Balancing joy and caution to begin a new school year
“Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise.”
Starting school this week felt incomparably more joyful than a year ago when children and teachers were in Zoom classes and the campus felt like a ghost town. It has been absolutely wonderful having students, faculty, and staff back on campus. A parent described the mood at Monday’s “Meet the Teacher” as “exuberant” and said, “It felt like going home to see good friends that I hadn’t seen in far too long. It was joyful and fun.” The sounds of children playing, laughing, learning together, and walking from class to class has been music to the ears.
Now it feels right and good to return to teaching and learning. As many parents told me over the past couple of weeks, “our kids are ready to return to school, and even if they’re not, I’m ready for them to be back in school!” As several parents said on Monday, “it’s time.”
Nevertheless, and to be candid, I especially enjoyed the break this summer, after the past year and a half of lockdowns, and constant anxiety of wondering what else could happen. Just spending some time away from the school year routine offered time to reflect on this turbulent time, and plan thoughtfully for the coming year.
Over the course of the summer, I had the chance to talk with fellow educators across the country on the phone, in Zoom, or face to face. Again and again, people expressed the collective exhaustion of their communities and how they were so done with the 2020-2021 school year. The constant tacking between in-person and distance learning, combined with the daily announcements of a new exposure or positive case, made last year feel like one long game of “whack-a-mole.”
These conversations allowed me to look back on the past year and gain an even deeper appreciation for the Keystone community. As the historian Barbara Tuchman once said, “in the midst of events, there is no perspective.” During the worst pandemic in over one hundred years, our students performed beautifully and the Keystone faculty/staff went above and beyond to engage the children in their classes, whether it was in person or online. Keystone parents supported the Cobra community in countless ways, and the Board of Trustees provided guidance and wisdom. The more I reflected on the past year, the prouder I felt of our school.
Perhaps it was this combination of gratitude, fatigue, and looking both backwards and forwards that made this summer so special. As we planned for a new year, our facilities team relocated over twenty people to new classrooms and offices. We renovated buildings to create new classrooms so every teacher could have a “home” as opposed to last year when some members of our faculty changed classrooms for different subjects while the students stayed put. We built a new outdoor ceramics studio, and we’re working on a new K-12 library and a covered and resurfaced sports court on the main campus. All of this was in addition to the ongoing expected maintenance of a campus in a historic neighborhood.
So, starting school this year should be an unalloyed joy, right? If only. As we all know, it’s not worked out quite that way. The sight of children, faculty, and staff returning to school wearing masks has been frustrating and disheartening.
For a number of reasons, we’re starting our third school year of the pandemic revising COVID protocols, preparing for exposures and positive cases, watching the daily news for the latest advisories, and praying for those people in hospitals or sick at home. In a recent conversation, a university administrator described their students’ disappointment and grieving for how they thought college would begin this year. In multiple conversations, a theme arose that, “it wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
So, what do we do with this maelstrom of emotions? We acknowledge sadness as a legitimate feeling. We tell our children that this wasn’t what we envisioned, and it’s ok to be disappointed.
However, we can also point out how much better it is that we’re together on campus, how great it feels to see their friends in person, and like other things in life, this too shall pass.
We can remind them that with determination and resilience, we made it through last year, and we will do so this year. In our first all faculty/staff meeting last week, Head of Middle School Dr. Jennifer Wivagg sported a T-shirt with a slogan that could be our collective mantra. It said, “We can do hard things.” Indeed, to paraphrase President Kennedy’s speech on the race to the moon, we do these things because they are hard. As we begin the 2021-2022 school year, I look forward to our entire community continuing the difficult and excellent work that Keystone is known for doing. Together, we will make it through this.