A Year In

As we approach the one year mark of living and learning in the midst of a global pandemic, Director Vince Durnan looks at what's next for USN through the lens of the past.
There on the Edgehill Avenue sidewalk, waiting for the morning shuttles to arrive, Alex Jahangir, ace USN dad and not yet USN Board member, walked up with something to say. At that point I barely knew he served as Chair of the Metro Board of Health — we were then about 500 conversations ago. But his suggestion that we might want to head into Spring Break early, in light of the imminent state of emergency, changed our trajectory. And yes, the following day happened to be Friday the 13th. 

Our attention at USN prior to that interaction rightly focused on the families — faculty, student, and alumni — carrying the weight of the prior week’s tornado. Then the pandemic took root, as our understanding of its implications deepened, tensions multiplied, and the uncertainty of what would happen next created what we defaulted into calling a new normal. Remember those days? Does it feel like a year ago? 10 years ago? Now it’s time to traverse the coming pre-break days with the full benefit of hindsight.

That time shattered our capacity to gather as a school community. We figured out how to do online/remote/distance school — we didn’t even know what to call it then. In response to that isolation, one thing that seemed obvious was to offer a chance to see one another, at least on Zoom, at least every week. Thus began an unbroken sequence of Tuesday morning coffees that I assumed would last for a matter of weeks. It ended up running through the entire summer, well past Labor Day, until we could all return in person to classes at 2000 Edgehill. What seemed to me a boutique software product when our Malone School Online Network steering committee adopted Zoom a few years ago became a verb and my connection to the outside world, in some cases 6 to 8 hours a day.

I promised to keep those sessions going until we came back together for school, and the sequel to that pledge was a commitment to send a letter home with each week’s newsletter until … until faculty and staff could be vaccinated. Admittedly, an arbitrary cutoff, but we all need to denote time somehow, and there’s no milestone I’ve anticipated more intently. So at long last, we’ve arrived — a year from that first seismic shock, two seasons from those Tuesday coffees, and 10 days from those first vaccinations at HCA. And the question could well be asked, now what?

Hooked on tapping out these columns, I’ll try to cut back, in celebration of distance traveled, aiming back toward the once-a-month pattern that our wise Communication Director Juanita Traughber prescribed when she arrived. But in many, many other ways, I know not to let up. With Nashville’s virus numbers continuing to decline, albeit more slowly of late, the clear and present temptation is to spike the public health football, the way we did in July, and in October — and we all know what followed.

In fairness, this time might be different, especially with so many risk-embracers having already tested positive, with spring arriving, and with broad vaccine availability as we head toward phase 1c. But with local measures relaxing, Texas dropping the mask mandate (and more) that our state never managed to implement or see as necessary, and revealed reluctance of Tennesseans in particular (40%+?) to even seek a vaccination, I’d say we are not out of the woods. That’s before even speculating about variants.

Where does that leave USN? We’ll be busy doing our part on our little educational island, here in the neighborhood educational archipelago, to hasten a version of herd immunity. Imagine a scenario with USN parents, grandparents, teachers, staff, and older students all vaccinated, and you can start seeing a path back to some kind of normal around here. Masks, as we keep reading, are probably here for a while, and my guess is that our deeply-valued Medical Advisory Board will keep meeting and reviewing every health-related step we take.

We can be in school together this spring, we can play at the River Campus, we can begin welcoming new families to USN, we can imagine graduation outdoors in some meaningful ceremonial way, and we can appreciate all of that as never before because we remember what we missed. My plea is that we walk this next segment of the journey with the care that hard-won experience has taught us.

Mark this time in your family with the significance it deserves. We have been through the mill. We’ve been asked to tote quite a load — and in such uneven ways from household to household — but for all of us this is no ordinary time. Our interdependence remains front and center.

Take care of yourselves and those around you, keep the communication open if you’re not sure about how best to manage any plans for a getaway, enjoy the hiatus now just a week ahead, and remember how much it means to be back together.

Permitting myself a big exhalation,
Vince Durnan
Director
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