennessee school mask attitudes, practices, vary by region)

A copy of Baylor's internal case report from Jan. 10-14 obtained by the Times Free Press shows at the time there were 5.6% active cases among middle schoolers, 7.8% active cases among upper school day students, 5% active cases among boarding students and 5% active cases among student-facing employees. Baylor has 1,070 students in grades 6-12, according to the school's website.

No one could say how many members of the Baylor community are currently sick because the school does not share COVID-19 case reports with parents and only sporadically updates faculty.

Upon receipt of the Times Free Press inquiry, Baylor spokesperson Barbara Kennedy sent an email to faculty and staff instructing them not to speak to members of the news media and to direct all media inquiries to the external affairs office.

Holden Young, a spokesperson for the Hamilton County Health Department, said in an email, "It would be helpful if local private schools would provide the number of COVID positive cases to the health department to better improve our tracking, but they are not required to do so, therefore we do not know how many positive cases there actually are in these schools."

Private schools have significant freedom to craft their own COVID-19 prevention policies when compared to public schools, and they vary widely in how they're handling the pandemic and the most recent surge.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga hospitals in peril over omicron as Tennessee governor denies emergency need)

Across town at the all-boys McCallie School - which like Baylor has both boarding and day students - Assistant Head of School Kenny Sholl said the school had been without a campuswide mask requirement since the previous academic year.

The decision to go maskless in the 2021-22 academic year was made after McCallie moved to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students and employees upon returning to campus in the fall.

"What we did was look at our school community and what our goals are in trying to give our boys the full McCallie experience," Sholl said, noting that the boarding school component weighed heavily into the decision to require vaccination. "Without being a vaccinated campus, it was going to be virtually impossible to ever drop the masks, because of the close proximity [in dorms]."

Sholl said the vaccines proved highly effective in limiting transmission on campus during the fall's delta surge. The school also makes on-site rapid testing available to determine who's infectious and quickly isolate them and hosts regular vaccination clinics.

"Over the course of the entire first semester - from the beginning of school in the third week of August all the way to Christmas break - we only had 16 cases, which is remarkable on a campus that has almost 1,200 people on it when you count faculty, students and staff. So we were very pleased with that," he said.

Then, omicron came along.

"We really didn't know what to expect. As a result, we did open the second semester wearing masks, which we have done for the last month," Sholl said. "We did have a wave of cases - way more than we had experienced in the fall - and that held steady for about two weeks."

Now that cases on campus are declining, he said the school will once again make masks optional starting Monday.

"Our percentage of positive cases currently across faculty, staff and students is 1.7%, which is about where we were last fall," Sholl said, adding that as a whole those infected in the latest surge typically had mild or no symptoms.

"Our data points are limited to our population, but our statistics bear out the fact that the vaccines do make a difference and have done so with omicron, as well," he said.

The school's COVID-19 medical team and task force each meet weekly to assess the need for different mitigation strategies.

"We really stay on top of this and try to take the best science and the best data, take into account our school culture and just a little bit of common sense and try to make the best decision to stay on campus, in person, and as safe as possible," Sholl said.

Dr. David Bruce and Dr. Lisa Smith, medical director of COVID-19 services at One to One Health, advise numerous schools and universities on how to best operate during the pandemic, including Baylor and McCallie.

Smith said the One to One team keeps up with the developing science and gives schools evidence-based recommendations for how to minimize the risk of transmission on campus, including masking, vaccination, rapid testing and improved indoor ventilation.

"Every place does have their own culture. We provide the medical and scientific advice, and the administrators make their decisions," Smith said. "I don't agree with every policy of every place I work with, but I'm not a school administrator. There's people who want one thing or another, and these guys walk a line trying to protect the school and keep the doors open."

Officials at Girls Preparatory School, an all-girls day school in Chattanooga, did not return repeated requests for comment for this story. However, parents with children at the school shared copies of current COVID-19 policies.

GPS started the fall semester with a mask requirement and then made masks optional after the delta surge dissipated in October. As omicron spiked in late December, school officials announced that they would once again require masks, and that policy remains in effect.

(READ MORE: COVID-19 hospitalizations increase in Hamilton County as record surge of new cases continue)

A copy of GPS' COVID-19 data dashboard shared with the Times Free Press shows 12 positive cases among students and six cases among staff as of Jan. 27.

Boyd Buchanan, one of Chattanooga's non-boarding private schools, has also faced a surge in cases during omicron.

Admissions assistant Virginia Kohl said that the school does not require masks but decided to shift to virtual school several times throughout January in order to limit spread on campus.

"We had an increase in cases, obviously, with both staff and with students, so just as a precaution we decided to go virtual this week," Kohl said this past week. "We've had a big drop in cases and will be able to go back to school Monday."

Kohl said the school stopped reporting cases on campus a while ago and estimates that roughly 50% of people wear masks indoors.

"It's been different, too, because the majority of our staff are vaccinated and a lot of the student body is as well," she said. "We've done pretty well with trying to follow along with the guidelines as much as we can, and we're just praying for it to be over."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.