In a candid interview, Head of School Dr. Peter H. Quimby ‘85, P’14 reflects on leading a school through a pandemic and what normal might look like this fall in Byfield.
GOVS: In your opinion, how has the Academy managed the COVID-19 pandemic?
DR. QUIMBY: When I think back to February 2020 and our first COVID-19 related decision to cancel all March Break trips, it is hard to believe how fundamentally life has changed in the following 15 months. I am proud of how well we have managed the pandemic, but there have been a lot of difficult decisions and hard work along the way. We had to rethink almost everything about daily life at Govs, including dining, dorm life, teaching, admission, advancement, and communication.
We navigated the challenges of COVID-19 with two values always in mind: delivering the finest possible educational experience to our students and maintaining the health and safety of all community members. We developed a flexible, phased reopening strategy early last summer that guided our decision-making throughout the year and helped us manage through the uncertainty. The start of the school year was challenging; many of our faculty were concerned about teaching in person safely. Our challenge was to listen, educate, and bring people along. By constantly monitoring state and CDC guidelines, we built confidence throughout the school year in our ability to do more. For example, we started interscholastic athletic contests in January and invited all students to attend classes five days a week in April.
That said, there were challenges: most international students were fully remote, some students seriously struggled with virtual learning, and other students struggled socially and emotionally due to the isolation of hybrid learning. We faced each of these challenges the best we could with our two priorities in mind: we held many meetings over Zoom in the early morning and late evening so that international students could participate, we invited those students struggling with virtual learning to attend classes five days per week in the late fall, and we increased advisory time to nearly every day of the week. I am so proud of the resilience that our students, faculty, and staff have demonstrated throughout this year.
And we have come so far: we opened the year with no boarders, an alphabetical rotation of students learning in person two to three days per week, no interscholastic athletic competition, and no parents allowed on campus. Today we have 150 students living in eight dormitories. All students are invited to attend class in-person five days a week, all spring athletic teams participating in interscholastic competition, and parents invited to attend athletic events and Commencement in person.
GOVS: Govs is known for its family-like atmosphere. How do you maintain that community feeling behind masks and Plexiglas, and with six feet of distance?
DR. QUIMBY: Honestly, it has been difficult. I miss seeing students’ smiling faces as they walk through the back door of Mansion House on Saturday night, the roar of laughter during Friday morning meeting in Bergmann Theater, students pulling up an extra chair to their lunch table so a friend can “squeeze” in, and students lining up to hug their friend after a Chapel Talk. I am confident that these moments will return to Byfield, but I don’t know when. Until they can, we will try to create community in other ways: advisors and advisees meeting more frequently, outdoor weekend activities so the whole community can safely participate, and pop-up study breaks with food trucks.
GOVS: Saturday nights at the Mansion House must have been quiet without students.
DR. QUIMBY: That has been one of the most difficult challenges of the year for me personally — having so few avenues for engaging with students. Saturday night Mansion House has always been the highlight of Laurie’s and my week. We really missed it this year. We were able to have students in a few times this winter when the dorms were in family units, and we didn’t have to worry about physical distancing. Still, it wasn’t the same as having students crowded into the basement playing pool and ping pong, or packed into the kitchen talking, laughing, and devouring snacks. Of course, Sonny and Eagle certainly missed the attention that gets showered on them every Saturday night, as well as the opportunity they have to “clean up” when anything edible falls on the floor.
GOVS: There must have been additional costs to run the school this year; how is the Academy doing financially?
DR. QUIMBY: The additional expenses of running a school during COVID-19 were significant. From technology to adapt our classrooms to the hybrid learning model and Plexiglas dividers on our dining hall tables to regular COVID-19 testing of our community and PPE in our health center, we incurred roughly $1M in additional costs this year. However, our focus was on doing whatever was necessary to deliver on the values I mentioned earlier: keeping our community safe and healthy, and ensuring that our students received a first-rate education. Our school is healthy financially despite the pandemic, and we are thankful for the generosity of those parents and alumni who have supported us through this crisis.
GOVS: Last spring, you shared in a community email that your goal was to keep every employee on the payroll throughout the pandemic. Why was this important to you?
DR. QUIMBY: A huge part of our value proposition is grounded in the quality of our community. Students thrive at Govs precisely because of the adults who dedicate their personal and professional lives to creating an environment where they can discover who they are, what they are passionate about, and how they can use their voices in the world. To me, surviving this crisis meant emerging safely on the other side of the pandemic together. If we had been forced to lay people off, we would have emerged diminished by the absence of those individuals who contribute to making the Govs community so special.
GOVS: The pandemic took an economic toll on families everywhere; how did the Academy support families in need this year beyond what we normally do?
DR. QUIMBY: As COVID-19 turned from a public health crisis into an economic crisis as well, many of our families became concerned about how they were going to be able to pay tuition for this school year. Some families currently receiving financial aid needed increased awards, and others who had not previously qualified for aid found themselves in need of assistance to keep their students in school. This translated to a need for an additional $400,000 of financial aid. To meet this need, we launched the Governor’s Emergency Financial Aid Fund in Spring 2020 with the goal of meeting the full needs of our families for the 2020-2021 school year. I believed that this was so important, and at the heart of who the Govs community is, that Laurie and I contributed 20% of my annual salary to support financial aid. Through the generosity of alumni, parents, and employees, I am delighted to share that we raised enough to fully fund the needs of our families, and no student was unable to continue at Govs as a result of the financial consequences of the pandemic.
GOVS: What else can alumni and parents do to help?
DR. QUIMBY: Keep doing what you always do! Share your stories in your communities about the difference Govs has made in your life or the lives of your children, wear your Govs gear proudly, stay connected to the Academy by attending events — in person and virtual — and share your news in The Archon. And of course, we invite all members of the Govs community to consider the role Governor’s has played in your life or your child’s life and how you may factor Governor’s into your charitable giving.
GOVS: How do you plan to celebrate the Class of 2021 safely while maintaining beloved traditions?
DR. QUIMBY: I think we have all been experiencing a sense of loss during this pandemic, but our seniors are feeling that loss particularly acutely. As we planned for how we would celebrate the accomplishments of these remarkable young people, we wanted to do all that we could to make the end of this year as special as possible for our seniors and their families but also safe for everyone in our community. While some of the logistics of the weekend will be different this year, our seniors will have in-person Baccalaureate, Morse Flag Ceremony, Senior Awards Ceremony, and Commencement, including every senior jumping the wall after receiving their diploma. Guests will be limited at each event, but events will be livestreamed for all other members of the Govs community.
GOVS: Are you optimistic about a return to normal in the fall?
DR. QUIMBY: I think there is every reason to be optimistic that we will all be together on-campus this fall. We imagine dormitories at full capacity and all instruction in-person. In addition, we are planning a normal schedule of athletic competition and are considering the conditions under which we could have large gatherings indoors like Chapel and Morning Meeting. To date, most of our employees have been fully vaccinated, and with the recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine for ages 12-15, all of our students will be eligible to be vaccinated by the fall as well.
GOVS: Do you think that we will be able to hold Cardinal & White Day and Fall Family Weekend on campus?
DR. QUIMBY: I really hope so! Events like these are so important to our community, and we look forward to them every year.
GOVS: What changes were made as a result of the pandemic that are here to stay?
DR. QUIMBY: Connecting with people from far away without the need to travel is a change that is here to stay. After the pandemic, we will continue to use Zoom to reach a broader geographic range of students in the admission process, engage with more alumni and parents, and bring a broader array of speakers and programming to our students. For example, photography teacher David Oxton P’03, ‘08 created a seminar where notable national photographers worked with students via Zoom. These photographers probably would not have traveled to Byfield to work with our students in person, but the virtual environment allowed us to give our students access to these amazing artists.
GOVS: Are you concerned about the classes of 2023 and 2024 who have not had a full, normal year on campus?
DR. QUIMBY: As excited as we are to return to a more normal experience in the fall, we also know that we will have to plan for that return very carefully for this very reason. Most of our students will not have had much time on our campus fully in person and unmasked, so we will need to help our students understand what that experience is like and their responsibility for making Govs the caring and nurturing community that we all love. A working group of faculty and staff members has been collaborating since before March break to think about how we can help reintroduce our students to the Govs that generations of alumni have cherished. This will be a focus of orientation and student leadership training in the fall.
GOVS: You have written to the community about race and racism several times in the last year, how do you see that work continuing into next year?
DR. QUIMBY: First of all, it is important to remember that our work as a school community in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion began well before this past year and will continue for as long as we have issues to address as a community. I appointed our DEI Steering Committee in my first year as head of school, and sometimes I worry that people see our commitment to DEI work as a knee-jerk reaction to social trends, or worse, the outright adoption of a particular partisan viewpoint. Of course, I would be naïve if I did not acknowledge that much of the conversation around equity and inclusion has become highly politicized in our country, but our commitment to the work is not about partisanship, it is about values, and these values are grounded in our mission.
When we welcome students into the Governor’s community, we are making a promise that we will deliver on the Seven Essential Skills. We are taking on a responsibility for ensuring that every student we admit has full access to all of the benefits of a Governor’s education. In conversations with groups of students in recent years, and in the voices of those who have posted their stories on social media, we have heard that too often Govs has been less welcoming, less accessible, and less inclusive of those who have traditionally felt marginalized in institutions like ours—students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, LGBTQIA+ students, and students of color. They are why we do this work. We know how important it is for all of our students to see themselves reflected in our curriculum, and we know that the educational experience of all of our students is enhanced when they learn from role models who bring a variety of perspectives and life experiences to the classroom. We know that our students will be entering colleges and universities, not to mention a workforce, that are more diverse and globally interconnected than ever before, and that if we do not prepare them here to collaborate and lead effectively in those environments, we will be letting them down. We do this work for our students--to make sure that we are delivering on our mission and our values. If we are not meeting these essential obligations, we will soon cease to be relevant as an educational institution for young people, and so we simply must do this work. Our obligations to the future of the Academy require it of us.
GOVS: What are you most excited about for post-pandemic Governor’s?
DR. QUIMBY: The answer that people might expect me to give is that I cannot wait to welcome students back to the Mansion House on Saturday nights. And that is true. My pool skills are getting rusty! But I think I am even more excited for the little things — being able to see everyone’s faces, having our school community all in one place three times a week for Morning Meeting and Chapel, and being able to chat casually with students in the dining hall. Those are some of the things that I miss the most.
GOVS: And what about you and your family? What are you most excited about post-pandemic?
DR. QUIMBY: Now that Laurie and I are both fully vaccinated, and our parents and children are fully vaccinated, we are looking forward to being together as a family again. The first of those occasions will come in July when my daughter celebrates her wedding. She was actually married last summer with eight of us in attendance. This summer, we will be able to all be together as an extended family to celebrate!