Director Vince Durnan closes out the year with a message of gratitude to the many who made the year possible.
With plenty of thanks to dole out, the day arrives. Walking into the building this morning, noticing the wrap-up tasks being done in combination with a smattering of planning for next fall, it’s hard not to reflect on distance traveled. The endemic uncertainty of last May yielded, day by hard won day, to a pattern of being here in
school together safely and productively and appreciatively. Permit me a litany to recognize the combination of community elements that made it possible, then a quick word about our working assumptions for August:

Let’s start, in no particular order, with families at home. There’s no denying that last summer put a big a strain on our typical consensus-based mindset, with the divisiveness of the basic in-person vs. remote question. I felt that tension pretty directly while trying to pull us toward a middle way. In the end, we did something that now seems pretty typical of us — opening with a distance learning model typical of large urban settings nationally, then returning incrementally to the fully in-person model that tuition charging institutions embraced from the start, especially in the COVID-19-dismissive Southeast. And it asked a lot of USN families to walk that uncommon walk with us, and that made USN possible, like it always has.

Then think of our faculty and staff. Without them, the children of those good families mentioned above would have no program to experience. Early on, the information and speculation and consternation about what was right to ask of teachers rattled the whole country, with so many different answers in so many different settings. And still, in they came. We embraced every promising mitigation strategy to look out for the health of the
adults who’d be here every day, and those measures asked for Herculean efforts on their part. Maybe nothing proved harder than the externally innocuous but practically exhausting assumption that we’d just stream each class to those students who remained in remote mode while being simultaneously and genuinely present to a room full of students in real time. That high wire act will not stand the test of time, but those remarkable educators found a way to muscle through the necessity we faced.

And think for a minute about the administrative team, the office dwellers who spent less time in those chambers this year than ever. They redesigned, and re-redesigned, our cherished routines month by month, often on short notice, based on what we learned and on emerging public health guidance. They invented outdoor lunch, and contact tracing, and cohort groupings, and QR code check-ins, and de-densified pickup protocols, among bunches of moves that tracked to evolving best practice.

Then keep a good thought for our Board, an example of staying focused on governance and not getting sucked into dictating management calls, even as I’m sure their phones were ringing with appeals from constituents on edge. I can tell you that not every Board in town passed that test. And I’m personally grateful. They decided, and correctly I would insist, not to grab the Paycheck Protection Program forgivable federal loan money, because we were not in the dire financial straits that the program was meant to address. And they further decided, for the good of the community, to provide special compensation December 31 to recognize those who work here and to provide a credit to all tuition payers in February. Wondering how many other Boards did those three things.

Decisions of that magnitude teach important lessons, setting examples for the children in our midst. Ultimately, what made this year possible is the inspiration to be found in the young people who bring life to our historic campus every day. Remember when we worried if they’d wear masks? Never an issue. Or whether they would adjust to plexiglass on desks, or any number of other curve balls? Some were never quarantined, others faced that challenge repeatedly, and they just kept going. I choose to think that they will have built a lifelong capacity, a kind of antibody, to strengthen their capacity to do hard stuff after powering through this year. Special, special gratitude goes to our seniors, the remarkable Class of 2021, whose diplomas await a well-earned ceremony on Sunday under the big tent out back. In many ways, no graduating class has impressed me more.

The essential element in setting our course and seeing it through, and I know I’ve mentioned them before but it could never be enough, was our hugely in-demand but always available Medical Advisory Group and the tireless Health Team here at school. Their partnership and unceasing commitment to serving the breadth of our community should be a model for any school anywhere. And last Friday we decided to put our weekly meetings on pause. Hoping they know what invaluable teachers they’ve been; I learned so much—and I needed to.

Since you’ve made it this far, it seems only fair to speculate a little about fall and reopening. We’ll start down that path with our summer programs, adjusting outdoor mask requirements and mitigation protocols carefully and intentionally, consistent with what we think will be Centers for Disease Control updates arriving soon. We’ll be counting and considering vaccination numbers as a vehicle for creating a type of local immunity at USN, even if our state remains resistant to the broad-based push that would make such a difference. We’ll be working scenarios for food service, for transportation, and for the general classroom experience, against what appears will be the backdrop of diminishing community infection numbers. And we’ll send what I assume will be monthly updates to confirm plans as our confidence grows.

And in the meantime, get busy recharging your batteries and feel entirely encouraged to get a little distance from the intensity of what we’ve done together to reach this point. You’ve tolerated my endless Zoom sessions (remember Tuesday mornings?) and innumerable end of week messages (shamelessly pleading for you to make careful choices), and you have well and truly earned a break.

Signing off for a while, noticing I just hit 1000 words … again,
Vince Durnan
    • Director Vince Durnan offers Lucas Tyson '21 a celebratory fist bump at the Senior River Campus Drive Thru on Monday, May 24.

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