Headmaster's Study

An Update on Remote-Plus Reopening

Dear St. Albans Family:

I am writing to follow up on the Friday letter from the three Cathedral School Heads. Given how interconnected our Close community is and the many ways in which Covid-19 has required us to work together to support students, families, faculty, and staff across all of our institutions, we felt a joint communication was important to express the unity of purpose and sense of shared responsibility we feel for the collective Cathedral Close community at this challenging time.

I write today, however, to speak more personally to the St. Albans family about the special responsibilities I have to all of you.

I first want to acknowledge the profound sense of sadness and disappointment I know so many of you felt upon receiving Friday’s letter. While I believe the decision to take a more incremental approach to the reopening of school in September is the correct one, for reasons I will explain more below, this does not diminish the sense of loss and frustration we all feel in the face of Covid-19 and the many ways it continues to disrupt our lives. Being with our graduating seniors last week for their postponed Commencement celebrations was a reminder of how incredibly special this school community is, how truly amazing our boys are, and how much our lives are enriched when we are surrounded by the sustaining rituals and traditions of our school. We have all yearned for a sense of restoration and renormalization for many months now. That we began the summer with an abiding sense of hopefulness about where we would be by September has made it all the more difficult to watch in dismay as public health conditions deteriorated over the past three weeks, as institutions—from governing authorities to universities to public schools to professional sports leagues—have struggled to respond to the unpredictable shifts in the public health landscape and the way Covid-19 continues to confound our understanding.

As I noted in my July 17 letter, we have tried throughout our planning to keep two priorities at the center of our deliberations: the deep desire to get our boys back to campus as soon as safely possible and our obligation to safeguard the health and well-being of our students, families, faculty, and staff. In pursuit of a reopening plan that honors these fundamental priorities, we have committed to making decisions in an evidence-based way, grounded in the best public health guidance and our evolving understanding of the virus. Regrettably since July 17, many of the key public health metrics have moved in more concerning directions, with a resulting erosion of public confidence in the ability of institutions to reopen safely. In response, almost every public school district and university in the DMV region has announced it will begin the school year remotely (in many cases reversing prior decisions announced earlier this summer to bring students physically back to campus). D.C. remains in Phase 2 of reopening, despite hopes that the District would be in Phase 3 by late summer. The Mayor of D.C. has instituted a mandatory quarantine on anyone from Washington who visits one of 27 states. At a time when we hoped scientists and policymakers would be coalescing around a unified understanding of the virus and its risks, new health studies often point in conflicting directions, contributing to widespread confusion, heightened anxiety, and further polarization of opinion. Perhaps no recent episode is more emblematic of the current landscape in which schools must make reopening decisions than the situation in Montgomery County, where the county’s Chief Health Officer, in the space of a week, ordered all county private schools to begin the year online, only to reverse that decision two days later when the Governor issued a contrary directive, followed by a confusing re-issuance of the ban on private school opening and then a second revocation.

In the final analysis, no individual data point or development was dispositive. But in assessing the many complexities and uncertainties that surfaced since July 17, we ultimately concluded, with the input of our doctors on our Health and Wellness Task Force, that the most prudent course was to take a somewhat more incremental approach to the school reopening process.

Practical considerations also informed our decision. Many of our teachers have children who attend local public schools and are now, in the face of public school announcements to go fully remote, dealing with complex child care challenges that will take time to address. As health trendlines have moved in a more concerning direction in recent weeks, we also need time to work thoughtfully with faculty and staff who fall into CDC higher risk categories for severe illness and will need to teach from home. The prospect of beginning the school year in “hybrid” mode with a reduced faculty presence on campus would have compromised our ability to deliver the hybrid model at a level of quality and consistency that serves the best interests of students. As communicated in our July 17 letter, the school has made a significant investment in classroom video-conferencing technology to allow at-home students and teachers to share a live synchronous class experience with in-class students. But it will require additional training and staffing to fully take advantage of the technology. Those efforts are ongoing so that, when we transition to the hybrid model, we are providing a level of excellence and seamlessness in hybrid academic instruction that our students and families deserve.

Covid-19 has proven to be a formidable and elusive adversary. And it is appropriate that we show a degree of humility commensurate with the complexity of the virus. But humility need not consign us to fatalism. I continue to feel a sense of hopefulness and possibility because I believe so deeply in the resilience and creative capacities of our community. And I know that we will provide our boys with a meaningful, robust experience for the 2020-21 school year, one that includes a variety of in-person, on-campus experiences, in increasing levels, we hope, as the fall progresses. The experience of states in the Northeast provides grounds for cautious optimism. New York City, the epicenter of the virus in the spring, now has a test positivity rate of less than 1%. While no single data point will be determinative as St. Albans continues to refine its reopening strategy, the experience of New York City, which will be reopening its schools this fall, demonstrates that it is indeed possible to return students to in-person learning in the context of substantial and sustained improvements in public health metrics and the resulting public confidence such improvements engender.

In the coming days, we will be writing again to share more detail about the specific in-person experiences and opportunities that will be available to students in our “Remote Plus” reopening construct for the early fall. This will begin with an announcement going out shortly about opportunities for boys in the Upper School to come to campus in August for in-person, socially distanced conditioning sessions organized by our Athletic Department (which we plan to continue into September in the form of after-school workout opportunities). We are also planning for a mix of in-person and virtual orientation programming for the first week of school and, in subsequent weeks, opportunities for boys to gather on campus in small groups for co-curricular programs such as advisory and chapel. While we will work to support all of our students in these ways, we will be paying special attention to boys at crucial “transition” points in their education — C Formers, Form I, Form III, and Form VI — to ensure they have a successful start to the school year. And we will continually reassess public health conditions in the hope of gradually restoring more of the in-person St. Albans experience as soon as it is safe to do so.

I appreciate the opportunity to share these thoughts with all of you and thank you for the extraordinary patience, flexibility, and forbearance you have shown at such an enormously challenging time. I want you to know that I remain committed to our mission, our program, and our boys, even as we are forced to contend with the continuing challenges placed in our path by Covid-19. My sincere gratitude for all the ways you have continued to keep faith with the school and for all of your support. We will continue to work together to take circumstances not of our own making and to make of them the very best experience we can for the wonderful boys we are so privileged to teach at St. Albans.

Jason Robinson
Located in Washington D.C.,  St. Albans School is a private, all boys day and boarding school. For more than a century, St. Albans has offered a distinctive educational experience for young men in grades 4 through 12. While our students reach exceptional academic goals and exhibit first-rate athletic and artistic achievements, as an Episcopal school we place equal emphasis upon moral and spiritual education.