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Dr. Grauer's Column - Summer Breeze

Summer Breeze

(Including Findings from The Grauer School COVID-19 Parent Survey
done through NAIS, 4.28.2020-6.30.2020)


In my city
If you stand on the beach and see the sun drowning in the sea
and behind you there is a row of commercial buildings
you’d agree
that the dying, red sunlight seems to be gilding
the glass windows and the metal girders.
Vani Dadoo, age 16, from India

Part I. 

We have important work to do, and so much of it! It is pandemic days. Days of climate disorder. We are surrounded by mixed passion and fear about identity and race and social justice. Many among us are quarantined and some isolated and lonely. How does our school fit into all this? For our students, can the world be terrible and tragic and beautiful and affirming all at once? It looks that way. We want to be the teachers of a great generation that rises to incredible, complex challenges with courage and clear thinking.

Grauer 8th grade student Blu I. '25 protesting at a local "Black Lives Matter" protest - June 4, 2020

If ever there was a time for great teachers and teaching, it is now. Doing this great teaching through remote learning at this amazing time in history is a little bit like tackling the greatest foe we’ve ever had, with one hand tied behind our backs. 

We’re tackling! One parent said, “[Grauer is] the only institution that has come close to delivering a remote experience that can be measured against an on-campus promise.” We have to deliver system-wide as well, not just in the classroom. Just this week, The Grauer School signed papers to shift our retirement fund holdings to environmentally/socially conscious investments. We’ve increased our equity scholarships, again. We made social justice an area of graduation distinction. And our teachers are scrutinizing almost every curriculum in light of these enlightening days. Are we aware of the microaggressions and insensitivities all over our campus, laying low? No.

Two big questions are: Can we do all the work that needs doing in order to get safely back on our campus? And, safely back on campus, can we do the real work that needs doing?

We are expected to reconfigure our campus: We must treat the air in every room like it is contaminated and expel that air so we can breathe free. (Haven’t Native Americans and African Americans been doing this for generations?) 

It’s summertime. Instead of novels, some of us are reading a lot of history and science this season: African American history and coronavirus issues. Like the coronavirus, racism and human fear don’t take summer vacations. (I know, I need one.)

A lot of the history of America I was taught in school seems like cartoons. It treated African Americans and Native Americans like color commentary, at best, there to serve the needs of the people who were writing the history. 

Most of the educators I know are ready for some new heroes and archetypes. History teachers are scouring the curriculum for healthy heroes and science teachers are combing the curriculum for healthy ecosystems. 

Many among us can’t breathe. WHO data shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year. A Harvard School of Public Health analysis held that the Trump administration's rollbacks and proposed reversals of environmental rules would likely cost the lives 80,000 US residents per decade and lead to respiratory problems for many more than 1 million people. [1]  “We are going to get rid of the regulations that are just destroying us. You can’t breathe—you cannot breathe,” said our President, who has noted that air pollution is “a Chinese hoax,” which sounds similar to what my neighbor claims about the coronavirus. Due to the coronavirus, the US recently relaxed air pollution regulations even more, to help the economy. Almost all actively publishing climate scientists claim that one of the most significant effects of air pollution is on climate change. According to experts, rising heat and humidity can make it more difficult to breathe. 

Here are the top 5 warmest years on record: 2016, 2019, 2015, 2017, 2018. If you have a chronic lung condition, such as asthma or COPD, you may struggle even more with global warming in 2020.

The point is, the world is becoming more interdependent and stopping the swirl of that interdependence is like calling off the pandemic. A great teacher can’t do that, even if my neighbor can. All we can do is teach our children to manage it, use the golden rule, and study health and the impacts we have on others. All living things are connected. In tribes and great schools, humans sense this and they feel less lonely.

In our search for new heroes, some stories coming out of African and Native American history are great ones. I learned that 25% of America’s cowboys did not look like John Wayne, they were black, as are 30% of Vietnam veterans. Nineteen percent of Native Americans have served in the armed forces, compared to an average of 14 percent of all other ethnicities. And let’s not get into cowboys and Indians. I’m streaming summer feature films I am now sorry I missed: Just Mercy, Emmanuel, and When They See Us: great movies about race. (Here are some movies to watch:  "12 movies you should watch about the black experience in America"). 

This week, the American Natural History Museum in New York announced it was taking down the iconic stature that has stood heroically at its entryway forever:  a musclebound, gilded Teddy Roosevelt on a giant steed, with a Native American and an African American walking shirtless on each side of him. Maybe they could just remove the horse? 

History is a gilding, and maybe it can do a better job of ennobling all those shirtless ones who deserve it. What is race, anyway? What is a hero? We have some major conversations to start and re-start in classes, eye to eye with our students. Some of them will start this summer in Alicia Tembi’s “History Camp: Explore African American History and Culture”—and you can still sign up at www.grauerschool.com/summer. There is so much to talk about we could burst. There is much air in the room.

The job of our best teachers now is to empower the next generation as they clarify their voices, learn to articulate a better future. Pandemics and race riots and wildfires make this imperative. To be a teacher these days is to be living in the lab. This summer, a small handful of students and teachers are coming back to our campus, meeting in hybrid formats.  

Courtney Conway, Grauer Music Teacher, with students in Music Summer Camp - June 23, 2020

We have to get back to school! Some of our students feel victimized, or anxious, understandably, so we have to work extra hard on those voices. If you listen deeply enough, you can hear a voice your student did not even know they had. 

Being healthy entails managing the things you cannot control, not getting hung up in what you can’t change—and dialing in on those things you can control, like your mind. As teachers, how can we address the seemingly intractable problems like social and environmental justice if we can’t overcome the basic challenge of developing the confident, clear-thinking, connected student “self”? 

This past, strange spring, given “stay at home orders,” we spent 90 days tele-teaching students from their homes and tried to move heaven and earth to help them keep hold of those voices through enhanced, remote forms of learning. Eventually it was like peering deeper into the computer screen than we ever thought we could.

Towards the end of those 90 days, we surveyed. The survey we used was developed by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). How was everyone doing? We have always thought that the learning out of class is as important as the learning in, and that social and emotional development (SEL) is as important as academic—how was that going now that students were staying at home and not on campus?

One survey question asked parents their thoughts on the importance of SEL. Fifty-five percent of all parents noted social emotional development should be the main goal of lesson plans, programs, and activities. (100% of Grauer teachers believe that we can’t achieve deep learning unless the student is in the right state of mind and we have created the right conditions for learning.)

What about online learning? We were concerned that student interactions were impacted—even before this pandemic, we were hearing way too much about teen loneliness in schools all over the country. Ninety percent of Grauer students surveyed felt there is an adult they can talk to at the school if they have a problem; but still 45% of Grauer students reported feeling more lonely than usual; and 84% of students reported experiencing stress-related health symptoms in the prior month.

Ninety-seven percent of Grauer parents surveyed felt that virtual teaching interactions with teachers and students were addressing their children’s needs well in class. Fifty-one percent said “very well.” No parent said “not well.” 

Grauer Summer Camp students at the beach for Surfing & Ocean Stewardship Camp - June 23, 2020

We seemed to be making the best of a bad situation, a good definition of wellness. Here was the stunner of the survey:  89% of Grauer parents said virtual tele-interactions were going well outside of class meetings — none said “not well” at all. How was this even possible? How were our teachers interacting with kids out of class when we are all quarantined? National norms have not come out on this datapoint yet, but without question Grauer’s data will shatter the norms. But it was still a bad situation. I think we vastly exceeded low expectations.

Grauer families are adjusting well to the COVID-19 situation, by their own account, though 27% have been negatively financially impacted. Some are starting to recover, and some have reached out regarding our special pandemic financial aid fund that parents and friends put together at our last gala. 

Right now, the most important thing to us is to get back together on campus. Schools all over the country are scrambling to figure out how to do that while giving all their students healthy air to breathe inside the classrooms. Grauer’s “return to campus plan” will show us how to do that.

George Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” are all of our challenge right now in pandemic days. The coronavirus hovers in aerosol droplets that can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. We will need to swoosh in clean air to breathe in all our classrooms. 

The Grauer School campus appears ideal in terms of breathing, and we could be what other schools currently aspire to: Day in and day out, the Pacific Ocean, a mile to the west, exhales its clean breath through our campus, purifying our classrooms, filling our lungs, and inspiring our minds. We have small enough class sizes to meet in single rooms while safely distanced. We have no boarding facilities, no dining rooms, few international students flying in, few students relying upon mass transit, few large team sports or large singing groups, no real office pools, a pastoral setting outside in an almost constant breeze, almost no staff with serious risk factors, and only a small handful of students considered at significant risk. We can breathe, and are more grateful for that than I ever imagined we might be.

Grauer’s program is liable to be substantially less impacted than peer schools and all public schools. Grauer has close to no significant risk on the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Self-Assessment Calculator Risk Assessment.

Part II.

We are getting letters which support our survey findings. One Parent wrote in the following:

I wanted to convey again that what you and the faculty have done over the last five months (preparing and then implementing the distance learning program) is mind-boggling. The online learning Grauer provided was head-and-shoulders above what other schools offered. While I heard lots of friends complain about the lack of engagement for their children, I counted among our family’s many blessings the fact that [our son] was a member of your fine community. And the graduation ceremony was outstanding. Thank you so much for all of the hard work and personal sacrifice you and the faculty put into making what could have been a miserable situation so positive and productive.

We are dedicated to returning to campus, and will return in whole or part—whatever aspects of this return are within our power and control, we will seize. We are an Irish proverb. 

Ninety-five percent of our families surveyed are committed to re-enrollment no matter what, and 5% of our families said they were unsure about re-enrolling if the school year was mainly distance learning. That 5% matters—they have a lot to teach us. And yet, some families will depend upon distance learning as a lifeline. We will offer a complete classroom experience while simul-casting that experience out to those who cannot breathe the campus air. 

A student arranging flowers in Creative Writing Summer Camp at The Grauer School - June 23, 2020

Here is another recent letter our school received:
It goes without saying you are exceptional! I have not reached out and said it often enough, THANK YOU. Thank you for your time, patience, diligence and passion extended towards this future generation. Times are unprecedented, but you have risen to the occasion in an organized, thorough manner ... one, dare I admit, EVERY business should look towards for inspiration.

The thing is to preserve the Grauer experience in all formats—we have to be ready to do that. Our return to campus roadmap will show the way and we will be doing that roadmapping all summer long. 

Happy Summer. I hope every student at The Grauer School will wander aimlessly, study clouds, sleep and dream. I can’t say what will heal us from the pain of racism and disease and sick ecosystems, but the summer breeze is the start and maybe the perfect cure.

[1] Cutler, David; Dominici, Francesca (June 12, 2018). "A Breath of Bad Air: Cost of the Trump Environmental Agenda May Lead to 80 000 Extra Deaths per Decade".

Dr. Grauer wants to hear from his readers. Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

Grauer 8th grade student Blu I. '25 protesting at a local "Black Lives Matter" protest - June 4, 2020

Courtney Conway, Grauer Music Teacher, with students in Music Summer Camp - June 23, 2020

Grauer Summer Camp students at the beach for Surfing & Ocean Stewardship Camp - June 23, 2020

A student arranging flowers in Creative Writing Summer Camp at The Grauer School - June 23, 2020

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