Like most of us, Head of School Nancy Lang and Nurse Sarah Wilson first heard about the novel coronavirus via the news media in January.
Unlike most of us, they immediately projected what it could mean for The New School.
It was no coincidence, then, that after weeks of study and deliberation, they came to the same conclusion on the same day: We need to shut down the campus.
“I first heard of the virus in late January as Wuhan, China was making headlines and news of a possible epidemic quickly went ‘viral’,” Nurse Sarah said. “There was speculation and misinformation traveling so fast from multiple sources, so I relied on the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, the Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas Department of Education, along with my professional nursing organizations to keep myself informed and to keep others informed of the facts. I watched, listened, and read all I could find from these reputable sources.”
As the known cases increased throughout the weeks of February, Sarah realized the virus was certain to affect The New School; it was just a question of when. She knew the school community comprised many parents who travel outside the United States, possibly putting the school at greater risk than that of other school communities.
“Our school community was already avidly hand-washing and disinfecting because of flu season,” Sarah recalled. “I began monitoring students more cautiously and notified parents for even a low-grade fever.”
Meanwhile, in the last week of February, Nancy Lang traveled to Philadelphia for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference, where “the topic of school preparedness for COVID-19 is a priority,” she wrote in a Feb. 28 letter to families of The New School, faculty and staff.
As the days progressed, it became clear that the spreading virus was becoming a matter of immediate concern.
“The New School has a phenomenal Crisis Management team, led by Nancy,” Nurse Sarah said. “We began implementing plans and making new ones as information evolved.”
Finally, on March 12, it was clear to both Sarah and Nancy that the time for action was at hand.
“I recommended we close the school immediately,” Sarah said.
The Head of School was on the same page.
“By that afternoon [March 12], I was beginning to prepare to shut down the campus immediately, because there were cases being reported in Little Rock,” Nancy said.
She convened a board of trustees meeting that evening, and the decision was reached to close the campus to students that coming Monday. She quickly informed everyone via email.
The next day, however, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Arkansas was not yet closing its public schools.
“That was a rough day,” Nancy recalled with a little laugh. “But by Sunday, that changed, and he closed the schools.
“I’m pleased with the timing of our decision,” she said, “because it allowed for more preparation for our families and our teachers. At that point [when the public schools closed], we were better positioned because we had already told our students to take things home, and it allowed for a little more preparation for home-based teaching.
“Being three days ahead of the governor did cause some concerns for our families,” Nancy recalled. “Some parents might have thought it was a little bit of an overreaction, and it did put stress on families, especially early childhood families. But I got at least as many ‘Thank you, this was a good decision’ messages as I did ‘Why are you doing this?’ ones.”
On Monday morning, March 16, Nancy convened a meeting of all faculty and staff in the school Dining Hall. Her address to the anxious, curious crowd was a tour de force. She covered all the bases, hitting all the right notes. By the time she finished, there was an air in the room of calm and confidence.
The faculty spent the rest of the day preparing to teach Tuesday’s lessons remotely, and when Tuesday dawned, the school year resumed — strangely, perhaps, but surely. No one knew when the campus would reopen, but no one doubted that The New School would make the very best of a bad situation.
For a total of 8 weeks, nearly the entirety of the final semester of the school year, The New School campus remained closed. However, teachers, administration, students and parents ensured that learning continued.
“I knew coming into The New School that what this community needed was stability and a sense of calm, so that had been my approach all along,” Nancy said. When faced with the virus crisis, “I think I took a more direct role with the administration team than I typically had.
“I had been trying to empower them, because I believe in distributive leadership. But at the beginning of this [COVID response], I needed to be a little more directive. I said, ‘We're going to do this, this is what your job is, this is what I need you to do,’ and everyone responded extremely well."
With her past experience as a head of school, developing a response plan due to crisis was not new to Nancy.
“One thing that I have seen in crisis moments is that some things take care of themselves,” Nancy said, “You just have to keep watching for what those are. If you think you have to do everything, you're going to miss something.
“I have been mentored very well. I have watched really good leaders manage through crisis moments and just watching how they've done that with grace has inspired me.”
Despite the distance, the community remained strong. Resources such as Zoom and Google Hangouts provided a virtual platform for The New School community to remain connected for both learning and social connection.
“There are some advantages we have as an independent school,” Nancy said, “My understanding from families that have kids both in public school and The New School is that our students are much more engaged, it's very active and real. It's not just a checklist of work to do every day, there is teaching going on.”
In an email on May 1, Nancy wrote, “Teachers are working harder than ever to maintain their relational approach with students through parades, personal (distanced) visits, calls, emails, video chats and special events such as the modified middle school and pre-kindergarten plays and productions. When anyone asks why [our parents] choose The New School, the answers are all around us in this moment. Our children and families are engaged, learning, and cared for in true TNS fashion.”
Although the extent of the school’s campus closure is unknown, The New School’s commitment to the learning of its students and engagement of its community remains an absolute certainty.