Seasons of Covid


There is a wonderful poem by Joseph Anderson called “Seasons of Our Life” whose first stanza reads:

How like the seasons is our life,
We face the sunshine, storms and strife;
As seasons come, so they must go,
We are enjoined within that flow.

This year of Covid has had seasons too; full of sunshine, storms and strife, and we have had no choice but to be enjoined by that flow.

The first season began in March, when in a seven-day period we went from celebrating the incredible Auction to being a fully remote institution, in our homes, when the city was put on pause.

The second season began June 22, when New York City opened up a bit in ‘phase two,’ and we began to plan and build for the school year to come; it was also a season of strife—a national outcry against racism exploded in the streets and then within our institution as we began a reckoning through @blackatgrace.

September 14 marked the beginning of the third season, as school re-opened in hybrid mode with live instruction in the building.

A fourth and, we hope, final season, that of recovery and return, is coming into view, but it’s not here as of this writing. Take this as the first installment in the story of our Covid year.

Covid time began at the NYSAIS Job Fair in early February, when I asked Blake Spahn of the Dwight School what they were doing at the school’s Shanghai branch. His advice was simple: “Get started training your faculty now on Zoom. It is coming.”

So we did. We purchased Zoom licenses for every faculty member, introduced the platform at a special faculty meeting and provided in-house training. We were preparing for the worst but without a sense of urgency.

We canceled the spring break trips with regrets and out of caution; we began to define the terms of our new vocabulary for the community, like primary and secondary exposure, and laid out what would trigger quarantine or closing, with hopes of making it through to spring break, a week away. By Tuesday evening, those hopes collapsed in a change so rapid that it engendered criticism from some who could not comprehend the pace. We organized an orderly transition to remote teaching with one more day at school, a faculty professional day to learn how to use the tools we had, and a practice day to try out remote teaching before spring break. Margaret Meyer exclaimed, “I love Zoom!” We were going to be able to do this.

Spring break turned into two weeks of fevered work by the faculty to develop lessons that could achieve as many of our objectives as possible remotely, with the clear understanding that agility would be key—we would have to adapt as the unknowns became known. We bolstered our tech capabilities. We built schedules. We made sure that any student who needed tech had it. When a parent suggested an emergency fund for families facing food or shelter insecurity, it was launched and quickly funded.

School resumed after break with students on Zoom from nearby and far away. An All School Chapel with a full program in the empty Church served as a testament to the power of our return. Not everything was perfect. We questioned the efficacy of Zoom and suffered a few classroom Zoom-bombings, which we quickly learned how to avoid. We surveyed screen time for different age levels and adjusted to find a happy medium. The faculty were extraordinary in adapting their craft to a new format in days. Each lesson was a new one, and everyone felt like a rookie teacher all over again. The very construct was exhausting, yet they kept the whole school afloat.

Then the magic started. There was a creative burst—How can we make use of the tools in our hands to make things work better? became the question most often asked. Courses that require hands-on or physical involvement like PE, science, music or drama evolved over the next few weeks, and what they produced was nothing short of amazing.

Our new vocabulary continued to expand with the suddenly ubiquitous entry of terms like synchronous and asynchronous. Normal school was happening in an abnormal setting. Papers were written. Tests were taken. Dancers danced. People learned how to conduct class and life at a distance. Our Communications team produced a steady flow of incredible videos for Chapel, classes and life in general. The performing arts were incredible too. The student experience was greater and more profound than a normal play or concert might have allowed. “Into the Woods” on Zoom was a triumph surpassing what it would have been on stage.

Teachers were experimenting and implementing changes on the go, admitting when things did not work and asking for student feedback on improvements. They modeled failure as a positive learning tool in real time and the clear lesson that no obstacle was insurmountable. We were going forward whether that meant going around, over or under any impediment.

Distance learning had another by-product we did not count on: distance. People were all over the world and in very different circumstances. A Junior Peer Leader in my middle school Cross Grade Connection group was stuck in Chennai, India. The story of her evacuation was a learning experience for us all.

A different kind of distance was also apparent: Remote schooling means peering into people’s homes and locales the way we never really can at school. Bedrooms and gardens and swimming pools speak volumes; the sirens outside windows or the visible impact of multiple individuals working online in a small space are revealing. While the Family Security Fund helped with acute crises, the students with families of limited means were undergoing a slow-moving crisis of identity and confidence. Personal and family tensions resulting from the pandemic added another layer, creating a stressed community of families and teachers.

We committed to keep paying everyone through the end of the school year, whether they were working remotely or not, eliminating those potential savings and prompting our application for the Federal PPP loan program in early April. We faced a backlash in the press and members of the community near and far weighed in. We had intense debate at the Board level about whether to keep the funds. We decided to keep the loan as a buffer against further financial stress and to allow us to do exactly what it was intended to do, which was keep our most vulnerable employees paid and employed through the immediate crisis of the spring pandemic pause. If the loan is not forgiven, we will give it back at the end of the three-year term.

We tried throughout the spring to hold off the inevitable cancelation of trips, programs and events. Some moved to virtual, like Mayfair, and we had great fun. Others were not so adaptable—the senior trip and prom went away and then Commencement itself. A virtual version ushered the class of 2020 off with a stirring speech by the senior class Dean, MiChelle Carpenter, while we held out hope for a late summer outdoor event that would not ultimately be allowed. We had Zoom ceremonies and closing lunches, including one with everyone raising their own glass of rosé in farewell toasts to Carol Collet and Joyce Kuh.

Right before the year was to end came the murder of George Floyd, which on top of those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, catalyzed the protests around Black Lives Matter. At Grace, in remote school, people felt their isolation and vulnerability acutely. The students, especially the junior class and especially those in the class who were in the city, felt it was impossible to continue with school as normal in that moment, and the school agreed.

If we had been at school in person, given the intensity of the protests in Union Square and around the school during those last two weeks of the school year, it would have been natural to switch gears and focus on the reality outside our doors. Even at a distance, we still needed to talk through and understand how each of us was processing our feelings and experience. To that end, the faculty and students pulled together an incredible symposium for the last two days of school. We ended the year feeling bruised and exhausted, but we thought together.

And then came the storm around @blackatgrace, an Instagram account that created a platform for current and former Black students to give voice to their experiences with racism at the school. The accounts there poked a huge hole in our self-image as a school committed and aspiring to antiracism. It laid bare our manifold inadequacies in the face of systemic racism, microaggressions and a lack of understanding of the impact that racism was having on various members of our community. @blackatgrace provoked institutional soul searching as well as deep reflection among various individuals who were named or not. We came to the end of June deflated and drained, but not defeated.

Summer was beginning, and we had to find a path to return for the 2020-21 school year. The groundwork was laid in early May with the establishment of 10 teams of faculty and staff charged with developing plans in distinct areas. We began the process of sharing sketches of our vision for the fall with the whole community.

An early sign of resiliency took root in Open Grace Summer. We asked faculty to propose summer classes for students of all ages that could be taught on Zoom. The number and variety was astounding. In the end, 45 classes were offered enrolling 250 students, an affirming statement of “Yes we can!” and a harbinger of things to come.

We called the plan we were developing for fall the “Hybrid Flex Plan.” Assuming that fully in-person options would be a 2021 thing, we focused on hybrid and remote models that would allow toggling easily between them. Our watchwords for an in-person September return were that it had to be safe, legal and logistically possible.

One early key challenge was engendering trust and confidence among our families that safe in-person school was possible for the fall. In May, families were either withdrawing completely or asking for a year away. Enrollment largely held in place in May and June, though it was still at about 40 students (or 5%) under budget at the end of the school year. Demand for financial aid from existing families increased by 4% as well.

Communicating a general outline of an intended plan and answering everyone’s worries was essential. In May we knew much less about the virus itself, and NYC had been an epicenter unparalleled in the country. The later waves in the south and west had not yet arrived, and those areas seemed somewhat safer, but for NYC, the idea of returning to the city or riding public transportation was anathema to many. Feeling safe in school and at home in the city was a required precondition for return.

This drove our thinking in the first phase of planning: We decided that adults and students should only come to school if they feel safe doing so; everyone who did not feel that way would access school and work through a remote connection. What started as an enrollment management device developed into a key value that drove our planning and work, and we emphasized it in Town Hall meetings and written communications. It meant that economic challenges would not be a barrier to access that sense of safety and also offered families and teachers the same options. Enrollment recovered over the summer, and we ended up 21 students below budget.

In our concept of school opening when it is safe, legal and logistically possible, safety had to come first. We began to define it. We understood that what one person would define as safe another might not. Both families and employees had to decide whether they were going to come to school in person or experience it remotely. We also had to create conditions where as many people as possible would feel safe in person, because if the majority of students and teachers were remote, the hybrid model would not be logistically possible.

With no guidance from the state Health Department available, we used other schools and other countries as our models. To address the fear of riding public transportation, we created a bus system for students and teachers and rented parking spaces for employees. With PPE in short supply for many, we ordered masks and visors and gloves and disinfectant in huge quantities as well portable sinks and plastic bins. A parent offered a connection with a company in China and not only ordered 11,000 KN95 masks for us but donated them as well. The school was empty, and boxes could pile up. Safety planning webinars became our preferred entertainment.

It was one thing to say we will have a school that is safe. It was another thing to say that we would be able to teach hybrid and remote at the same time. All of the teachers had learned an entirely new practice on the fly in the spring, and now we were asking for something entirely different. Over the summer, our dedicated professionals delved into online courses with One Schoolhouse and Seesaw. The tech team began looking for cameras and microphones that would allow for a more dynamic visual experience for the classrooms. They made the internal network as robust as possible given that every class would be online every minute of the day in hybrid teaching. Collaborating with faculty, we began developing a schedule system that would be workable both with in-person and remote learning. By the end of June, we were ready to roll it out.

We appointed Brian Reilly, previously a high school grade dean, our “COVID Czar” to implement the plans and policies. He became the “no cutting corners on safety” officer, speaking honestly with me when I wanted to save money or add an extra desk to a space. A parent suggested we find an unused space to house middle school students on their remote days so they could be with school staff instead of home alone. Another parent helped find and secure nearby space, and a third parent helped convert it for students. “The Broadway” came into being with space for remote learning and enough room for music studios and a reading nook.

A robust testing and sanitizing regime had to be extensive enough to reassure people but not so expensive to make it logistically impossible. We again relied on the expertise of parents and friends for guidance and advice. We procured handheld temperature scanners and established separate entrances for each grade and one-way staircases and hallways throughout the buildings. We planned grab-and-go lunches within the pods and the system for delivering them. We distributed sanitizing stations and designated all bathrooms single-user. We opened windows and installed HEPA filters in every HVAC unit. We scheduled regular testing of a representative group from each pod and building as well as a rotating sanitation set-up during the day with a nightly full cleaning. Access to the building would be limited to fully tested school employees and students.

We contracted with Open Clear to provide testing for all employees and to offer testing to interested families, so the lines at regular providers would not be a hindrance. We found a no-cost, open-source app that everyone would check in with before entering the building. We laid out the plan in detail: JK–4 in-person five days a week; Middle School and High School in cohorts for alternating days in-person (with the Middle School option to be at “the Broadway” on remote days). All students would have the option to be completely remote.

In August, it was time to commit. We surveyed faculty, staff and families. As the results rolled in, I will admit, I did not know whether we would have enough teachers opting to come in person to pull our plan off. In the end it worked: 85% of the students opted to attend in person and 70% of the faculty and staff.

We hired additional staff to fill the holes and pulled together a support team of recent alums to provide logistical support. Other schools had delayed in-person instruction to later in the fall, and we were urged to do the same, but the team kept at it, and each day we crossed another need off the list. September 14 was our goal, and we intended to be ready.

The final piece of planning was the outdoor space at 86 Fourth Avenue. We put up a tent for weather coverage, applied for the right to close the street, and enlisted the cooperation of our friends at Stewart House across the street. All was in operation by mid-September.

We were ready for a Monday start. Everyone was tested. The buses were routed. The entrances were prepared. The support team was in place. On Saturday morning, our testing company reported that one student in the second grade had tested up Covid positive. The family felt confident it could be a false positive and retested. Because that pod had been in the week before, they were all contacted and told that they and their teachers were starting remote. There was no panic, but a lot of nervousness as we waited for the re-test, which indeed came back negative. So we were off. The buses rolled. The lunches were delivered. The lines to enter the building were much faster than we believed, and school was in session and in person on the first day. We were open.

The seasons of Covid at Grace continue. Here’s the truth: it hasn’t been easy. But we have been heartened by the tenacity of our community: the roll-up-your sleeves willingness of the faculty, staff and administration at each new turn; the unwavering support of our parents in the form of good ideas, meaningful help, and financial bolstering; the flexibility and patience of the students, including their wise feedback. All of this gives us confidence that we will not only make our way through these seasons before us, but that we will also emerge better, stronger and smarter when we do. Enjoined within the flow, indeed.