The pandemic: one year later

I vividly recall one of the last weekends before the pandemic drastically impacted life as we knew it at Colorado Academy. I had been skiing. It was the last time I would go to a restaurant and eat indoors in months. On the slopes that weekend, there was lots of talk of the virus. Everyone sensed that something was coming. On every chair lift, people were speculating. Was this just like the flu? Was our health care system prepared? How long would this last? The week before, there had been one case at another school, and so many parents were thinking about it. None of us could have predicted what was ahead.

Early action

While at a national conference in late February, 2020, I spoke with colleagues with connections in independent schools in Asia. They described the mass closures and scrambles to pivot to remote learning that happened there. When I arrived back in Denver, CA connected with Zoom and was the first K-12 school in the Denver area to do so. CA was able to train our faculty on this remote learning platform before our Spring Break. I remember driving back from the slopes that weekend, stopping at a restaurant in Montrose and having a long phone call with Athletic Director Bill Hall concerning what to do about two Spring Break athletic trips. We struggled with our decision, given limited guidance and information. We knew the kids really wanted to go, but we also knew California—one of the destinations—was a hotspot. Before anyone could hop on a plane, the decision was made for us. It was my first realization that this was not going to be over any time soon.

Campus closure

I will never forget many aspects of COVID-19’s school closure. One was the fear and anxiety it created as I went out for groceries or supplies in those early days. I remember trips to the store (unmasked still, because the guidance hadn’t changed), and I could just sense the anxiety of other customers. I armed myself with sanitizing wipes and would wipe down everything. My hands were chapped from all the hand sanitizer I was using. Shelves were soon bare.

I also will never forget the sense of loneliness on campus. Having lived on CA’s campus for so long, evenings and weekends are especially peaceful. But, this was different. It was a feeling of desolation. CA felt like a ghost town for the first several weeks of remote learning. There was an absence of the laughter and joyful screaming from the Lower School playground. I would walk by the new Athletic Center, Ponzio Arts Center, and the Upper School—buildings we literally poured hours into designing, building, and fundraising for—now vacant. It was just so sad.

Decisions, decisions

Also unforgettable is this past year’s complex process of problem solving by the Administrative Team. I am so grateful for the leadership of Renée Rockford, in particular. Her efforts to develop partnerships with National Jewish Hospital and COVIDCheck Colorado to secure testing and PPE for our community paid off in immeasurable ways. What was so immensely difficult was trying to plan with so little, and often contradictory, information. We knew at the time, when we had to shut down last year, that we couldn’t wait until June to figure out how to re-open. The Administrative Team never worked harder to consider solutions and think about unintended consequences of our decisions. We had to create, in a matter of months, an entirely new way of operating the school. The school spent more than $1 million on anti-viral mitigation. Our CFO, Alanna Brown, did a marvelous job of marshaling our resources to cover those costs. And, we were doing it against a backdrop of increasing polarization, as the disease—as well as the repercussions from the death of George Floyd and other deaths of Black Americans by police—further divided American society.

Have we made mistakes? Without a doubt. I know we will look back and note the areas where we could have done better, or we could have problem-solved more creatively. It has been frustrating to have to work in a regulatory environment in which so much is beyond our control. I accept that there is so much uncertainty in general when confronting a novel virus. Still, CA’s efforts have prevented numerous outbreaks and have helped keep our school as safe as possible. The virus did harm our community, with forever impact for some of our families. Loved ones have been lost, and others have fallen very ill.

Interestingly, our testing and tracking revealed numbers that mirrored national data:

  • Schools, and CA in particular, are among the safest places to be in a COVID-19 environment, because of the multi-layered mitigation approach.
  • Lower School children are less likely to get or transmit COVID-19.
  • Testing and quickly quarantining when cases occur prevents on-campus transmission.
  • The approximate seven percent of CA students who have had COVID-19 is far lower than the population average of 21 percent.
  • Of the 71 CA students who have now had COVID, more than half of those students were exposed through positive cases on the part of their parents.

I hope this data can better inform public health guidelines on quarantining, as the students exposed to these positive cases did not subsequently contract or transmit COVID-19 at CA.

CA community response

I am immensely proud of our community’s response. Even 12 months in, I continually get positive and constructive messages from parents. There is recognition that CA is doing better than other schools. Our priorities are straight. Every parent concern raised resulted in an internal conversation to review our approach. CA’s parent body is smart, aware, and engaged. I welcome all views.

This community has rallied in the face of adversity. We are near goal for the annual campaign—The CA Fund­—which supports operations, as tuition does not cover the cost of a CA education. Many donors supported the Emergency Tuition Assistance Fund. This ensured every family negatively impacted by the pandemic could remain at CA. What a difference this philanthropy has made in the lives of our students! We also have been able to sustain the employment of not only teachers, but operations workers, custodians, bus drivers, and others who are the fabric of our community. We are living our mission.

Steadfast faculty

I do want to thank our faculty for their extraordinary work over the past year. Last spring, we had teachers doing their best to transform their teaching and sustain learning. Many worked with young children at home running in and out of Zoom. This year, teachers came back to the classroom. They showed great courage and resilience, and revealed their dedication to CA students. They had to adjust to tough conditions and faced a lot of anxiety. Even though the data does support that schools are among the safest places to be, it can be hard to overcome the emotional reactions to COVID-19. I know that coming back to in-person learning as infection rates were rising felt counterintuitive, but the data was right. I am so grateful to our teachers for being flexible and putting our students first. And, I hope they all have the best vacations of their lives this summer!

Looking ahead

I don’t want to celebrate too much here, as there is a long way to go. I still teach in my mask, looking out at students who also are masked. This is a challenging way to teach and learn, but it’s what it will be for the foreseeable future. Every time we have to quarantine students, I feel the pain of those kids and their parents. I worry about the mental health implications of this pandemic. Moving forward after this traumatic period may take years, yet I have faith in the resilience of our students. And, although there is light at the end of the tunnel, there are many unknowns. But, as we did at this time last year, we are thinking and planning and doing all we can to provide a strong finish to the school year. And even though students and faculty will be off for the summer, I can promise you, the Administrative Team will be diving in to work, so that we can make 2021-22 the best year it can be. We have a lot to look forward to!