Director Vince Durnan considers the recipe for conducting school in a pandemic.
Time to begin thinking about breaking the established pattern for the year — the one where I keep exhorting everyone to keep grinding versus COVID-19 and not drift into thinking about reaching the checkered flag. We’re really and truly almost there, having earned the chance to reflect on the path we traveled together. Then we can peek into summer, even into autumn. My guess is that when our successors gather generations hence around campfires to tell stories of what we hope will be the rarity of what we’ve just experienced, these three themes will figure prominently:
We committed to a reasoned approach. Back when the good ship USN faced the choppy seas of an uncertain pandemic landscape last summer, a remarkable group of constituents offered their time and expertise. An ER doc, an infectious disease hotshot, a workplace safety physician, a cutting-edge epidemiologist, and, frequently, the city’s task force chair, alongside a stunningly qualified school Health Team, with its own nurses and docs on hand — this group joined our Division Heads, Athletic Director, and me for a weekly level set and tough call festival every single Friday afternoon. My other weekly calls with heads of school elsewhere nationally confirmed my sense that no one anywhere had better access to better counsel. Period.
This dedicated team made it possible for us to navigate what was in the main a consensus course, different from the realities confronting Metro Nashville Public Schools and often different from what the independent school world chose elsewhere, nationally and locally. We were thinking about the good of the entire community, at USN and beyond — in the face of persistent uncertainty and genuinely high stakes — crowdsourcing decisions was not fair or responsible to all concerned. I hope our students saw us gathering the best available information from the most reliable sources in order to look out for one another.
We could count on a shared sense of common purpose. Not that we didn’t hear from a range of detractors at times, including mitigation corner cutters and folks who conversely felt we were moving too rapidly back to anything like normal, but ultimately the center held. We quarantined whole grades and a whole division at one point, but most days, most of us were here from late-September forward. And from January’s bonfire of new cases in Music City, we’ve reached the point where the last embers now smolder. My strong sense is that we were more a part of the solution than we were part of the problem along the way. And we’ll stick with the measures that brought us here, notwithstanding the city about to open wide, through Commencement on May 30. We’ll let summer be the time when families acclimate to a more relaxed approach, each on our own time.
We summoned an approach that relied on substantial stamina. And by we, I mean faculty, students, and families. This stuff was hard. Remembering the health screening every day, checking in students with extra care daily, maintaining hallway and classroom protocols, eating outdoors for months straight, never veering from the mask mandate, living with miles of plexiglass dividers, playing instruments and staging plays in parking lots, partitioning the fields, and really the whole campus, for cohorted programming, running USNA and so much else via Zoom, and interviewing 600 applicants in the most inefficient but COVID-19-compliant personal way. We did all of that, over and over.
Point of personal confession — this is the first year for me to have spent every single day in the same routine on campus. Haven’t missed one. No travel, no conferences, no ancillary commitments, and happily no sick time or quarantine. Just there meeting the morning bus shuttles, waving at cars early in the 21st Avenue Garage, then meeting my HS advisees, then pitching in wherever it seemed helpful, without interruption. I’ve never experienced USN so persistently, week by hard-won week. And my appreciation for those who do that annually has never been greater.
So there you have it: reason, common purpose, and stamina. Add to that recipe plenty of gratitude for all the support (with some measure of appreciation for differences of opinion) and there’s our formula. Of course you’re wondering what that means for next year. My commitment is to continue counting on those three attributes as we plan this summer, against what we hope will be a steadily declining case count and a steadily increasing level of vaccination-supported defense against the virus.
I'll send one more message as classes conclude, with the most up to date information at that point. And an homage to our seniors.
Here’s to finishing strong,