Wasatch students enter protective ‘bubble’

Ashton Hascall, right, is a senior at Wasatch Academy from Portland, Oregon. Junior Fedor Makarov is from Russia. Both entered the “Wasatch bubble” Monday, Aug. 31. Photo by Ben Lasseter.

MT. PLEASANT—Wasatch Academy students returning to school this month are entering a strict, coronavirus-protective “bubble.”

“We’re going to have a closed campus initially, to create that bubble to understand who we’ve got and how everyone is before we begin to venture out very much other than athletics,” said Matt Culberson, Wasatch Academy head of school.

Upon arrival, everyone must take a COVID-19 test so the international boarding school can know it is beginning the semester with an infection-free campus. From that moment until at least the reassessment date of Friday, Oct. 2, the school has forbidden almost all outside contact. Even faculty and staff must test negative for the virus before returning to school if they leave the area.

Instead of having built-in breaks, the semester will run straight through until early December. The spring semester will begin near the end of January and will not include a spring break. This is another way the school will minimize student departure from and return to the “Wasatch bubble,” according to Jim Detjen, Wasatch Academy assistant head of marketing and communications.

Assistant head of student life Ty Kennedy said athletic teams are following UHSAA guidelines, as well as the school’s own protocol. Families and opposing teams’ crowds will not be permitted to attend games in person. Opposing teams will be asked to arrive in uniform, ready to begin play promptly.

Kennedy said outdoor sports like tennis, golf and baseball are already low risk for transmission. Home volleyball games this fall will take place in the activity center, which has large doors that can open to the outside and create ventilation.

Culberson qualified, though, that the school could not promise “prevention” of an outbreak.

“We can’t ensure anything, other than an attempt to mitigate as best as we can the risk to the students and to the staff,” he said.

Wasatch Academy will use its open-air gym for volleyball matches this fall to mitigate the risk of spreading new coronavirus on campus. Photo by Ben Lasseter

Since cases of COVID-19 could penetrate the school’s bubble despite their efforts, everyone has to wear masks outside of their dorm rooms or homes. Social distancing and hygiene measures will be encouraged and often required.

Students will also belong to fixed “cohorts” of 10 to 12, often grouped by dorm floor. These groups will eat meals and attend advising sessions together to minimize instances of crowds assembling and mingling, said Amie Mondragon, Wasatch Academy of director of residential life. Athletic teams will usually have their teammates as cohorts.

Detjen said the school is working with the local health department just blocks away. Should the need arise, the student cohorts will serve as starting points for contract tracing. If the school discovers an outbreak, classes will go online, and students will be confined to their dorms. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must move to isolation areas that the school has set up as housing on the outskirts of campus.

Detjen said Wasatch Academy will take strides to stay in touch with local communities. For more information about the school and its plan for the pandemic, visit wasatchacademy.org.