Staying Open

On Monday, September 14, 2020 we welcomed students back to Grace for the first time since the school shut down the previous March because of the Covid-19 virus. Approximately 220 students were learning in person full time, 80 were full-time remote and 460 were on a hybrid schedule, divided into pods and toggling daily between in-person and remote learning. On that day, the NYC Public School classrooms were fully remote. Only a small handful of independent schools were open in person, with most of the others staying remote at least until the fall long weekend in October to see whether in-person school could really be successful. The betting money was that we would not make it to that October weekend and would prove the less determined right. We should have taken that bet. 

In the last (digital) issue of Grace Magazine, I chronicled a long and challenging process of getting the school open on that day. This is the story of how Grace stayed open all year despite Covid and despite a tumultuous political year that ended up grabbing us in particular. It is the story of the people of Grace of all ages who brought the determination and resilience to do the right thing for our students and the appropriately safe things for all in our community.

Staying open, we learned,
was as challenging as getting open.

Staying open, we learned, was as challenging as getting open. There were countless details daily, and each logistical question had to have an answer. We learned as we went and adapted as needed —for example, the extra cameras in the hybrid classrooms were effective for only the most tech-savvy teachers, and that hybrid learning worked better with in-person rather than remote teachers. We learned that we should have asked the students about the right headphones and not just bought the inexpensive ones. We learned that socialization was severely circumscribed, and that hybrid schedules and learning pods took a lot of the joy out of school, especially for Middle and High School students. 

One of the great challenges was having to innovate on the fly while making sure that the students, who only come to each place in their education once, do not miss anything. Parents were rightfully anxious. Students were under tremendous pressure, especially the older ones, and their anxiety levels were running high too. The counselors were fully employed. 

One innovation to offset student anxiety was the introduction of Community Week in the High School and community days in the Middle School—a periodic break from regular class schedules to give students a breather and an opportunity to convene online and in-person to foster and support community. 

For our first Community Week, 9th graders came in person and the older students went all remote. They were joyful at their lunch on 10th Street, but parents thought we had ordained a new vacation week. We went back to the drawing board and recalibrated, and student feedback indicated that they appreciated the relief. We also set out to find a way to bring back athletics because we could see that the athletes were really missing that necessary part of their lives and days, and devised a way for all sports to have a season beginning in January, though without interscholastic competition. 

The end of the first quarter coincided with the national election. We considered going remote for election week as some other schools were doing, in case of protest and upheaval in the streets. We decided to stay open and fortunately, the streets remained quiet. There was the question of Thanksgiving and people leaving the state to visit family having to quarantine—to comply with the state two-week quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors and the impending winter break, we would actually be remote until mid-January, which made no sense. While several schools took that road, we instead asked families to stay local for Thanksgiving and planned to be remote for the first two weeks back from winter break. We did end one day early for a snow day, which everyone but me thought was a gift from God for this community doing such a great job all fall. I realized that we had become like a suburban school, with kids on buses and teachers in cars, and it would be hard to keep snow days at bay, but there would not be another storm anyway.

During all of this assessing and reassessing, our Covid protocols were working. Random testing every two weeks with no positives. Temperature checks and health forms every day. When there was a positive case determined outside of school, cohorts would go remote, but not whole grades or buildings. We stayed true to the system and it worked.

Other business of school worked differently and well too. The admissions process went fully remote. Candidates and their families took virtual tours and visited on Zoom. Parents and students created new groups and activities to attend. The college process was fully remote as well. Our team and the students adjusted, and in the end, the class of 2021 had a great year in terms of college choices.  

There were plenty of bumps along the way—life in the virtual world is full of temptation and dysfunction. The phone next to the laptop was a constant issue, not only for students but also for adults at meetings. Big Zoom meetings with cameras off meant lowered learning outcomes for some, and led to some disciplinary issues. Students flipped back and forth into and out of remote learning, which was not optimal for the continuity of the program. We had anticipated the return of remote teachers and students, but with some returning and others going remote, it was a wash. 

A winter surge in Covid cases was not helping us either. As we entered the first remote week after winter break, not only did the weather look bleak, but with the Capitol riot, the nation looked bleak too. On the afternoon of Friday, January 8, a ray of sunshine broke through with the good news that NY State declared teachers essential workers and eligible for the vaccine. The next morning, I received a link to schedule vaccine appointments for teachers. I tried it. It worked. I sent it to the faculty and staff. By the time we returned from the second remote week, the primary faculty and staff conversation was whether you had the Pfizer or the Moderna, how you felt afterwards and the date of your second shot.

Rested and renewed, we felt like we were really hitting our stride. The MLK Community Week had been a real success at all ages. Sports returned as an intramural offering with three shortened seasons. Vaccinated teachers began to return to school and the number of remote students began to decline. We started planning for a spring where we could bring back the seniors and the 8th graders full time, and possibly other grades too. It looked like we had turned the corner and it was “blue skies from now on.” In that second remote week, I announced that the ’21-’22 school year would be my final year at Grace and the commencement of a new phase in my life and the life of the school. 

As the great Jerry Garcia once wrote, “When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.” Two storms caught hold of us in quick succession. The first arrived with the announcement of a larger than normal tuition increase that is necessary to not only put the school on a strong financial footing for the future, but also to begin to rebuild the school’s resources that had been depleted by Covid-safety expenses. Some parents and alumni were vocal in their frustration. A few families withdrew from the school. This was a difficult year for an increase, but the Board felt it necessary to ensure the school’s long-term financial stability. We had created a reservoir of goodwill by getting open and staying open, and the tuition increase brought the levels way down. The next storm ran them almost dry. 

An upheaval in the press involving a number of New York independent schools including Grace began in late winter, and suddenly, we were thrust into the sights of the national media about a highly politicized issue that extended well beyond us. Grace and others were put forth as examples of “woke schools”—institutions that indoctrinate students rather than educating them. While nothing like that was true, we found ourselves in the clutches of a spin machine that mischaracterized us and shook the trust of some of our community members. We are a values-based, consensus-driven community, and the secret to our success is the trust among the members. 

And while we made some mistakes,
we did one thing very right:
we stuck with our values.

We used the moment to take stock of how we live our mission, and how we work to instill a sense of belonging in all of our students. And while we made some mistakes, we did one thing very right: we stuck with our values. We aggressively asserted what we stood for and avoided being defensive. The community held together, though we acknowledge that we still have work to do to rebuild some of that trust. 

All that was left was to finish the year with Grace, and that we did. The seniors and 8th graders did indeed come back in full in late April. Chapel started again in person. We began having parent meetings in person and outside. Families celebrated spring at May Fair on 10th Street. We planned Commencement in Grace Church, and in-person closing ceremonies for every grade, all with a livestream for family members far and wide to celebrate together. There were very few dry eyes in the house when the Class of 2021 received their diplomas. There was a moment before the 9th grade closing ceremony, as we were taking the class picture. The first shot was with masks on; when we did a second photo with masks off, there was an audible gasp from the faculty in attendance. We had never seen the freshman class together and in person with their masks off. 

The end of year celebrations marked a triumph of the collective Grace spirit that found the way through, time and time again. We all agreed that we never wanted to do that kind of year again. Because of the collective efforts of our entire community—our committed teachers especially—from September 14, 2020 to June 10, 2021 we only lost days to snow. COVID did not stop us. That was a signal achievement of this amazing community of Grace.