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An update on Exeter's virtual spring term

Letter from Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08.

April 13, 2020
The Academy Building at Phillips Exeter Academy

Dear alumni, parents and friends,

The strength of the Exeter community and its resolve to overcome the challenges before us have been a steady source of inspiration for me in recent weeks. I am deeply grateful to every member of our community for their commitment to one another and to the founding values of our school. I write to you now to share how our virtual term is unfolding.

Our faculty, in particular, deserve our thanks. As the spread of the COVID-19 virus and its impact intensified, so too did our teachers’ efforts to rapidly build a distance-learning structure for spring term. Our approach prioritizes the health and well-being of our students and provides a great deal of flexibility to ensure an equitable experience for everyone. Three weeks into the term, we are still refining our methods and developing new tools. We cannot precisely replicate the Harkness experience online; nevertheless, our faculty are demonstrating innovation in true Exeter fashion.

Science Instructor Brad Robinson is teaching a physics course on robotics this term. To provide his students with the materials they need, he mailed each of them a kit to construct robotic devices. The class is now building and coding together, sharing their screens when they can to problem-solve as they would in class. Science Instructors Rich Aaronian and Chris Matlack have incorporated the Cornell Lab’s FeederWatch live cam and Merlin Bird ID app into their Ornithology classes to watch birds remotely with their students. Lamont Art Gallery Director Lauren O’Neal and her staff are shifting their new exhibition, “Being & Feeling (Alone, Together),” to web and social media platforms. We expect to resume the weekly meditations program online before the month is out, so that we may once again hear members of the senior class share their personal reflections. Similar examples of Exeter faculty ingenuity can be cited across every discipline, and we will continue to share them with you as the term progresses.  

In the face of their own personal hardships, Exonians have also risen to the challenge of this term with grit, creativity and compassion. One upper, who was selected to attend MIT’s Research Science Institute this summer, collaborated with a small group of her program peers to develop a website (findcovidtests.com) that enables users to search for COVID-19 testing locations in the U.S. She continues to volunteer her time to help update the site as new locations emerge, even as she tackles spring term coursework.  

Other examples abound of community-building and of non sibi within our student body. All are incredibly uplifting during this time of general public anxiety. Members of ESSO’s Diversity Club, for instance, are video-recording themselves reading books aloud, to later share with the local elementary school classrooms they can no longer visit in person. Student organizers of Relay for Life are working to host a virtual relay later this month to raise money for the American Cancer Society. And students who were helping to organize the school’s annual Climate Action Day are meeting to discuss how they might collaborate online with faculty, staff and other students to communicate why climate change matters, through written works and visual and performing arts. These are but a fraction of the student endeavors under way to maintain our sense of Exeter community and kinship, and I thank everyone for their efforts during these difficult times.

It is still the case, of course, that our students rightfully mourn the loss of their time on campus, and we miss their presence here more then we can express. I recently shared with our seniors and their parents the hard news that while we will celebrate their graduation on June 7, we must do so remotely. We will recognize the great class of 2020 in special ways online, and we hope to host a graduation celebration on campus later in the summer, if it is deemed safe to do so.

While we recognize and celebrate the resilience and ingenuity of all of our students, we acknowledge that many of them and their families are facing significant and ever-changing challenges due to the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. We are all affected by the pandemic, but the personal impact and hardships are much greater for some than others. Our support of all of our students in their schooling will be unwavering and ever-vigilant. Our deans and faculty are tireless in this effort, as are the many other community members who serve in supportive roles throughout campus.

The Rev. Heidi Heath, PEA’s interim director of religious and spiritual life, is offering “check-ins with the chaplain” for students seeking an additional point of connection and support. In her note to students, Rev. Heidi said, “While you are physically distant from us, you are at the forefront of all of our hearts.” Her words reflect how many of us on campus feel, now and always.

Some of you have asked how we are providing for our employees during this difficult time. The Academy, with the full support of the Trustees, determined that regularly scheduled full- and part-time employees will be compensated in full through June 30 for normally scheduled hours, even if work cannot be performed due to the school’s conversion to distance learning. We also believe it is our civic responsibility to provide whatever aid we can to the town of Exeter. Our principal focus has been supporting Exeter Hospital and its health care workers. We have donated surgical masks and more than 700 N95 masks to the hospital, which represented a surplus beyond our own needs. We have also entered into an agreement with the hospital to turn the Lamont Health and Wellness Center into an auxiliary facility, should the need arise.  

Wherever we are at this moment, we are all connected by our concerns about the impact COVID-19 is having on our families, our communities and the world. We are indebted to those of you whose daily work on the frontlines of this disease is saving lives and benefiting us all. I thank all of you for the concern you have expressed for our students, our employees and the town in which we live and work. Even as we meet the challenges of this difficult time, we will continue to live our values of non sibi in pursuit of academic excellence, and we will continue to strive for equity and inclusivity in all that we do. Exeter will emerge stronger than ever, more cohesive than ever, and we will have grown together in new and unexpected ways.

Please be well. My best wishes to you and your families. We will continue to communicate with you regularly, and we welcome your questions, concerns and ideas.