Why we are starting online when we could be in person

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And why we are planning in-person experiences even while classes will be online.

Note: Waterloo School will begin classes online on August 17th. A Community Learning Time during the hour from 9-10 a.m. will allow students to meet in-person or via Zoom with a teacher and a different group of students each day for a learning activity related to one of the courses being offered. Collective problem-solving, discovery, collaboration, invention, and discussion will be the main activities of the time, which will complement regular class learning.

We are a private high school in Austin, Texas with less than fifty students. We have legal right and permission from the state to meet in-person this fall because the state has decreed that a local health order cannot be so strict as to prevent a school from opening. And in our case, our local city and county health order has ordered schools to remain closed at least until September 8th. We can start classes in-person, but we are not. Not yet. But, we are also making opportunities for in-person connection. Why have we made this decision?
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, that while everything is permissible, not everything is beneficial. The freedoms we have may allow way more than what is good for us. ‘Permissible’ and ‘beneficial’ are two different things. The principle applied here is similar—we can open in-person. Should we?

The factors that have gone in our decision include:

  • In-person contact with one another is good. Really good. While some visions of education treat personal relationships as efficient for learning, we would almost go so far as to say learning is efficient for relationships! Who we are and what we will ultimately be and do in the world is crucially in relationship—with others, the world, and God. Our success will be built as much on the ability to have healthy relationships as it will on what we learn in high school curriculum. So on top of what Dr. Fauci, The American Academy of Pediatrics, and others value about in-person schooling—all our efforts need to be toward making this possible for our mission.
  • Covid-19 is spreading largely unchecked in Texas. Out of 50 states, Texas is 45th in positivity rate, more than triple the percentage recommended before schools and businesses open up: every 8th person tested is positive. That means we don’t know where it is, more people have it than we know, and person-to-person infection is high.
  • Vulnerable people are in our midst. Most of our students and staff are at very low risk of complications if contracting the virus. Asymptomatic carriers are still very common. And yet, even if we do not have symptoms, many of us are in contact and relationships with at-risk people. Measures to reduce transmission protect vulnerable people, and that is a good in and of itself.
  • Human nature will make it hard for teenagers to follow containment measures. It is not a moral judgment on adolescents, whose brains are not yet wired fully either for proper-risk assessment or for full awareness of their impact on others. Their brains are not wired to follow strict, restrictive, and relationally-frustrating protocols required to prevent virus transmission. Many adults struggle with this; teenagers will too.
  • It is a new virus, and scientists are still learning what it does. From the way it infects and spreads to the long-term health damage possible, we are still learning. It is following the life cycle of other viruses that jump to humans, but every one is unique. We have treatments to reduce its mortality rate, but little to prevent complications, long term health damage, or transmission itself. The virus will not go away, but what it will take for us to flourish as a society with it is still to be understood.
  • The month of August is going to provide real data we do not yet have about schools re-opening. Schools have not been in session since the virus arrived, as all school systems went remote last spring. What level of risk it is to children, school staffs, and communities is a significant unknown. Schools opening in-person around the country will provide real, helpful data.
  • Media personalities and politicians must be taken with a grain of salt. Media companies have brands, and fans, and business plans; politicians have elections to win and favors to curry. To take cues reflexively from either in this heightened polarized season is not wise. Some would have us wish it away. Others are sure the sky is falling. In contrast…
  • Health experts with distance from politics are telling us what we need to do to beat this thing, and that we should try to. What are the majority of epidemiologists and virologists saying about how we should think about and act in relation to the virus? Control spread. Maintain social distance. Limit prolonged contact in indoor spaces. Wear masks. Practice good hygiene. Avoid groupings of significant size.
  • We’re a unique school, so ‘what schools should do’ does not perfectly apply to us. We aren’t boasting, but simply stating—a school with less than 50 students with the schedule, model, and mission that we do is not what public officials have in mind when they describe ‘what schools should do.’ Some things are in our favor for meeting (size, space); others are not (150 minute classes, close collaboration and hands-on learning).

So, our decision for the start of the year:

We are not meeting in-person all day to prevent the likely transmission that would occur if we did. We are meeting for an hour in the mornings in small groups in intentional, relationship-building activities to ‘make relational deposits’, forge friendships, encourage and laugh together, and fire those mirroring neurons that bring us joy. Some of these groups will be in-person. We are not requiring any student to join in-person meetings because every one of us needs to be able to take the extra precautions necessary, and we will take great care to ensure that those who do see one another in-person are able to do so in a safe, supervised, mentor-led experience.

It will be hard. As we all have experienced, great differences of opinion, desire, and hope exist within any group of people. For the families and students and staff at Waterloo, that is certainly true. Those differences can tempt us to judgment, disunity, and conflict. And they can be the context to supporting, encouraging, and rallying together. Challenging situations are… challenging! It will always be hard to face them well, with humility, charity, and patience. And it will always be rewarding to try to do so.
What will we do after the first three weeks of school?

Time will tell. The health order and governor’s dictate are factors, but as you can see, there are many more closer to home. We have as a core value complexity. It is kind of an odd core value, but this season is a perfect reason to assert it: to see this decision as a simple one is to not see it well. We will take into account the factors that matter to determine how we proceed at that time, embracing the complexity as the context for learning at Waterloo this fall as we all adjust to living with a new virus. Among the questions we will ask as we begin:

  • Will some students need more personal connection with peers or with a teacher?
  • Will virus spread be decreasing, or will local schools and colleges starting up lead to an increased outbreak?
  • Will treatments or rapid, cheap testing become available to increase our knowledge of where the virus is (and isn’t)?

These developments and others will shape our decisions.

Be future-ready, now.

That’s what we are helping students become—in the first three weeks of school, and in the weeks after.
It’s what this season demands of all of us.

Craig Doerksen

Craig Doerksen

Prior to becoming the director of Waterloo School, Craig provided leadership for a number of prominent institutions, including Regents School of Austin; the Bluetower Arts Foundation in Eugene, OR; and Trinity School in Raleigh, NC. Craig holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Ireland and graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in English.