Westminster began its 133rd school year with an unprecedented 413 students from 24 states and 19 countries. Students had not been on campus since March when Westminster was forced to move to distance learning due to the global pandemic.
During the intervening months, 12 campus committees developed plans to reopen school in a safe and healthy manner, following Connecticut state guidelines. To minimize risks, numerous online safety videos were required viewing for students, faculty and staff as well as completion of a washout period and daily responses to a self-checker health app.
The first wave of boarding students arrived Aug. 26 and Aug. 27 for a two-week quarantine in small groups called “nests.” The students were required to submit a pre-arrival negative SARS-CoV-2 test. Despite abundant safety protocols, school life kicked into gear with a full assortment of activities. On-campus students met with others in their nest, obtained grab-and-go meals from Armstrong Dining Hall and engaged in supervised and socially distant outdoor activities. All students, including day students, other boarding students who would be returning soon and distance learners, participated in virtual advisory group meetings, orientation games, a club fair, and an equity and inclusion program.
“It is fantastic to see students back on campus,” said Head of School Bill Philip in a message to the school community Sept. 1. “Looking ahead, we cannot wait to welcome students still at home. Since March, it has been much too quiet on Williams Hill.
“Although returning to campus feels as if we are returning to normal, all of us must remember that our current circumstances are not normal,” he emphasized. “In order to give us the best opportunity to remain on campus together, we must adhere to our essential health and safety habits.”
Safety protocols have included maximizing the use of masks, social distancing and hygiene, and minimizing mixing. On-campus testing of students, faculty and staff for the virus augmented pre-arrival testing for students, and new signage around campus provides directions for socially distant seating and pedestrian traffic flow inside and outside of buildings.
Distance learning classes began Aug. 28 for all students, and Head of School Philip delivered the opening chapel talk through a video Sept. 2.
The first assembly of the academic year took place virtually Sept. 9 and was viewed by students in their advisory groups. Associate Head of School Mark de Kanter ’91 began the assembly by saying: “From the moment students arrived back on campus, there has been a great positive energy with those who are here and with those who are online from their homes and have been engaged in classes, orientation activities and other ways we have been working to bring our community together. We are very, very appreciative of the flexibility and patience of everyone in this community — the faculty, the staff, the students — who all made this work.”
Also during the assembly, Izzy Bailey ’21, the junior prefect, welcomed everyone to the 2020-2021 school year and wished members of her Sixth Form class a happy senior year, adding: “This pandemic and this new way of Westminster life doesn’t take away how special it is for us to enter our last year at Westminster and, for some, their first. Let’s make this the best year in Williams Hill history.” She encouraged everyone to stay connected, saying, “This year seems to be filled with a lot of physical distance with social distancing and distance learners, and day students, and the nests and everything, so let’s just remember and believe that Martlets Soar Together.”
Following Izzy’s remarks, Head Prefect Will Rizzo ’21 welcomed new students to Westminster and spoke about the challenges that have shaped the world and Westminster during the pandemic. “We begin this year with a great deal of change and a departure to what we are used to or what we might have envisioned for the school year,” he said. “As we adjust to these difficult times, we must remember the significance of this moment, not just for ourselves, but for our school and for each other. This year, more than ever, will require that every member of our community accepts this reality and commits to the greater good for our school. The sacrifices we make are bigger than ourselves, and we are truly all in this together.”
After acknowledging the tremendous effort on the part of the faculty and staff in making it possible to reopen school, he concluded: “While the start of this school year will be different than we imagined, believe me when I say there is a light at the end of this tunnel. … Know at this time of distancing, we are in no way separated. On behalf of our Prefect Board, we are deeply committed to making this year as successful and fulfilling as any.”
Following the Sept. 11 end of the quarantine period for the first group of boarding students, remaining boarding students arrived on campus Sept. 11, 12 and 13, and day students returned Sept. 13. They, too, had participated in a washout period and underwent pre-arrival testing. Some students have elected to remain distance learners for the trimester.
Beginning Sept. 14, in-person learning on campus began in combination with continued distance learning. The afternoon program begins Sept. 21. The Westminster community moves forward together into the new school year.