August 20, 2020
I am grateful to this community for the warm welcome I have received as I have begun my new role as Head of School. While it is certainly a complex time to step into a new headship, I continue to be inspired by the shared vision and purpose of this amazing place.
Since my last letter (July 17, 2020), my month has been filled with whirlwind preparations for the start of the 2020-21 school year, including one-on-one meetings with our faculty-staff, conversations with our parents, work with our Board of Trustees, and consultations with independent school colleagues in the Washington metropolitan area and around the country. I am pleased to report that the Lab School is ready for our first day of school on September 1, and we are looking forward to this unprecedented school year.
If you were able to attend our Parent Town Halls last week (Elementary/Intermediate and Junior High/High School), you know that we have spent a great deal of time planning for the complexities this school year will bring. (If you did not have the opportunity to attend, I encourage you to view the town hall recording as it contains much more detailed information than I am able to convey in this written communication).
The plans we have developed for 2020-21 allow us to shift – as seamlessly as possible – between on-campus and virtual teaching and learning. When we open the 2020-21 school year on September 1st, Lab School will be doing the work of educating, nurturing, and supporting our students, and this work will continue through the last day of this academic year in June. What remains unknowable in our current context is the extent to which we will be able to do that work in-person or off-campus, virtually.
September 1 – Opening of the 2020-21 School Year
As I shared on July 17, we will begin our school year virtually on September 1st. In these weeks leading up to our opening day, I have asked our teachers and division heads to give their utmost care and attention to a robust and positive start in the virtual modality. In our first two weeks of classes, we will focus on building strong connections so that each student feels known, seen, and valued. We will prioritize building the routines and skills that allow each student to engage fully in the classroom environment.
As we begin our school year with virtual teaching and learning, we will also be working toward – as the public health landscape allows – opportunities for in-person connections with students. By the end of September, we hope to enhance and supplement the virtual classroom experience with occasional and optional small group in-person activities. These activities could include outdoor science and arts, advisory meetings, lunches, and many other possibilities. We will build upon small successes to include engaging in-person activities, such as field trips or other outings. Adding the “plus” component of “Virtual Plus” will be ongoing work and will, of course, be dependent upon public health guidance and careful attention to our Risk Mitigation Plan. In addition, our planning for “Virtual Plus” activities will be grounded in our commitment to inclusivity so that all students have the opportunity to participate.
First Quarter, 2020-21
While we had initially hoped to implement our hybrid on-campus modality for teaching and learning for all divisions by October 1st, recent events have made that possibility increasingly less likely.
Since my July 17 communication, we have been closely monitoring the public health landscape across the region. As you know, on July 31 Mayor Bowser announced that the DC public school system would operate remotely through at least November 6. Many other public school systems have made similar announcements.
As an independent school, we have the ability to make decisions in the best interest of our school community; however, like all schools, we are limited by the current health and safety landscape. With this in mind, parents should plan for the likelihood that we will remain in virtual teaching and learning through the end of our first quarter on October 30.
In this complex climate, I believe school leaders should avoid the temptation of making “grand pronouncements” about this school year. We need to remain nimble and flexible, and able to adapt to the quickly evolving landscape. However, I also know that our community needs to be able to plan ahead, and therefore I am sharing the most likely scenario given current information. Should we determine that an earlier return to our hybrid on-campus modality is possible, we will communicate that with ample notice. Any change in this direction will take place with a phased approach, and with the opportunity for students to continue virtually if desired. Likewise, if we determine that an extension of virtual teaching and learning is warranted, we will communicate that in a timely manner as well.
How Does the School Decide?
Many of you have, understandably, asked for a better explanation of the metrics we are using to make a decision about returning to campus for teaching and learning. We are monitoring a number of different metrics – positivity rates, number of cases per 100,000 residents, and community spread ratios – as indicators of when we might be able to safely return to campus. As you likely know, Lab brings students and staff members from all over the region due to the specialized nature of our program. We must, therefore, understand and monitor these data for many different parts of our region. The complexity of this situation means that there is no one metric that we can use as the sole indicator of when we can safely return to campus. We continue to be in regular communication with other schools that have similar risk mitigation plans to ensure that we have considered all scenarios and that we can learn from the successes and challenges of other schools.
Your Child’s Day
Another question that is on the minds of many parents is: “What will my child’s day look like this fall?” You will soon receive specific information from your child’s division head, which will provide more details about the school day. While the answer to this question will be somewhat different for each division, the most important things for you to know are:
- The school schedule will stay, in large part, the same regardless of whether we are on or off campus.
- Students will be engaged in daily, real-time interactions with their teachers with time built in for extra help and breaks from the screen.
- Students will be in classes that are small in size, whether virtual or in-person – teachers will be able to work individually with students and support their needs.
- We will have systems in place to ensure that we can easily identify students who are struggling. Teachers and administrators will work with parents to put in place any necessary support for students.
We recognize that you may have other specific questions. We addressed many of those individual questions during the town halls. I have provided a transcript of the “chat” to our division heads so that they can address the most frequently asked questions in their upcoming divisional communications. However, as always, after you have read our communications, we invite you to reach out if you have a specific question that has not been addressed.
Supporting You and Your Child
One of the most important components of this year will be working together as a team to support our students. We recognize that part of our work is supporting you – our parents – as you support your children. (Preparing Your Student for Fall 2020 Health and Wellness Newsletter) With that in mind, we will provide ample opportunities to engage with our team of experts on topics of need and interest. We will ask for regular feedback so that we can make “real-time” adjustments in our practices and plans.
Initially, we hope you will mark your calendar for an evening Virtual Happy Hour for parents on September 3 at 7pm (invitation with Zoom link will be forthcoming). The purpose of this gathering is to get to know each other a bit more, and in addition to some opening remarks from me, we’ll provide divisional “breakout rooms” where parents can have the opportunity for more informal conversation. We’ll also have virtual divisional parent coffee hours the second week of school, and we’ll be sharing more information about those soon.
An Unprecedented Moment
I lived through Hurricane Katrina as both the mother of a seven-year-old and an independent school leader in New Orleans. My daughter, who at the time had been recently diagnosed with dyslexia, had four first days of second grade in three different cities. At my school, we created the school schedule four different times that year – shifting from 500 students on day 1, to 250 students on our first day back on campus, back to 400 students by year-end. At the time, I thought I had lived through the most tumultuous set of circumstances I would ever experience as a parent and an educator.
I was wrong.
We are currently grappling with a global pandemic that has infected more than 5.5 million people in the United States (22.2 million worldwide) and taken the lives of 174,000 of our fellow Americans. Sadly, this pandemic has also highlighted that which is all too clear – the enduring legacy of racial inequity in our country. We worry about the well-being of friends and family members from whom we are separated. We see the profound impact this pandemic has on our children, and worry about how they are processing the suffering that they see all around them. We want to help our children make sense of our world, and take a stand on injustice. Most of all, we want to keep our children safe, to steer them through the confusion, and to give them hope that we will find a way forward.
How, then, can we respond as a school community, and how can we help our children?
I believe that the most important thing we can do in a situation like this is to acknowledge the challenges, rather than minimize them. We can allow our children the space they need to express their sorrow, their fears, their uncertainties. (We can, and must, take care of ourselves – and find outlets for our own emotional needs – so that we can be there for our children). We can celebrate the strength that comes from belonging to a community like Lab. We can trust that we are all working together to support each child and each other. And we can recognize that we will emerge as more resilient, more capable, and more connected from going through this together.
This is our work ahead, and I am grateful to be doing it with you.