From Friday, April 23 to Sunday, April 25, Deerfield welcomed its Trustees to campus for the Board’s first in-person Board meeting since January of 2020. Despite only being able to meet over Zoom until now, the Board of Trustees and Dr. Austin have spent the past year collaborating to create a Deerfield experience as close to normal as possible while following COVID-19 guidelines to keep students safe and healthy.
According to Dr. Austin, “The Board of Trustees has responsibility for the financial health, the long-term direction, and the mission of the school as well as hiring and if necessary, firing the Head of School.” He said, “They are the collective body to whom I, as the head of school, report to. They try to stay at a strategic, long-term level.”
Bringing the Board to campus required significant coordination and time, and Dr. Austin stated, “I think we’re the only school that has had their board meeting on campus.”
On Friday, April 23 and Saturday, April 24, the Board’s 12 internal committees met. These committees range from Academic Affairs to Buildings and Grounds to Financial Aid and College Advising. Each Trustee serves on an average of three to four of these committees within the Board.
Following the individual committee meetings, the full Board of Trustees met on the afternoon of Sunday, April 25 in the Garonzik Auditorium. This collective meeting followed the standard proceedings, which entail reports of each committee’s findings over the course of the past few days, an update on recent actions at the school by Dr. Austin, and a full Board discussion on a topic chosen by the President of the Board of Trustees, Brian Simmons, and Dr. Austin. For this meeting, the Board discussed post COVID-19 planning for the school.
Regarding Deerfield’s transition to more normal circumstances, Mr. Simmons said, “We became extremely reactive, we had an incredibly high sense of urgency, just like, we have to get these things done, and we became very tactical. Now we’re trying to unwind that and be more deliberate, more strategic.”
Mr. Simmons recalled the various unknowns the school faced early on in the pandemic: “We were just thinking: How do we get school open? How do we get tests? How do we communicate with parents? How do we do contact tracing? What are we going to do? It was just a nonstop stream of making fairly important decisions with having less than 50% of the facts, because nobody did.”
Over this past year, Mr. Simmons emphasized the persistence and dedication Dr. Austin displayed. He recalled when Dr. Austin cut short a family vacation at the very beginning of the virus’ outbreak in March 2020. Returning to an empty campus, he felt that he needed to be there simply because of the great uncertainty during that time. Dr. Austin was also extremely committed to holding a Commencement ceremony for the class of 2020 and didn’t give up on the prospect until a gathering of that size would evidently be illegal in the state of Massachusetts.
During the pandemic, Dr. Austin said the Board of Trustees met with higher frequency in the past 14 months than the standard schedule of one meeting per term. “Our normal schedule of meetings once a term is built for a state of non-emergency, but when you’re navigating through an emergency that’s threatening the operations, we had to meet more often.” In addition to this, he and Mr. Simmons met three to four times a week.
Throughout the process, Dr. Austin found a silver lining in needing to spend more time with the Board. He said, “it’s allowed me to get to know the Board of Trustees more quickly and more intensely that I otherwise could have because we had to work together in a very collaborative, transparent, open way.”
He shared, “In different ways, I think everyone’s really stepped up. The board here is incredibly hard working and dedicated. No one ever misses a meeting, ever. Everybody shows up. These are incredibly dedicated, thoughtful, accomplished, experienced people from a range of industries.”
Mr. Simmons compared Dr. Austin and his team’s work to “three Deerfield junior years all rolled into six months.” He said, “It was unbelievable what they accomplished, and that’s why Deerfield’s experience stands out among residential high schools.”