Time to Recommit
Message from the headmaster
This fall we asked the St. Johnsbury Academy community to commit to taking a few basic measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Because we remain dedicated to our mission—to help each student become the best person, the best learner, and the best community member they can be—we want more than anything to have our students here on campus as much as possible to work with teachers, connect with each other, and be part of a strong community. We’ve known from the start that our success this school year would depend on our collective willingness to work together and be smart.
The pandemic has fundamentally intruded on our everyday life here at school from the beginning, as we talk through masks, stay apart, and sit in assigned seats. But in the last couple of weeks it has come even closer, and felt more intrusive—the virus has moved from an abstract menace to one that we can see and feel. Last week we found out about two positive cases in our school community. It turned out that neither of these cases involved campus transmission, and the fact that the Vermont Department of Health quickly confirmed that we were safe to hold classes on campus was a tribute to the work of all those who have developed and implemented our schedules, protocols, and campus precautions.
Even while there are still people everywhere who are not taking it seriously, last week the virus has seen the highest case counts in the United States since the beginning of the pandemic—up to 132,000 cases a day. Cases rose by one million in the last 10 days, and deaths and hospitalizations are following suit. A relatively small number of those million recent cases were identified in Vermont, while states such as Florida, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, and Colorado have seen thousands of cases a day. Vermont has had only 59 COVID fatalities since the start of the pandemic, and since July 28th only one, on November 7th. In Florida, there were 86 fatalities on November 7th alone; and overall that state has suffered over 17,200 fatalities.
So in Vermont, and certainly at St. Johnsbury Academy, we are being sober about the threat while still being reasonable about our actual risk.
Now that the threat of the virus feels more real to us all, it’s time to recommit to those simple measures to which we first committed, and to hope that the wider community will join us in that commitment. Our teachers, students, families, and staff have all been hearing with relentless frequency how important it is that we wear masks, stay distanced, stay home when sick, limit gatherings, avoid travel, and on and on.
The holidays are almost upon us, so the importance of avoiding travel and any gatherings outside small family groups is even more critical—and our ability to stay open and not have to move online depends on how true we can stay to these measures. We understand that this is just plain difficult, and it becomes more difficult the longer the pandemic lasts. We know most everyone is doing their level best—that no one is trying to hurt others or sabotage things—but that many are just exhausted. We understand too that we are all becoming restless not being able to gather with our peers, families, and friends.
But we need to keep doing the right things. In our original community commitment, we emphasized that how we model responsibility and integrity now will resonate into the future. Students learn from and follow examples they respect, so the more adults make the right behaviors part of our common daily business, and model healthy practices, the more we know students will do the same—and even take the lead in helping their peers.
We are convinced of how important it is for our teachers to keep doing their good work here on campus—helping students feel safety and care while they pursue knowledge, approach problems creatively, and understand their education as a rising path both to self-reliance and to equity of all kinds. Perhaps the deepest lessons of this moment lie in recognizing the power of our relationships, and the inescapable connectedness of our lives. We really miss each other. But if we can push ourselves to do what’s necessary to stay safe, we’ll have the best chance to keep teaching, learning, and connecting: all the things we know our students need most.
Dr. Sharon L. Howell