A Start of School Like No Other

New activities, new facilities, and new protocols have defined the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.
Thacher has just reached a milestone—students have been on campus for a month. And what an unusual start to the year it has been. After the School had devoted months to preparing and implementing a plan for the safe opening of campus, county restrictions in place in early August were not promising. California was experiencing high levels of infection and schools were not permitted to open in person. A couple of weeks later, however, Thacher was granted approval by the county to begin a staged opening of campus.

Students’ arrival was staggered. On September 9, seniors returned to campus to participate in the traditional preparation that Thacher’s new student leaders have undertaken for decades. This year, they met via Zoom, because each group quarantined on its arrival. As is customary, seniors welcomed the ninth-graders next, followed by juniors and sophomores. Faculty, staff, and administrators, of course, had been working through the summer to lay the necessary groundwork. 

As the year got underway, School traditions and other activities had to be adjusted to adhere to new protocols. Rather than All-School Games, we began with all-dorm games. Prefects planned fun ice-breaking and bonding activities for their prefectees. Classes began on-line for everyone, and an array of new afternoon activities—designed around health and safety protocols—have replaced interscholastic sports. Students meet all over campus for dance classes, weight lifting, basketball skills training, hikes, and other activities designed to get them moving. An outside workout room and climbing wall support some of those activities. And two sand volleyball courts will be put to use soon. The Sir Winston Churchill Debate Society even held its first debate recently, outdoors of course, with the arguments of the debaters only slightly muffled by their masks.

The ninth-graders did not start their year with the traditional Golden Trout experience, but once their quarantine days were up, they were able to begin their journey through the Horse Program. To ensure safe distancing as they work on their riding skills, four new riding arenas have been added to the Horse Program facilities. 

Like fall Extra-Day Trips, the traditional New Year’s Banquet and Formal Dinners will have to wait this year, but the new dining hall and an outdoor dining tent have provided the space for safe meals. Plexiglass dividers on the tables help keep everybody safe when the masks come off for eating, offering a rare opportunity to share smiles and conversation without a mask. 

Now that each class has completed its quarantine, more interaction is possible. Assistant Head of School Jeff Hooper, who has been on point for our covid response, shared the good news: “Students now have much greater autonomy in how they manage and spend their free time. Weekend and afternoon activities are diversifying, both in terms of the types and number of activities available.”

Some in-person classes, which began in the many white tents that have been set up across the campus, have now moved inside, with others planning to do so soon. This week, Head of School Blossom Beatty Pidduck CdeP 1992 presided over our first hybrid Assembly, in which members of the senior class—appropriately masked and distanced in the Library Amphitheatre—participated in person while the rest of the School tuned in via Zoom. Step by step, we reclaim the familiar elements of campus life, recognizing that anything resembling what we think of as “normal” is still a long way off.

Blossom described the reality of being on campus again after so much time spent meeting together online, as nearly miraculous. “With every class, with every rehearsal, with every dorm munch out and dodgeball game, we’re creating the ordinary magic that will see us through.”

Walking around campus, one could believe in the magic. The Thacher campus has been magically transformed by the facilities staff who made a heroic effort over the summer. They added the Valley View Clinic—a 2,800 square foot facility devoted to covid testing and isolation. Its two modular buildings with their walkways, decking, and outside sitting area for patients, were erected on the tennis courts near the Voit Gymnasium. Those courts are also the home of three dormitory units. Each unit housed three day students in private rooms with bathrooms during their quarantine period. Since entrance to dorms is restricted to residents, day students continue to use these buildings as their on-campus headquarters now that their quarantine has been completed. The last new facility on the courts is the laundry trailer. The covid response team determined that the dorm laundry rooms would likely be high vector areas, so the School is providing weekly laundry services for students. Imagine the smiles that news evoked. 

Other, less obvious upgrades include new air cleaning devices for all classroom HVAC units, no-touch equipment in bathrooms (including over 60 faucets), handwashing stations, and plenty of signage reminding us to practice social distancing, wear masks, and wash our hands. 

After taking such great pains to ensure that nobody in our community brought the virus to campus, we also needed to add a layer of security at our gate. To that end, we installed a new visitor’s entrance where greeters screen delivery people, construction workers, and other guests before they enter campus. 

As we look ahead to the remainder of the fall, we will see other deviations from tradition. Since it is not safe to bring families to campus, we’ll hold a virtual Fall Family Weekend at the end of October in place of our customary in-person gathering. Students can look forward to a festive meal and a break from classes, but we’ll forgo Thanksgiving break this year in favor of a longer winter recess followed by another staged return to campus in January. 

Thanks to all of the careful planning and execution of our protocols, coupled with the cooperation of the entire campus community, we have thus far remained virus free. Still, we will continue to wear masks in nearly all situations, practice social distancing, and socialize outside to discourage viral transmission. As the situation in Ventura County continues to improve, we hope to be in a position to relax more of our restrictions and look forward to seeing life at Thacher this year become more and more like the life we have known in past years. Meanwhile, the general consensus is that it’s wonderful to be together on campus.

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Notice of nondiscriminatory policy as to students: The Thacher School admits students of any race, color, national, and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the School. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national, and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admission policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other School-administered programs.