The central question on every student’s mind right now is whether or not their school will reopen in the fall. With the global COVID-19 pandemic having upturned school environments across the world, students of all ages have been forced into remote learning with no certainty about the future.
Many colleges are strongly considering having classes online for the fall. The California State University system, with nearly half a million students, has already decided to do so, and it seems likely that other schools will follow suit.
While this is an important decision for all schools, it is especially critical for Deerfield to consider that what we stand to lose by staying online differs significantly from universities. Without residential life on campus, we lose the very structure that the Deerfield experience is built upon.
Living on campus as a community helps every one of us to build deep and genuine bonds with our teachers, coaches, and hallmates, all brought together by our shared sense of home. We experience everything together, whether it be the grandiose occasions of school spirit or the smaller moments like getting a snack at the Greer or walking back to our dorms through the snow.
If we stay online this fall, incoming students will miss out on their first term on campus — a term that is chaotic, but exciting and special. It is especially important to have this experience in person as an adjustment period to settle into a new community.
Personally, adjusting to online classes this spring certainly presented me with a challenge. After the physical presence of other people was replaced with a grid of muted faces, it became a struggle to stay engaged. The majority of Deerfield students have a high level of dedication to their education, but in our various circumstances at home or elsewhere, it has become much harder to sustain this same work ethic. Our teachers have worked hard to maintain our education from afar, adapting their curriculum and learning to teach online — but the spring has made it clear that the Deerfield classroom experience cannot be replicated online.
An online fall term would bring more new challenges. Every student will have new teachers and classes, and it will be much harder to build relationships through a screen from scratch. Since our Deerfield teachers act “in loco parentis,” serving on campus as our coaches, advisors, and hall residents, our academics are closely intertwined with our residential community. Taking away one will inevitably diminish the quality of the other.
As a boarding school in a rural area, Deerfield also has unique advantages that should allow it to reopen this fall even if other schools cannot. We have a student body of only 655 students, 87 percent of whom are boarders, along with many day students that live on campus. Including faculty and staff, we have about 900 people, which is much fewer than most universities. On our 330-acre campus with sixteen different dormitories, we have the space to figure out an arrangement that limits any large gatherings and adheres to social distancing requirements.
As a boarding school, we inherently have everything that students could need on campus. It would be plausible for the school to create a controlled system for our return, screening every incoming person, and maintaining a closed campus during the year.
We also have a more structured lifestyle in comparison to colleges and universities. At Deerfield, we are used to dealing with the requirements built into our daily schedules, such as attending sit-down meals, signing out to go off campus, or returning to our dorms before curfew. New rules that would accompany our return to campus can be incorporated into this pre-existing structure.
It’s important to acknowledge that if we return in the fall, life at Deerfield will not be the same. When thinking back on our “days of glory,” a few distinct moments stand out: the green smoke filling the air after the victory on Choate Day, the music echoing through the Starfield during winter KFC, and the flashing lights reflecting off the neon and metallic clothing at the DeNunzio disco. But social distancing will either prevent many of these regular events from occurring or force us to significantly change them.
If we return this fall, we may have to give up some of the iconic moments that we have become used to sharing as a community. However, we will find a new appreciation for the small everyday moments that are the foundation of our Deerfield experience.
If any educational institution gives its students the option to return this fall, it should be Deerfield. “Soon, these halls and fields we’re leaving,” the Evensong has told us countless times, and I don’t want our Deerfield days to be cut any shorter — because memory really does live in everyone.