We are ALL in this Together

August 31, 2020

Message from the headmaster



As I have now told families, faculty, staff, and just about everyone I have spoken to, I and my family are very, very happy to be here, and I am grateful for the privilege of serving as the Headmaster of St. Johnsbury Academy. I am eager to introduce myself to the wider St. Johnsbury community, and also to celebrate the first day of our first school year together with all of you. Members of the class of 2024 (!) arrived this morning for orientation, and although this is a year like no other, their excitement is already lighting up the campus.


Unsurprisingly, the shape of this unusual year is the biggest thing on my mind right now. You should know that I take very seriously our responsibility to serve our many communities and to understand the best ways to do that while meeting our mission as an institution. The safety and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff is the foundation on which our endeavor rests — it needs to be the basis of our work. So I’d like to share some thoughts with you about how we can succeed in opening the Academy during a global pandemic.


It’s easy to explain why we should bring students back to campus: young people benefit hugely from learning together in person. Although online learning can be excellent, and it will be an important part of our strategy this fall, learning remotely can also be a pale substitute for the rich connection and transformation that can happen here on campus at this important time in students’ lives. From the start, we’ve known that getting kids here is a priority. But how do we do this in a way that protects everyone? This would have been a daunting question even without a change in leadership, and I am impressed by the resilience and patience of the Academy’s faculty and staff, who have risen to the challenge of preparing us to operate even in a time of transition.


You know by now that this fall semester will look different from any the Academy has ever seen.  We are taking strong safety measures at school: wearing masks, physically distancing, and doing lots of hand washing and sanitizing. Students will have a health check every morning as they arrive. Their classes will be smaller, their desks set six feet or so apart, and only about half of them will be here on campus at a time with the other half joining on Zoom. We’re limiting off-campus trips, visitors, and gatherings. All our boarders have gone through strict quarantine protocols and testing before moving into the dorms. We will try to create versions of “Chapel” so that we can continue to have common experiences as a school throughout the week. And on and on.


So we’re coming together even though the pandemic is still happening, and many others in the area are doing the same — I want to thank St. Johnsbury Superintendent Dr. Brian Ricca and Lyndon Institute Head of School Twyla Perry for speaking with me about their plans this summer. The State of Vermont has done a good job containing the spread of the virus so far, and that’s one reason why we feel confident that we can start our year with kids on campus.


I believe we can do this, and today I want to reiterate this message: it is going to take a serious commitment from us all to make school work this year. The health and safety of the Academy is going to depend to a large extent on the health and safety of the communities our students belong to outside of school. So I am asking for everyone’s help. If we can commit to doing what we believe will keep the community as safe as possible — based on good science and data about COVID-19 — then we will be able to keep school open this year. Our teachers are brave and hardworking, and they have decided that it is worth it to embrace the “new normal” — despite some being at higher risk than others of illness from COVID-19 — to be with their students doing what they do best. They are excited and eager and working incredibly hard to be ready to be the best teachers possible in this unfamiliar territory.


This past week I told students in a letter that I’m very proud to be their Headmaster, and that while I may look a little different from Mr. Lovett, he and I agree on many important things. Most importantly, we — and all at the Academy — are irrepressibly optimistic about our students, and we believe in them and their potential. We want to keep doing the life-changing work of helping them to achieve that potential while also becoming good people, curious learners, and engaged community members. That’s St. Johnsbury Academy’s mission — and though things may look different this year, that mission remains strong and true.


Dr. Sharon L. Howell



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