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The details, challenges and problems to solve wash over me like a torrent of successive waves. They keep coming, with no sustained rest or recovery between them. A pause serves only as a momentary respite to catch my breath. 

It has been like this for five months now, and it has only increased over the past several weeks. This is what it feels like to lead a Jesuit secondary school during the coronavirus pandemic, especially in these days as we prepare for the new school year. During these times, the groups to whom I owe my care all have their own unique needs: faculty, staff, students, parents, colleagues in the administration, my counterparts who serve as school leaders elsewhere in the city and region. I try to listen to their concerns, to collaborate with them in problem-solving and to understand the challenges they present for my consideration or ask for my assistance in overcoming.

The details, challenges and problems to solve wash over me like a torrent of waves. 

The good news is that in the state and city of New York, in which Fordham Prep is located, the coronavirus infection rate stands below 1 percent. Coronavirus deaths as well as victims who suffer serious effects have trickled to a negligible number. Hospitals and their I.C.U.s and E.R.s are no longer overwhelmed. Thanks to the decision to activate state laboratories, testing sites are abundant and wait times to be tested and get a result are minimal. Despite some early missteps—some more serious than others—New York is largely being hailed by the rest of the country, and even across the globe, for getting it right.

On Aug. 8, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York determined that schools may open for in-person learning. This seemed a carefully considered and reasonable decision. After all, we hear that a 1 percent infection rate is likely as good as it gets until a vaccine is selected, tested, approved and widely available. 

So the question for an individual school leader looms, as it loomed for me: Should I recommend that my school open? What risks are involved in such a decision? What can I reasonably do to mitigate those risks in order to provide a healthy and safe environment? Some teachers have underlying conditions due to age or poor health, and students, while admittedly less vulnerable on average, may carry and transmit the virus to others. And what if our school does not open for in-person learning? Will our tuition-paying families flee to other schools where in-person learning is offered? 

Should I recommend that my school open? What risks are involved in such a decision?

From everything we know about local conditions and the rate of infection, the risk-to-benefit analysis seemed clear and compelling: We should allow students and teachers to gather for in-person learning. The verdict has been delivered from many authorities and experts in the fields of education, developmental psychology and health care—including the American Academy of Pediatrics. At the level of K-12 education, there is simply no replacement for in-person learning and schooling that can comparably fulfill the social, intellectual and emotional needs of young people. 

When Fordham Prep was forced to pivot to distance learning this past March, I heard an endless stream of laments from faculty members and parents alike. They felt it was a poor and distant substitute for the experience of being physically present in a classroom with peers and teachers. Our decision to open this fall clearly resonated with an overwhelming desire from the school community at large. 

Under our hybrid model, we gave students the option to attend school in-person four days of every six-day class cycle. For risk-averse families, we offered to provide a full remote learning option. Only about 12 percent of our enrolled students have selected this option, typically due to the circumstances of a student’s or his family’s health or medical background. A small number of faculty members have applied for and received various accommodations tailored to each unique situation. But the overwhelming majority have indicated they will teach in person. My admiration for their generosity, resolve and commitment to service exceeds words. 

Undergirding all of my questions and concerns, I am guided by my duty to care.

Undergirding all of my questions and concerns, I am guided by my duty to care. Beyond the fiduciary responsibility of the leader of an organization, in the midst of a pandemic and a health crisis like this one, the word “care” also has important physical and even medical connotations. And, of course, in the world of Jesuit education, “care” has a more comprehensive meaning than a legal or medical obligation: “care” connotes moral, spiritual and pedagogical dimensions. 

Most directly, care forms the bond between the teacher and the student. In Jesuit parlance, “cura personalis,” the care of the person, is a sacred duty. It begins with reverence for the individual student founded on the conviction that God is present in his life; that God has created this young man or woman for a specific purpose that we can find within the mystery of who this person truly is—within his or her unique history. A commitment to cura personalis means believing that every student possesses a profound desire and yearning to grow and learn, even when clouded by distractions, anxieties and insecurities, which are part and parcel of adolescence and young adulthood, now heightened by the virus. 

In this environment, in-person education becomes even more critical. Cura personalis presupposes that teachers are given the opportunity to get to know their students up close. It is exceedingly difficult, probably impossible, to exercise genuine care for a person we do not know. All the great teachers throughout history knew their students. Socrates knew Plato. Jesus of Nazareth, whose most common title in the Gospels is “Rabbi,” knew the disciples. In the world of literature, film and the performing arts, name any heroic or beloved teacher, and you will find someone who takes the time to get to know the students in front of them. Why? So that they may care for them, and therefore teach them well. 

It is exceedingly difficult, probably impossible, to exercise genuine care for a person we do not know.

In fact, care and interpersonal knowledge are inextricably incarnational activities, which is, perhaps, why we see them manifested so clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. In the theology and poetry of the great Johannine prologue, we learn that God does not love us from afar; rather, God draws near to us, and even becomes one of us, pitching a tent in our midst. Any ministry, which education surely is, requires a similar movement. 

For all of these reasons, no one who has benefited from Jesuit education or participates in it could possibly be surprised to learn that the benefits of in-person education exceed those of remote learning by orders of magnitude. 

Still, serious questions remain about how the conditions of our changed school environment will allow us to care for our students: How will we get to know masked adolescents who, perhaps even more readily than adults, demonstrate their emotions and register their feelings on their faces? How will teachers and counselors communicate care at the distance of six feet, particularly without students seeing their own smiles or expressions of concern beneath their masks? 

Serious questions remain about how the conditions of our changed school environment will allow us to care for our students.

There are obvious physical, technological and environmental challenges as well: Teaching involves projecting one’s voice, and the requirement that teachers wear a face mask surely complicates this process. Will the live-streaming technology work as promised for those students who have chosen to learn from home? What will it be like to teach outside, under a tent, during a rain shower? Will our increased Wi-Fi resources be effective throughout the outdoor learning spaces? 

And then there is the work of risk mitigation: an indispensable and necessary element of our duty of care. There are simply an endless number of modifications we must make and contingencies for which we must plan. Aside from installing tents and outdoor furniture around the campus, and implementing masking and physical-distance requirements—which include moving and storing hundreds of desks in a remote storage facility—we have enhanced our ventilation system and rolled out a daily health screening software solution. We are hiring additional cleaners and nurses, putting a coronavirus testing requirement in place and making resources available for staff to receive training as contact tracers. And we are refining our plans for how to communicate to the community if and when we learn of positive cases. 

Our commitment to care does not end with the teacher and student relationship, or even with virus mitigation. It also directs us to ensure that every student who wants to remain enrolled at Fordham Prep may do so, regardless of how the pandemic has affected his family’s finances and ability to pay tuition. Care led us to radically restructure our budget priorities in order to increase our budget for tuition assistance exponentially, and to avoid, if at all possible, unpaid furloughs and layoffs. In fact, three values of care—namely, a safe and healthy learning environment, retaining every enrolled student and protecting the jobs and livelihoods of each faculty and staff member—have informed all my actions and those of my leadership team and board of trustees since the coronavirus first appeared on the horizon. 

So here we are, at the dawn of a most unusual school year. The conditions under which teachers will be expected to teach, and students to learn, are far from ideal. But they are better than the alternative, which is why I believe that in-person learning is therefore worth the time and resources we will expend to make it as healthy and safe and affordable as possible. While we cannot guarantee the prevention of transmission, we are nonetheless exerting herculean efforts to exercise our care, which has never had higher stakes. 

A return of community spread in the New York City metropolitan area or among our teachers and students during the predicted second viral wave will most certainly interrupt our plans to provide a full and engaging educational experience for our students. This fall, we undertake the enterprise with great caution and vigilance, but also with faith that God who has called us to this vocation of care—this sacred ministry of cura personalis—will bless it and complete it. 

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