March 20: Planning for Online Learning: Dr. Austin to Student and Families

Dear Students and Families,

Greetings from a very quiet Deerfield Academy campus. Wherever you are in the world, I hope you are healthy and well. Although this is an uncertain time, one thing you can be certain of is my commitment to keep in good touch. You have been, and will continue to be, in my thoughts.

I want to use the opportunity of this letter to provide an update on our planning and preparation for our transition to distance learning, as well as sketch out some of the broader goals that will shape our educational program. We will use the coming week, when we meet as a faculty, to discuss and further refine our approach, but the broad outlines of our program are in place, and we have a clear vision of the challenges and opportunities before us.

First, some good news: 

In a letter to me, our seniors have declined to accept that this is the end of their senior year—even as they express solidarity for all those whose lives have been upended by this virus. As always, they lead and inspire. I continue to be heartened by the emails I receive from students, and I will heed the advice of Whitney Vogt ’20, who encouraged me not to make any decisions about Commencement “earlier than necessary.” Deerfield students continue to inspire me, even from afar.

Scientists across the world from private industry, governments, and university labs have partnered to produce anti-virals and other mitigating strategies to combat the spread of this virus. The National Institutes of Health has begun phase one clinical trials testing of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Social distancing works—and everybody can do it.

The New York Times reports that pollution from human activity is down.

Signs of spring have begun to appear in the Valley: wet snow followed by warm sun, migratory birds returning to nest, daffodil shoots.

Our staff has risen to the challenge of the last weeks with grace, selflessness, and their typical generosity. Our teachers have been hard at work thinking about their courses—creating, improvising, and designing. And this brings me to our educational program.

Our approach to the coming weeks:

We remain committed to Deerfield’s core educational values: joyful engagement, connection, and community. Our goal, simply put, is to connect and engage, even from afar, and to do so in a way that encourages balance, intellectual vitality and well-being. Dr. Benson, our Director of Medical Services, and Dr. Relin, our Director of Counseling, have written important letters, offering advice and suggestions about the importance of social distancing and detailing the support and resources our counseling team will provide to students in the coming weeks.

We are approaching the resumption of school almost as if it were the beginning of a new year: with excitement, intention, and purpose—and with humility. We know that there will be bumps along the way, but, as teachers, we are committed to learning from these and improving as we go. We plan on regularly collecting student feedback, and we will use that to refine our approach and seek continual improvement.

For students, as well, there will be a period of orientation. In the coming weeks we will build on the foundation established during the fall and winter terms to develop shared understandings, establish productive and healthy routines, and help our students settle in. It will take time, but we are committed to a flexible approach that supports each of them, and recognizes their unique circumstances, including learning and studying in different time zones.

Our approach will be a “blended” one, mixing what are called “synchronous” and “asynchronous” approaches to learning. Synchronous learning happens through digital platforms such as Zoom that allow for discussion and collaboration in real time, much like the Deerfield classrooms you know and cherish. Asynchronous learning happens through digital channels as well but without real-time interaction. These kinds of activities include interactive webinars, video lectures, and online discussions. Both kinds of learning connect students to one another and to faculty, and both require high levels of student independence.

Some things will change: one thing will not. Deerfield faculty will do what they have always done: model for our students a spirit of optimism, flexibility, and engagement, teach with purpose and creativity, and inspire our students to live curiously, creatively, and for others.

The schedule:

As we developed our program, we have drawn on the expertise of our own faculty and conferred widely with educators at the college and university level. We have opted to take what Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and one-time Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and one of my educational heroes), once called a “less is more” approach. We begin with the assumption that translating our existing program to a new format will require important modifications of emphasis, design, and tempo, as well as appropriate reductions in the amount of material and content covered.

To that end, we have given careful thought to our weekly schedule. We have significantly reduced the number of scheduled synchronous sessions from four to two times per week per class, and we have made a deliberate decision to limit our scheduled synchronous academic program to Monday through Thursday, with Friday serving as a day when students can work independently, seek additional support, confer with teachers, and meet with their advisories. It also provides students the flexibility to connect with family, study, spend time on independent pursuits, and, we hope, seek out ways to serve local communities. Limiting screen time is a deliberate choice on our part to ensure well-being and balance.

We will also provide opportunities for shared experience and community, albeit virtually, and encourage the spirit of playfulness, friendship, and joy that characterizes daily life at Deerfield at its best. Advisors will be reaching out to parents by email next week to check in; they will also schedule a Zoom call for their advisory before academic classes commence on Monday, March 30. This will not only allow students to connect with their advisors, it will be an opportunity for a test run of our online platforms.

Courses will be graded on a High Pass, Pass, and Fail basis. We have been in frequent conversation with our many colleagues in college and university admission offices, with whom we have strong and longstanding relationships, and they are supportive of this modification.  We will continue to be in close communication with them, and Mark Spencer, Dean of College Advising, will continue to work closely with our students and families.

Communication moving forward:

Dr. Hills and Ms. Creagh will be in touch early next week with more detail about an orientation to online learning and community, the final version of our academic schedule, and information about student support.

I plan to personally be in touch with you weekly, and I will make a decision about post-April 12 plans by April 2, and inform all of you promptly. No matter what comes, we will continue to connect, engage, and work together to realize the mission of Deerfield Academy.

You will have many questions in the days and weeks to come. We are here to answer them, and we will continue to build our FAQs on the COVID-19 updates and information webpage for easy reference. As students get online, our ITS office and Student Life Office will both be open and staffed from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm (Eastern Daylight Time) and reachable by phone or email. Here are some additional helpful points of contact:

Technology Support: Kimberly Butz 413-774-1444
Student Life: Amie Creagh 413-774-1452
Academic Dean: Ivory Hills 413-774-1470
College Advising: Mark Spencer 413-774-1479
Health Center: Bryant “Bear” Benson 413-774-1600
Head of School: John Austin 413-774-1425

There will be more decisions to make in the coming weeks, but please rest assured that I will not surprise you, and I will always keep public health and the best interests of you—our students and families as well as the Academy staff—in mind as we move forward.

I read today that Shakespeare wrote some of his best and most beloved works while quarantined during time of plague in 1606: MacbethAntony and Cleopatra, and, perhaps his greatest work, King Lear. As Shakespeare’s Lear discovers, hardship can sometimes prove a spur to creativity, imagination, resourcefulness, empathy, and kindness. Those qualities have been in abundance over the last two weeks, especially among staff, students, parents, and the greater Deerfield family. We are strong because you make it so. I feel fortunate and deeply grateful to be a part of it.

John Austin, Head of School