A Letter to Bethel…
New Head of School Tao Smith ’90 introduces himself to the community of Bethel in a letter to the Bethel Citizen this month.
Dear Town and Residents of Bethel:
I am writing to you today not just as the newly appointed head at Gould Academy, but also as a current and former Bethel resident, a parent of Crescent Park School students, a Gould alum, and a concerned citizen. This pandemic has carried with it risks and challenges at a time when our unity and strength as a nation are being strained. Everyone, my wife and I included, is anxious about what comes next. And while the road ahead may be fraught with danger and uncertainty, there is also reason for hope, optimism, and a chance for a better tomorrow.
Today, I want to share with you some details regarding our plans for students returning and school opening this fall. We began our return to campus task force process the first week of May, and have invested thousands of hours researching, planning, and implementing what we believe to be one of the country’s most comprehensive Return-to-School plans. It was built on the assumption that schools must reopen for this country to move forward, and our duty and obligation as an educational institution is to provide for the continuity of learning for our children. This, however, is no easy task given the current trajectory of the disease here in the United States and abroad.
Among the safest places to live….
Bethel is currently among the safest places to live in the United States, and Gould hopes to do its part to preserve this statistic above all others. From the beginning, when we first formed our task force in May 2020, our number one priority has been to protect the health and wellness of our students, employees, families, and the Bethel Community, period.
Of our 202 currently enrolled students, 108 are in Maine or other Maine CDC non-restricted states. Only 25% of our total student body will be coming from restricted states; more than half of those are Massachusetts state residents. Of our 42 international students who are not still in the U.S., 16 have already chosen to begin the year learning remotely via Gould Academy and another 14 enrollments are as of yet uncertain, leaving 12 known international students arriving on campus within the next five-to-six weeks. We are working closely with all of our families to ensure that they are taking extra precautions in the weeks and days leading up to their arrival, and our intake process will be stretched out over five weeks in order to allow ample time for testing, screening, quarantine and back-up plans if there is a positive case confirmed on campus. These first few weeks are critical and we are taking this responsibility very seriously.
How we’ll work to keep everyone healthy…
Gould will require the entire school to take a COVID test result within 72 hours prior to returning to campus. Students traveling by air and those who could not quarantine from the time of testing will be offered a second test upon arrival on campus. In the rare instance that a student cannot access a COVID test prior to return, that student will quarantine for 14 days upon arrival at Gould. This will be in effect for ALL Gould students and employees, regardless of state or country they are coming from. Even our Maine residents and residents of neighboring states who are not required to quarantine or test by the Maine CDC are being asked to do this. Once students arrive on campus, they will be kept in small cohorts until the first week of school, at which time we will administer a second test. Until we have received confirmation that there are no known cases of COVID-19 on campus, we will keep all students under a tight restriction, meaning no travel or movement off campus into town.
Contingency plans are in place if a student or employee is confirmed or is suspected of having COVID. Families within driving distance are also required to come and take their child home or off campus if confirmed positive at any point during the year. Gould has identified ample quarantine and isolation spaces, by modifying and/or reserving small dormitory buildings or isolated floors for these purposes. This summer, in addition to hiring a new head of nursing, Gould created a fourth full-time nursing position, bringing Janet Willie back to Bethel. We are currently appropriating necessary PPE and other supplies to re-open responsibly. Our building and grounds staff will increase the frequency and depth to which they clean buildings and common spaces, and all faculty are being asked to assist by wiping down their areas multiple times per day.
All Gould students and employees will be screened daily, and those exhibiting any flu-like symptoms will not be allowed on campus or will be quarantined on campus until we can receive confirmation that they do or do not have COVID.
As per the Governor’s order, masks will be worn indoors at all times and out of doors when the six-foot minimum separation can not be maintained. The only exception for this will be in faculty family units and also dorm room units (roommates may unmask in their own room ONLY with their roommate present).
Back to basics…
The three pillars of protection: Masking, physical distancing, and increased sanitization practices, including washing hands and avoiding touching one’s face, are the keys to our success. We will be working with our students and our faculty to reengineer our patterns of behavior, movements on campus, daily habits, and encourage selflessness, thinking broadly about the collective good and the health and wellness of others. Our expectation is that through this process we become a better school and a more closely knit community.
Our partnerships with the Bethel community have always been of vital importance to Gould, and now more than ever we hope to strengthen the strategic alliances with local businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations, and others. I have already personally connected with Dana Bullen and Brian Heon of Sunday River, Dr. David Murphy of SAD 44, the Bethel Selectboard, Rotary Club, and other leaders in the community, reinforcing our commitment to these partnerships and aimed at strengthening alliances and broad collaboration.
There are myriad details to our plan, but these are the high points. If we do this right, we believe that our community stands little chance of picking up an infection from Gould Academy. Our oversight and systems of accountability are far greater than what the Maine CDC is requiring of other guests to our state, and we have a mutual vested interest in protecting Gould and protecting Bethel.
No system, however, is foolproof, and we enter this school year with the assumption of risk that comes with operating during a pandemic. Given the odds, we are planning for the eventuality that someone in our community, at school or in Bethel, will test positive for COVID-19. Given our close proximity to one another, any local infection will likely carry with it risk of transmission, and so our plan is built not solely around preventative measures, but also around contingency plans for when someone catches the virus and/or gets sick.
In crisis there is opportunity….
Abraham Lincoln, at a similar crossroads in our nation’s history, spoke about his wish for us to come together, for the better angels of our nature to “yet swell the chorus of the Union.” I am a firm believer that in crisis there is also opportunity if only we can shift our gaze to see it. We have now in front of us myriad opportunities: the chance to change education for the better, “the way it should be,” the potential to think about each other and what makes us similar vs. what divides us (truly, there is more we all have in common than not), the moment here now for our Bethel community to show the rest of the world how to rise in the face of adversity, to become a closer-knit community, bonded around a common good and sense of purpose.
I hope that by working closely with town officials and the entire Bethel community we can reopen effectively with appropriate protections in place, and contribute to the sense of relative safety and security that we all wish to maintain and are in everyone’s best interests.
Tao Smith ’90
Head of School, Gould Academy