One of the things I most appreciate about Colorado Academy is the freedom we are afforded as an independent school to make educational decisions that are in the best interests of teaching and learning. We can be agile in difficult times.
We can quickly add courses, offer new programs, and get rid of approaches that are outdated or no longer effective. On a curricular level, our highly trained teachers have great freedom and flexibility to enhance core coursework. Principals can identify and make improvements without long, drawn-out processes that delay implementation. Our mental health counselors, who monitor the mental well-being of our students, can move swiftly to identify community needs.
To be sure, there are some guidelines that we must follow that come from outside authorities. On the whole, though, we have far more freedom to enact change and be, not just responsive, but proactive. That is one reason why the faculty and administration were able to move to remote learning so effectively, as we anticipated the arrival of COVID-19. We have been able to continue our efforts to support our students and maintain connections with our community.
So many unknowns
Right now, I am looking ahead to next year. We are definitely in the so-called “fog of war.” War is such a complex thing that it is impossible for military leaders—no matter how great their strategic genius—to predict accurately what might happen. Every decision matters. There can be luck. Assumptions about the enemy’s intention can be wrong.
In our war against COVID-19, there are things we know, and there are still things we don’t. We know that we are dealing with a highly contagious disease that is easily transmitted. We know that the way the virus affects people is unpredictable and that children are less susceptible to this virus. We know that it can cause severe problems, including death. We know that we do not have enough testing to understand the scope of the pandemic. And, we know that a vaccine is many months, if not years, away. What we do know, as of this writing, is that more Americans have died of COVID-19 in just nine weeks than died in the more-than-decade-long Vietnam War. Further, we are painfully aware that in the span of just a few weeks, COVID-19 has devastated the global economy.
Schools are key
We also know that re-opening schools will be essential to getting our economy going again. Parents cannot work if they have to stay home and watch young children. We also know that the impact of school closures has a ripple effect. Throughout the U.S., there is a spike in domestic violence. There are impoverished families in America who rely on schools for meals. There is a rise in depression and anxiety, as children go through this difficult time. (Anecdotally, I believe that is less true with younger children, who love having their parents around. But, it is the inverse for parents of young children who are struggling in this environment.)
In this time of virtual learning, we are reminded why bricks-and-mortar schools and in-person learning matter. Although online learning serves a purpose, humans were built for real connections, and we are all starved for it in this moment in history. I heard from one parent recently who told me that their CA Upper Schooler said, “I will never complain about school again.”
Planning for the future
Under these circumstances, how does a school leader plan in the face of changing and uncertain conditions?
Like other institutions, CA will be guided by state and local health and governmental authorities. Most important, we are committed to your child’s safety and learning. We are committed to sustaining a school with a long tradition. We are committed to preserving our culture. Surely, our reality will look different in August. Will this pandemic ease over the Summer? Will there be a second wave that is even more devastating?
While we all hope that life will go back to normal, I do not believe any of us can count on that. At CA, we are preparing multiple plans to approach this uncertain future. It has been helpful to see what schools in China and Europe are doing to re-open. It provides a sense of what might happen, but it also raises more questions. I want to share our thinking and some of the assumptions going into next year.
A variety of scenarios
We need to be prepared for variety of scenarios. This includes having multiple approaches, in case there are shifting closures and government guidelines that direct how we operate. We already know that we can do remote learning well, and our goal is to fine-tune our program, so that we can respond even better, should there be additional closures next year. Based on events so far, I expect periodic times in which a local outbreak might force schools to go to remote learning for a short period of time. There may be state orders that limit class sizes and that enforce social distancing at schools. (Section sizes range from 15-20 students at CA.) This is the big unknown, and it has significant implications for how we operate.
There are solutions and creative approaches. There could be an interesting hybrid of online and in-person learning. We might have staggered schedules. In this scenario, half the class would be taught in person, while the other Zooms in remotely. This might be done with kids at home, but is it possible to rethink use of space on campus, and even offerings, to allow for this to happen at school? That is something we are exploring. We also might think what the school day looks like. There may be ways of creating a school schedule in which Lower School and younger students are spread out through campus buildings in the morning, while in the afternoon our older students come to campus. Perhaps, the school day goes longer.
Clearly, there are all kinds of unknowns that could trip up any of these plans. If we go back to our war analogy, our enemy, COVID-19, has more momentum on the battlefield. We know that social or physical distancing is going to be important and also the limitation of mass gatherings. But in nearly every school in this nation, a typical school day could be considered a mass gathering. So this is the challenge before us: how do we operate a school as safely as possible?
I share this not to unveil some master plan—it is too soon for that. But, I wanted to convey to our community how thoroughly and methodically we are thinking about this. Whatever we do, we have to keep our community safe and protect public health. We are looking at how we operate in an environment in which we will have to take student and employee temperatures every day. We will modify how we clean buildings, so they are cleaned throughout the day. We are going to step up efforts to think about personal hygiene. We are a relatively open campus, but COVID-19 is forcing us to rethink how we manage visitors and classroom volunteers. We have to think about bus and dining room services. Also, how do we manage arts and athletic events?
One thing that is clear to me is that there will be significant additional expenses. We must invest more in how we support educational technology. If we think about tuition as the fulcrum on a seesaw, it is supporting the school’s operations. In our reality of remote learning, one side of that seesaw has gone down, representing the changes in program and the amount of contact time students have with teachers. But, the other side of the seesaw, representing institutional and employee energy, has gone up in tremendous ways. All of us are working harder than ever. I want our families to understand the business aspect of our response, as we do all that we can to sustain our community. We have raised $300,000 for our Emergency Financial Aid Fund. I hope you will continue to support CA, as we work to sustain all members of our community so that they can remain at CA.
Looking forward to better times
The good news is that this crisis will end, and we will be stronger by the end of it. I believe medical scientists will develop treatments, and we will get our supply chain to a point where hospitals are not overrun. Nonetheless, I want us to be prepared for next year. Students need to learn. While a college student might take a gap year, that is not in the interest of a younger child’s growth. There is so much happening in brain development from infancy to 18 years old. It’s an exponential scale. We need to ensure that students continue to grow and learn. We are all adaptable, and we will make this work. We will do all that we can to serve your child in the months and years ahead.