Planning for Fall 2020

Head of School Bryan Garman

Dear Friends,

Every school year is filled with unexpected lessons, but the sad strangeness that has unfolded since we closed campus in March has radically transformed our society and the process of education. The public health crisis has disrupted our lives and uncertainty remains perhaps the only certainty we have. After attending the energetic and supportive end-of-year Parents Association meeting last Monday and reading a faculty email about transformative student work, however, I continue to be optimistic about the coming year. In the face of immense challenge, this community has not wavered in its support for our students and one another. Together we have demonstrated remarkable resilience that has positioned us to strengthen our values and to reimagine what Sidwell Friends can accomplish.

We long for stability and deliverance, but Sheryl Fullerton, a cancer survivor who is no stranger to hard times, reframes the possibilities of this liminal moment without trivializing its tumult. Fullerton claims liminality “as a place and state of creativity, of construction and deconstruction, choice and transformation.” Crises, she has learned, compel us “to draw on resources and possibilities we may not have tapped before ... We can enter into the liminal paradox: A disturbing time and space that not only breaks us down, but also offers us the choice to live in it with fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness.”

Quakerism similarly offers a paradoxical framework that equips us with the capacity to explore relevant tensions between the individual and community, the ideal and the practical, the traditional and emergent. Our values ground us in the past without limiting the future, inspiring us to discern the most promising rather than the most popular path forward for our community. How can we listen to what this crisis is telling us and leverage its lessons to live meaningfully in each moment?

As we continue to address the challenge of COVID-19, the School has three priorities: protect the health and well-being of our community; meet the financial needs of our families; and retain our highly qualified faculty and staff, who are essential to providing the singular education our students receive at Sidwell Friends School.

Working collaboratively with the Board, the School will use these priorities to guide our planning for the 2020/21 academic year, the results of which will be announced in late July. Now that the DC government has recommended that schools should not fully open until a vaccine is developed, we expect to continue with an improved DLP or to begin a phased reopening in accordance with standards developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health authorities.

The School’s desire to expand financial aid underscores its commitment to maintaining accessibility, caring for our community, and assuring that we can assemble the most talented student body possible. To date, we have extended aid by more than $200,000, a strategy that has allowed over 20 students to remain enrolled in the School. We will continue to work directly with families who are experiencing high levels of financial stress, and discreetly offer support regarding technology, food security, books, and other school supplies. If your child’s enrollment at the School is imperiled by financial hardship, please contact Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Frankie Brown as soon as possible. If you are able and interested in supporting financial aid through the Annual Fund, please contact Mary Carrasco, Assistant Head of School for Advancement. Look for information about the upcoming 48 Hours for Scholars (May 27-28), which we hope will supplement the fundraising lost by the cancellation of A Night for Scholars, a longstanding tradition that supports need-based aid.

As we plan for the fall, the health and welfare of our students, faculty, and staff remains our top priority. Sidwell Friends was the first school in the DMV to announce that it would shift to distance learning out of concern for the safety of our community. We will continue to lead in this regard, embracing measures to protect our community and cooperating fully with public health practices designed to contain the virus. As we consider the eventuality of a phased reopening and the unplanned expenses that comes with it, we will consult with local authorities and follow advice from the CDC, the World Health Organization, and the panel of highly qualified public health experts who have advised us throughout this process. Jasmin Whitfield, Director of Health Services, is leading the planning on health-related matters, and is working with her team to design a program to monitor the health of our community and minimize the spread of infection. The team is taking courses on contact tracing at Johns Hopkins University, preparing safety protocols to monitor student and adult health (e.g., temperature taking), and equipping spaces for individuals who may need to be isolated. Health Services will also track and report cases of COVID-19 that may affect our community. Isolation and quarantine practices introduced at the beginning of the crisis will be re-implemented.

Reopening presents complex logistical challenges, which we are approaching through several avenues. This New York Times article offers insight into the highly complex nature of the discussions taking place at educational institutions, and this video from Wellington College in China illustrates an unprecedented level of discipline that they are requiring to manage a safe return. In the early stages of reopening, Sidwell Friends students will be required to wear face masks, and the School will order and require the use of PPE for faculty and staff. Social distancing would need to be practiced throughout the day, and handwashing and/or sanitizing requirements would be built into the schedule. Some activities known to spread disease carrying droplets—singing, playing wind instruments, live dramatic performances, athletic competitions—need to be eliminated in the early stages. Representatives of our two athletic conferences met last week and will likely announce plans regarding the fall season in late June. Our facilities staff has arranged for rigorous and regular cleaning protocols, will establish safe circulation patterns throughout buildings and across campuses, and, with the assistance of Campus Security, will carefully manage arrival and departure times, which would need to be staggered to enable social distancing. Unfortunately, in accordance with emerging best practices, parents and visitors will not be permitted to visit campus in the early stages of reopening. We will continue to offer parent programming online and will do our best to move quickly toward a return to normal in this area.

We are closely monitoring practices adopted by schools in Europe, Asia, and Israel, considering recommendations being made by public school districts, and reviewing practices at colleges and universities. If you have access to such plans and are permitted to share them with us, please do. Jasmin, along with senior leadership, are evaluating programs and protocols on a daily basis. In the meantime, our counselors continue to focus on how we can maintain the emotional health of our community. If your child has been experiencing emotional difficulties during the stay-at-home orders, please let us know. Re-entry will generate anxiety and require adjustment, and some students and adults will need extra support. Please do not suffer in silence. We need to support the mental and physical well-being of our community, and must count on open and honest communication to do so. The School will remain flexible and will continue to work collaboratively to accommodate students, faculty, and staff with underlying conditions who may need to learn and work remotely.

Retaining a high-quality faculty and staff is crucial to maintaining our community and advancing our mission. The Board of Trustees has taken bold steps to protect our employees and ensure the quality of the student experience. To hedge against possible enrollment drop, depressed fundraising, lost auxiliary income, requests for increased financial aid, and costs associated with reopening, the School will take budgetary steps including suspending seven non-teaching positions, temporarily freezing non-endowed professional development funds, and conducting a line item review with each budget manager. In addition to these precautionary measures, the Board is seeking to refinance the School’s debt. Further measures will be considered if necessary.

In the meantime, the School is focused on planning how to deliver our program in 2020/21. We will, of course, need to accept uncertainty and maintain flexibility. Circumstances may require us to move from one mode of delivery to another, so we must all be prepared to be nimble. With so many factors to consider, it is neither possible nor responsible to deliver a detailed plan at this point. We will require more time to iron out the myriad facets of the campus reopening plan, but I wanted to provide some insight into our thinking and process to date. So I ask for your patience until late July. In the meantime, we are scheduling meetings with parents in Lower and Middle Schools in early June to respond to questions. I am also joining Upper School parent grade level meetings scheduled for this Tuesday and Thursday morning.

At this point, we are exploring two options for the term that will begin September 8. 

  1. Continuation of the DLP. Our faculty shifted to this mode with determination, courage, and grace, ensuring that our students continued to have a meaningful learning experience for the final two months of the year. Thanks to their experience, as well as feedback collected from parents and students, we have learned a great deal about how to improve this experience and are already refining it. Under the leadership of the principals and Min Kim, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs, faculty task forces from each division are redesigning schedules that will expand synchronous learning, reimagining teaching assignments and course structures, and considering the adoption of new platforms to enhance learning. Each committee is responding to the particular needs of the students they serve. Moreover, individual teachers are receiving training on digital course design and delivery in an online context, seeking to hone their skills for the new environment. We are working with faculty to assess additional technology needs to support them.

    2.  A staged reopening with a hybrid model. Contingent upon criteria established by local authorities, the hybrid model must be responsive to current infection rates and the number of students and adults permitted to be on campus at any given time. These possibilities are still being developed, but we are exploring models where students would be divided into groups, with each group on campus on alternating days. We are looking at the possibility of building in a midweek day where students would be engaged in remote learning, enrichment activities, and faculty office hours for student-teacher meetings. The midweek break could also decrease the build-up of viral load and afford the opportunity to clean the campus thoroughly.

Online instruction would augment in-person class meetings, where class rosters would be reduced to enable social distancing; the District recommends that no more than 10 individuals, including the teacher, inhabit the classroom. Other major considerations for the hybrid model include possible outdoor classrooms, where the virus is less likely to concentrate, and adjusted time management to accommodate new health protocols.

Whether classrooms are located indoors or out, teachers and students with underlying conditions may need to telecommute. If the teacher is unable to be present in the classroom, another adult will be present while the lesson is delivered remotely. Again, we are reviewing technologies that might assist teachers and students. We should also note that public health officials are predicting that the virus will surge during flu season, so we need to plan for possible adjustments.

We all want to get back to normal, but we remain in that liminal space of learning, waiting for more information and weighing possibilities and tradeoffs. There is also excitement of being at a historic crossroads, of rethinking together what Sidwell Friends can be. Our ability to do so is rooted in the work of our founder, a visionary educator who encouraged faculty to “discard methods and customs good enough in their day but not adapted to present needs.”  

From the bottom of my heart, I thank faculty and staff for remaining true to this cause, students for rising to the occasion, parents for their support and sacrifice, and alumni for caring so deeply about the School’s mission. As always, I have found myself moved by this community and know that together we will adapt with imagination and compassion. This crisis will make us stronger. So once again, I invoke our motto with confidence, knowing that so long as we draw upon the power of conscience and community, the light will shine from and on all.

In friendship and with gratitude,