Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Alfredo Roman Jordan

The 2020-21 school year was a year of uncertainty, and through that uncertainty we tend to forget about the hard work some people put in to make sure that we were able to receive a great education.

All of us who were in person last year remember the empty hallways during the two weeks of hybrid learning. We all remember the half-full classes, and of course, we all remember the technical difficulties teachers experienced. During those periods of uncertainty last year, I noticed a lot of discontent among the student body, especially toward the Upper School Administration. But I feel like we tend to forget how much work they put in to reopen the school, and how much work they put in to make sure we receive one of the top educations in the state. That’s why I wanted to write an article that described their point of view, and told the often ignored story of their work during the months of quarantine. 

I decided to interview Elizabeth Weiler (Assistant Head of Upper School for Academics), who last year managed a lot of the COVID-19 restrictions and worked countless hours to get us back on campus. My first question for her was about how her expectations about reopening varied from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year. “Safety was our number one priority,” Liz said. “At the beginning it felt like we didn’t know how it [COVID-19] was spread, how contagious it was, how serious it was.” It is important to remember that last year, information about the behavior of COVID-19 as a virus was scarce, and the epidemic was still new. That is why a lot of rules have varied, not only in school but in other places as well. We have been able to strengthen our understanding of the coronavirus and stop it in more direct ways.

Liz also commented that while “it initially did not look that serious for kids, before the Delta variant, we did see serious side effects in adults aged 40-50, which the majority of OES teachers are”. Safety was a key priority not only for the school, but also for the state. “We were remote, that was the guidance given by the state, and we were reliant on the guidance given by the state, especially ODE (Oregon Department of Education). Even at the higher level, Peter Kraft (Associate Head of Upper School) was working with Catlin Gabel and other independent boarding schools to try to find ways to engage students in online learning.”

I asked Liz how they were able to balance student reopening expectations with reality. She told me about how, “thanks to the large teacher unions, teachers were able to be vaccinated, and by the time students got back, a majority of the teachers were already vaccinated”. This refers to her previous point about needing to keep vulnerable teachers safe from the coronavirus. She also explained the importance that our actions as students had on the community: “Cleaning and limiting interactions was vital for opening back up. Listening to the science we had available back then was the only way we could come back to school as securely as we did”.

I also decided to talk to Sarah Grenert-Funk (Interim Head of Upper School), who last year played an important role in the reopening of the Upper School and the dorms. When I asked Sarah about the main complications she faced last year with the reopening of the school she explained to me that “this was a very new situation, we had to set new rules, set our new boundaries, and think about many things like how to deal with student wellness when they aren’t on campus, and are sometimes thousands of miles away”. She also told me about how hard it was to think about every aspect of a student when setting new policies in place: “some restrictions might help a students physical health, but those same restrictions might affect their mental health, and balancing that was a lot of work”. She spent many hours last year reading and “taking cues from students and partnering with other schools, and learning from our peer schools”. I was one of the only boarding students who decided to come back in January of last year, and I remember that Sarah would spend her whole day working and trying to find solutions to many different issues that arose from coming back to school in hybrid learning.

After my interviews I reflected and understood that last year the Administration had to balance two important aspects when looking at reopening: student health and wellness. I also learned about how hard it was for them to devise new policies to keep us safe. When we look at the 2020-2021 school year in hindsight, we often lose the context that online learning and reopening was completely new. Reopening a school during a pandemic had really never happened before in history. The OES Administration had to work hard on writing the “playbook” on how to reopen campus while meeting student expectations.