I hope this note finds you and your family doing well and staying safe.
Yesterday marked the official conclusion of the 2019-2020 school year, a period that has brought unprecedented challenges across our community. I want to express our collective gratitude for the part you’ve played in helping us navigate these unsettling times and also provide you with an update on our planning for the reopening of school this fall. As you well know, uncertainty continues to pervade daily life for our School, our city, and our nation. Throughout the spring and into the early weeks of summer, members of our team have been working diligently on plans for next school year.
While it has been difficult, challenging, and often frustrating for all of us to navigate new rhythms and routines, it is affirming to be a part of our School community. Just two nights ago, a Marksman delivered a lengthy, handwritten letter to our home, expressing genuine gratitude for all that he learned during the past year. I opened the letter and read it aloud to my wife, and we were both moved by what it represented. The words lifted off the page as this boy, whose home had been destroyed by the tornado, shared how much the St. Mark’s community has meant to him and his family. He recounted untold acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity. He described how much being a Marksman means to him, and he enclosed a personal contribution to the School with money he had earned to thank his classmates and the whole St. Mark's community.
So too was I gratified by the very thoughtful, constructive, and deliberate outreach from some of our youngest graduates who recently went to considerable lengths to share their thoughts, suggestions, and ideas for what might make St. Mark’s a more diverse and inclusive school. We have been engaged in many positive conversations about our ongoing commitment in this regard, reflecting upon ways that we can continue to grow and improve. I am deeply grateful to be part of a community where people care so deeply about their school and how we treat one another.
It is our commitment to every student, past, present, and future, that will support and encourage us all through the days, weeks, and months ahead.
Plans for Reopening School
We have assembled a Reopening Team and various project teams to support our planning work throughout the summer. I want to thank my colleagues across the “virtual” campus, many of whom have suspended significant time away with their families, to focus on planning for the fall. We have also welcomed a number of talented new colleagues who have joined these efforts sooner than previously planned. As you know, preparing for so many contingencies requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. We have project teams working in areas including Academic Programs, Co-Curricular Programs, Health & Safety, Facilities & Operations, Campus Events, Schedule & Calendar, Communications, and Governance.
While significant work lies ahead, here is a summary of our preparations and planning to date. Please keep in mind that plans could, and will likely, shift between now and the beginning of school. However, the following updates will give you a good sense of how our work is unfolding. As always, I encourage you to reach out with questions or concerns. We will be sharing additional updates in July and posting extensive information on the St. Mark’s website.
As we navigate the upcoming year together, please know that our thinking, planning, and preparations will always be guided by our fundamental commitment to the safety and well-being of the students and adults across our community.
On Campus, Virtual, and Blended Learning
As has been noted previously, we are planning to resume classes on campus on August 24 with our full student body. We are incredibly fortunate that our campus and facilities are of sufficient size and flexibility to accommodate all 900 boys and our teachers, while still supporting safe distancing, varied pedestrian traffic patterns, and other accommodations to keep those on campus as safe as possible. At the same time, we are investing significant effort, energy, and resources into preparations for both remote learning and hybrid learning program possibilities. Should fully remote learning be necessary at some point, we plan to deliver our full academic schedule, with very limited modifications. Unlike the spring where programs were predominantly asynchronous, remote learning going forward would be delivered in a manner that’s more aligned with our daily schedule and programs on campus. Age-appropriate adjustments, of course, would be necessary given the challenges of delivering content online for boys in Lower School.
Our foremost programmatic priority is the resumption of our academic program in a safe setting on campus where boys and teachers can interact directly in our classrooms. We are fully committed to providing a robust and comprehensive academic program across all three divisions of the School consistent with our curricular expectations and well-established high standards. While the delivery of our program might look and feel somewhat different depending on the circumstance, our fundamental philosophy and aspirations are unchanged. Our longstanding commitment to the highest academic standards is demonstrable and will be sustained going forward.
The pandemic and related public health restrictions will likely impact a number of our co-curricular programs in both Athletics and Fine Arts. We expect programs like band, choir, and close contact sports to be directly affected in the near term given the increased risk of virus spread. A variety of contingency plans are being developed in anticipation of these challenges, including our discussions as part of the SPC regarding athletic competition. We are fully committed to the ongoing importance, impact, and strength of our Athletic, Fine Arts, and other co-curricular experiences that we provide for our boys.
Schedule and Calendar
For the past three years, we have been actively developing and preparing for the implementation of a new Daily Schedule to better support our boys. This work had been not only substantive and meaningful, it has also better prepared us for the ongoing uncertainty and change that will likely be with us for some time. Greater flexibility, expanded collaboration and programmatic alignment across campus, and increased focus on student health and well-being will underpin our adoption of this new schedule when boys return. Again, we plan to deliver our new schedule in full whether on campus, in a hybrid environment, or operating remotely.
Health and Safety
As we prepare to return to campus, maintaining the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff continues to inform our planning. Drawing from state and county guidelines combined with directions from health care experts, we are making preparations for daily health screening, hygiene practices, social distancing, campus access, and food service delivery that would limit close interactions, and revisions to all large group activities. It is anticipated that masks will be required on campus except, perhaps, for our youngest students. We are also carefully reviewing plans that would support the possibility of COVID testing resources on our campus. Our Medical Advisory Committee is meeting during the summer and our Health Services staff are working together on a daily basis with the Dallas County Health Department as well as with peer institutions across the city on school reopening plans.
Facilities and Operations
Our goal is to maintain as much of the regular operations as we are able, but we do anticipate that access to the campus will be limited to only students, faculty, staff, and other essential personnel such as contractors and delivery personnel. All elements of daily operations such as morning and afternoon carpool, student movement across the campus, classroom layouts, repurposing of flexible spaces, and areas that typically support larger group gatherings are being reviewed and carefully planned for fall reopening with full enrollment. Our physical plant and safety teams are also carefully examining all campus infrastructure resources related to air quality and filtering, daily cleaning of all campus facilities, routine bathroom cleaning throughout the day, closing water fountains, and increasing signage to support health and safety protocols and distancing.
Activities and Events
All student and community activities and events for the upcoming year are being carefully reviewed to determine which events we can continue as planned, which events we need to alter in some ways, and which events might have to be postponed or cancelled. It is safe to assume that group events and gatherings, including for Admissions, Alumni Association, and Parents’ Association, will be virtual in the fall. Campus activity will be principally limited to essential activity that supports the delivery of our daily academic and co-curricular programs for the boys. Team members in every administrative area are closely examining all fall events and developing contingency plans as needed. We will provide a more detailed and comprehensive update on campus events and the school calendar as the start of school draws nearer.
It is important that you have information that is relevant to your son’s experience in a manner that is timely and comprehensive. We plan to consolidate and increase communication to all parents in a weekly newsletter that will include updates from key staff across the campus highlighting divisional news, grade-level information, health and safety progress, and more. The School’s website will also be updated regularly as the summer progresses and into the fall to include comprehensive information about ongoing health and safety, student programs, community activities, archives of past communication, and updates to the calendar. Given the evolving and fluid nature of the pandemic, we recognize the desire for increased communication and will provide regular updates on a weekly and monthly basis.
St. Mark’s is incredibly fortunate to have a dedicated and well-resourced Board of Trustees consisting of more than 50 volunteer leaders including parents, graduates, and other friends of the School. Several leaders on the Board, along with legal counsel, are working closely with our senior leadership team to address issues including ongoing strategic governance, compliance, and other important matters that are of particular importance at this time.
As you can imagine, this letter is not the one I could have anticipated writing a year ago, and I share with each of you moments of optimism as well as moments of frustration. In those challenging moments, I think about the School’s history and how our faculty, families, and students must have felt during the most challenging times, as well. The time Founders’ Hall burned to the ground in the early 1940’s with no insurance and classes had to be moved to the SMU campus for a year, or the period several decades later when visionary leaders built the Math-Science Quadrangle, established the School’s financial aid endowment, recruited inspirational teachers like Tom Adams from around the country, and integrated the student body before desegregation had taken hold in Dallas schools. I think about the generations of Marksmen who are shaping the world today in positive and important ways, leading with courage and honor. This time challenges us — all of us, in ways that we never could have imagined. I continue to be buoyed by the strength of our history and the optimism and commitment reflected in our current students, families, and faculty to know that we will emerge from these challenges stronger than ever.
While there is much work ahead, together, we will continue to strengthen and enhance St. Mark’s mission of helping boys develop into good men who will make a positive difference.
Again, we will provide several additional updates during the month of July as our planning unfolds. Also, next week we will send an end-of-year report to the whole School community highlighting the milestones of the 2019-2020 school year. In the meantime, please accept my sincere thanks for your ongoing support, commitment, and partnership.
All the best,
David W. Dini