Photo caption: At Kent School in Maryland, Crazy Creek Camp Chair for the win!

Inspired by a new UnderArmour Team video featuring fog as a metaphor for Covid-19, I am convinced that the tagline — the only way is through — should be our anthem for 2020. 

Many great writers illustrate this theme, most famously Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and Robert Frost. Macbeth, stepped in blood so far that he fears he will not find salvation. Dante walks through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to become enlightened. And Len, in Frost’s A Servant of Servants, says, “One steady pull more ought to do it, as the best way out is always through.” These examples highlight that when facing a daunting task, the only way to survive is to face the problem head-on and work it through.

That is exactly how I spent my summer vacation, tackling head-on the planning for Kent School’s safe return to campus during Covid-19. It’s been both daunting and enlightening.

The weight of holding our students’ and employees’ lives, as well as employees’ and families’ livelihoods, in my hands is all-consuming and overwhelming. I am normally a decisive optimist. The past summer tried to break my spirit many times, but I am still standing on my mission to barrel through.

Staying Safe, Maximizing Space

If ever there was a time to be a small school, this is that time. Kent School serves 145 students from PK to Grade 8 on a rural, riverside campus just outside of historic Chestertown, Maryland, in the midst of a working farm. Corn and soybeans line our lane and surround our athletic fields. We have very large classrooms and many beautiful outdoor teaching spaces.

Taking a page from Frost and Mary Oliver, two of my favorite poets who share a deep love of nature, we’re enhancing our current outdoor-focused program, and formalizing it. This includes holding outdoors curricular and co-curricular classes like language arts, math, science, art, music, and PE as much as humanly possible. 

I firmly believe that being outside will lessen the anxiety of being inside with face coverings and desks six feet apart all day long. These important Covid mitigators derail everything we know about good teaching and learning, yet we keep telling ourselves it is temporary — it is the only way through. For proper ventilation inside, we also have upgraded to the recommended air filters, and revised the cleaning schedule for our air handlers.

To enact our plan for outdoor programming, I connected with four school Heads who are also in various stages of creating or enhancing existing outdoor programming. Our conversations centered on building in the time blocks for outdoor activities, creating and using outdoor spaces, and fulfilling a wish list of supplies for easy and comfortable transitions to the outdoor learning environment. For instance, Kent School already uses Muddy Buddies waterproof coveralls in Little School and Kindergarten for outdoor play, and now all my colleagues have bought them.

After this meeting, we changed our academic schedules to allow for in-class time broken up with outdoor time, which made our local health department and our medical advisors feel comfortable with our plan to return to campus. When I learned about Crazy Creek Camp Chairs from my colleagues, we purchased them along with laptop desks for each student so that we could go outside as scheduled, or hold unscheduled lessons at any time. We rented two tents for our back field for classes to be used on a rotating basis. We also have a portable outdoor classroom complete with whiteboard and benches for classes to move and use, which were given by a graduating class years ago.

Our four teaching gardens — a Monarch Butterfly Waystation, the Pamela E. Derringer Rain Garden, a vegetable garden, and a flower garden — are in constant use. So is the Chester River, one of the largest tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, for our Chesapeake Bay Studies program. We are the only elementary school in the country that partners with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to learn about and research the bay and its inhabitants.

We have charged all faculty with optimizing outdoor learning. Now teachers across all disciplines are finding new ways to use our outdoor spaces for inspiration and lessons — from a math project to design and construct a mini golf course on our back field, to plein air painting based on literature students are reading. Creatively maximizing outdoor experiences will continue to be our guide star, and the more we plan outdoors, the easier it becomes to go through.

No matter how schools started this academic year — in person, as we have; in a hybrid model; or with complete distance learning — education is in a metamorphosis. This freedom to reimagine our purpose is exhilarating, challenging, and joyful. Although no one can predict how this academic year will unfold, I am certain that the only way is through. 

Writing September Precepts with inspiration from the novel Wonder.