A Year of Struggle and Opportunity
Head Of School Todd Bland And Board Of Trustees President
Lisa Donohue ’83 Reflect On The Past 12 Months.
Last march, the United States entered an evolving global crisis— the worst health crisis in a century— that created significant challenges for operating schools. In May, the nation responded to a racial reckoning that also had serious implications for institutions across the country. Milton Magazine spoke with Head of School Todd Bland and Milton’s Board of Trustees President LISA DONOHUE ’83 about the many challenges in the past year, some of the difficult decisions they’ve had to make, and where Milton is today.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HIT THE UNITED STATES IN EARNEST IN MARCH 2020. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT THOSE FIRST FEW WEEKS AND MONTHS WERE LIKE FOR MILTON?
BLAND: We were all surprised by the magnitude and speed of the transmission of this disease and how it impacted countries around the world. We had been working on coronavirus planning for several weeks, given its spread in China and beyond, which affected our international students and families as well as planned school trips. We hoped to make it to spring break and then have some additional time to prepare for local impact, but all of a sudden the wave that hit not only the country but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had us depart a day early. So this remote world began, and we ended up spending essentially the spring break period doing everything we could to plan for what lay ahead. Fortunately, we had assembled a coronavirus task force in January and were already preparing for the future. First and foremost, our planning was guided by the health and safety of our community—the children in our care and our faculty and staff.
SCHOOLS WERE FORCED TO PLAN FOR NEW OPERATIONAL APPROACHES, INCLUDING REMOTE LEARNING, DURING THIS TIME. WHAT WAS MILTON’S APPROACH, AND HOW WELL DO YOU FEEL IT WENT?
BLAND: It would be more accurate to describe our shift to online learning as “crisis remote learning.” In those first weeks and months, most of our time was spent developing emergency plans for all three academic divisions. That included coordination with remote-learning education experts. We knew we needed to plan for three distinctly different learning strategies because of Milton’s divisions and age ranges. There were many conversations around the creation of schedules and the advantages of synchronous and asynchronous learning. This time also included a Zoom speed round of training for our teachers and building the technology required for remote teaching. Everyone—teams within the divisions and teachers doing their own work—was preparing for our remote return from spring break. The backdrop to all this was a pandemic that was clobbering our country, with all the fears that it created in people—fears about their family, about their own health, and about loved ones in their care. This made our work all the more challenging, because people were also trying to care for themselves and their families in new ways.
DONOHUE: This was a time that required a rapid shift into crisis management. Things were changing dynamically. The School was making short-term, rapid decisions with the best information we had at the time. And we wanted to be a beacon to our community—to our students and their families and to our faculty and staff—and show that we were there for them and listening. At the same time, we needed to make decisions that were not always popular with a community that held a wide range of opinions. While we were there to listen, we also needed to stay the course on decisions that we felt were in the best interests of our students and adults. So it was a balancing act between listening and holding fast on the decisions we made. When we had new information that persuaded us to change, we did so, but we couldn’t change just because there were voices wanting us to do something differently.
BLAND: What guided us from the beginning was that our decisions must be based on what we believed were in the best interests of the children in our care and of the School. We knew these were challenging decisions that could never satisfy everyone and that there would be criticism around some of them. Our North Star was always doing what we believed, as educators, was best for our students.
CAN YOU SAY MORE ABOUT THE DIFFERENCES MILTON FACED BETWEEN THE LOWER/MIDDLE SCHOOLS AND THE UPPER SCHOOL?
BLAND: One of Milton’s greatest qualities—our structure—can at times present challenges that peer institutions don’t need to consider. Few schools in the country are K-12 with a full boarding program in the upper school. Our response, institutionally, had to fit our needs. Creating a viable, functioning remote- learning program for a five-year-old is completely different from creating one for an 18-year-old. In addition, viable options for students in Shanghai, in Stoneham, or in Sacramento are very different. The Lower and Middle School divisions have 150 students each. Size and program needs simplified the approach. The Upper School, with 700 students, had a different set of challenges. The learning that happens at that level is not really by grade, but by individual course, so the intricacy of building that platform and a schedule was far greater. We were dealing with 12 different time zones that would allow for some synchronous learning. We also needed to be attentive to issues of equity and access to technology and resources.
DONOHUE: It’s important to understand that the pedagogy and curriculum of remote learning and in-person learning are very different. The assumption that we, or any school, could pick up the curriculum and put it online was not realistic. We recognized that some families wanted our remote program to immediately deliver the same experience found in the classroom. Given the differences, however, and the sudden shift to remote learning, that simply was not possible. You can’t underestimate the fact that every teacher had to rewrite a curriculum, whether a kindergarten or a Grade 12 teacher. By fall, the school was able to adapt and build a robust curriculum and execution for hybrid and remote learning. BLAND: To pick up on Lisa’s point, difficult times bring out the best and the worst in people. This pandemic has been no exception. Many have expressed extraordinary gratitude, have brought forward concerns in a productive manner, and have acknowledged the pain and suffering that was going on. Most had a broad perspective on the entire community and the array of challenges this pandemic had created; others had a more narrow perspective, specific to their own needs. The vast majority of people were supportive and compassionate, and we are grateful. Some of our best enhancements came from people who offered constructive feedback along the way that was extremely valuable. And we continue to learn and are committed to taking lessons from this period forward.
A MAJOR CHALLENGE FOR MILTON HAS BEEN ENSURING THAT THE CAMPUS WOULD BE SAFE FOR ITS STUDENTS, FACULTY, AND STAFF WHEN IT REOPENED. WHAT HAS THAT ENTAILED, AND WHAT HAVE BEEN THE FINANCIAL REPERCUSSIONS FOR THE SCHOOL?
BLAND: From the start, ensuring the safety of our students, faculty, and staff was our highest priority. We organized a cross-functional internal effort, along with outside experts in public and environmental health, medicine, and education, to develop and communicate a robust health and safety protocol. During the fall semester, we were pleased to have had few cases, and we credit our community’s compliance with important preventive measures required to safely operate on campus. Our safety measures helped contain transmission when cases did occur on campus. Testing is a significant piece of our efforts—all students, faculty, and staff on campus are tested weekly or more often and must also submit a daily attestation of health. During the first semester, we conducted almost 15,500 covid-19 tests across our community and had only 30 positive cases, which translated to an average 0.2 percent positivity rate. Six-foot social distancing, mandatory masking, and hand-washing protocols—along with all the corresponding signage—have been critical. We de-densified our campus to structure our physical spaces for six feet of distance. Environmental health consultants analyzed our buildings and plans to ensure that our interior air quality is what it needs to be. There’s PPE throughout campus. I feel as confident and at peace with our response relative to health and safety as I do about anything.
DONOHUE: I would emphasize that we worked very hard with the Broad Institute to get the best testing protocols we could find and will continue to do so as testing evolves. The other infrastructure measures are significant. We anticipate that by the end of this school year, $8.5 million will have been spent on covid-19-related infrastructure and operational expenses. There was never any hesitation by Todd and his team or by the board in doing whatever it took to keep our community safe—the significant steps that were needed not just to open the School in the fall but also to operate this school year in a pandemic.
MILTON MADE THE DIFFICULT DECISION TO BEGIN IN SEPTEMBER WITH A PHASED RETURN OF STUDENTS TO IN-PERSON LEARNING—WITH THE CAMPUS OPEN TO LOWER AND MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS, AND THEN UPPER SCHOOL DAY STUDENTS, BUT STILL CLOSED TO BOARDERS, WHO CONTINUED TO ATTEND SCHOOL ONLINE UNTIL JANUARY. WHY DID YOU MAKE THAT DECISION, AND WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CONSEQUENCES?
BLAND: The Upper School is half day and half boarding, so isolating our boarding community was impossible given our circumstances. Ultimately we decided to begin with a hybrid model to allow those who could attend as day students to do so in two alternating groups, but to not open the dorms initially. There was understandable concern with the ability to reopen the dorms safely. There was also a significant debate about the emotional well-being of students in such a restricted residential setting.
DONOHUE: The administration and the board knew this decision was going to be deeply, deeply disappointing, especially to the boarding population, but also to the day students who were looking forward to seeing their friends and their peers. It’s hard to convey to those kids and parents how much empathy we felt around that decision, but it was real and was felt by all. But it was the right thing to do to ensure the safety of our community, just as it was the right decision for us to open the dorms in January, after we had confidence that the campus could be well managed and safe. We’d demonstrated that our testing was excellent and would only get better because of the changes we were making. You have to do what you believe is right, but through it all, we never lost sight of the importance of the boarding program and our boarding community. It’s part of our identity.
BLAND: We never faltered in our commitment to our boarding program. We were grappling with immensely difficult circumstances that affected living spaces even more than learning spaces.
DONOHUE: We did fall short on soliciting our parents’ input. We worked hard to listen to our range of constituencies, but parents were a key voice that was underrepresented. We’ve since instituted more parent surveys (and student surveys) and we’ll continue to do more. We recognize that there is a need to improve our sharing of information and outreach to families— particularly during these stressful times. There are opportunities to communicate more frequently and more clearly. BLAND: Some families, particularly within the Upper School, felt that we provided too much discretion to teachers, especially in terms of remote instruction. Your child’s personal circumstances mean that it can be experienced very unevenly. If, for example, a majority of your child’s teachers are remote, that can feel very different than if they’re in person. So that piece has been a criticism that we have to acknowledge and an area that we will continue to be attentive to going forward. This pandemic has created many difficult choices. It has been very hard for everyone—schools are certainly no exception. But I’m proud of a community where teachers are a part of the decision-making process. Different people have different perspectives on this, but teachers are frontline worker whose needs must be considered.
IN LATE MAY, NATIONWIDE PROTESTS RESPONDED TO THE KILLINGS OF GEORGE FLOYD, BREONNA TAYLOR, AND OTHER BLACK AMERICANS. HOW DID THE MILTON COMMUNITY REACT TO THAT CALL FOR RACIAL JUSTICE, AND WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THE CONVERSATIONS YOU’VE HAD ABOUT STRUCTURAL RACISM?
BLAND: It shook me and it shook everyone—the faculty, the staff, and the board. My goal as a leader is to make sure that every child here feels that this school is their school as much as it is anyone’s school. Sadly, members of our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community said, often expressed through social media, “It did not feel like my school. I went there, but I still felt like I was a visitor.” That was heartbreaking, but critical for us to hear and acknowledge. Something is broken and needs to be fixed. What happened this past year showed how much further we have to go.
DONOHUE: It was very difficult at first to hear the comments, and it needed to be. What was also hard, but important, was how personal the comments got. Then you continue to go deeper and listen. It took great courage for students and alumni to name their truth to more aggressively hold us accountable. Outside our own walls, Milton is known as having a diverse community, faculty, and staff. It is known as having a diverse board, and we have long had the Office of Multiculturalism and Community Development. But what we heard is “That’s nice, but it’s not enough, and my experience was not positive. You need to wake up and realize it’s not enough and it’s not effective enough.” You go through that journey and realize that the gap between where we are and where we need to be is still big.
FOUR YEARS AGO, MILTON STUDENTS OF COLOR STAGED A SIT IN THAT, ACCORDING TO WHAT YOU LEARNED FROM MILTON STUDENTS AND ALUMNI IN THE SPRING, RESULTED IN LITTLE MEANINGFUL CHANGE. HOW WILL MILTON’S ACTIONS GOING FORWARD BE DIFFERENT?
BLAND: The work we’ve done since the sit-ins is not enough. This is clear. Those students who participated in the sit-ins, who are either still students or graduates, didn’t feel there was enough sustained change from our efforts thus far.Things might have improved, or perhaps there was a good moment, but it wasn’t sustained. We need to do better.
DONOHUE: There needs to be greater sustainability in the solutions we develop and the speed at which we implement those solutions. It’s hard to admit, but after the sit-ins, there were actions we wanted to take. But in the grand scheme of operating the School, we did not move fast enough to implement our plans and as a result have clearly been unable to make enough progress. What happened to George Floyd and other Black Americans, and the hurt and emotions engendered by those tragedies, helped clarify the depth of the institutional challenge we needed to address. There needs to be greater sustainability, efficacy, and transparency in how we address these issues.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE INSTITUTIONAL CHANGES THAT ARE BEING BROUGHT ABOUT BY THESE CONVERSATIONS?
BLAND: We recently created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission, a group made up of alumni and members of the faculty, staff, and board whose fundamental role is to assess, prioritize, and name a set of recommendations to the administration and the board for concrete short-, medium-, and longterm goals that the institution needs to achieve and be held accountable for. A lot of the work of the commission is to make sure that what we’re doing is foundational, but it also will identify work that we are missing but that needs to be done. I would also like to recognize faculty and staff for stepping up in all divisions, working to identify ways to support policy and practice development.
DONOHUE: With members of the board on the commission we want the community to understand how committed the board is not only to helping Todd and the School make the changes we need to make at the pace we need to make them, but also to participate in those changes.
BLAND: One of the primary complaints that came out of the recent conversations is that there was no one place to go other than the administration to discuss people’s concerns. We recently announced the appointment of faculty member Suzanne DeBuhr as director of truth and reconciliation, a new position that will help the community address grievances, including micro-aggressions and racism. This is a trusted place for adults and children to go. We’ve created a new fund for diversity, equity, and inclusion to ensure this work is effectively resourced. The Milton Fund is a major source of philanthropic support. We’ve also hired Diversity Directions, a consulting firm that focuses on k-12 schools, to help provide direction for us as we make these institutional changes. The firm will bring a degree of granularity that requires both listening and analysis to help us move in the right direction. Since January, they’ve been carrying out an audit, interviewing members throughout the community. We had already created an authorized strategic plan, but we want to evaluate what may be missing and be sure that the plans we’ve made are the right ones.
Part of the work we’re doing, with the commission’s help, is to reimagine our Office of Multiculturalism and Community Development (OMCD) to ensure that it’s positioned to best serve and engage the community and the School in the next stage of this important work. We have just named a new chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, Vanessa Cohen Gibbons. Heather Flewelling, director of OMCD, is departing Milton to explore new opportunities after nearly two decades of doing many great things for the School. Vanessa will also be a direct report to me and sit on my administrative team.
DONOHUE: The addition of a third-party expert consultant was also meant to push us hard and aggressively. The killings of Black Americans highlighted even more the importance of the fight against systemic racism. Feedback from our own community affirmed our need for more external voices who are experts in this space. This work is hard. But we are fully committed to it.
BLAND: What’s next will be a balancing act between the yearning for immediate change and making sure that the changes we’re implementing are effective and long-term. It takes time to develop foundational change, change that will last for a long time and will continue to evolve as needed. What we’re trying to do is build an anti-racist institution. Part of this work is to create a foundation for a different type of school, and we must recognize that this work will never be finished. It is important that this remains an ongoing priority. You can hear the historian in me, because I always think about looking back, but I hope that we’ll be able to look back at this time not only as a time of devastation, sadness, and fracture, but also as a time when the institution answered the call, and that Milton made a fundamental shift that altered the school’s trajectory in really important and positive ways from 2020 forward.
A YEAR INTO THE PANDEMIC, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE MILTON TODAY?
DONOHUE: I am so impressed with our students. They’ve been through a lot. All of them. Seniors are persevering and making the most of their last year of high school. Our new students have embraced forming new relationships at a new school in a covid-19 world. What kids have had to experience and learn in this environment has not been lost on us. They are awe-inspiring. A year into this, we’ve moved into a position of confidence in how we operate, both within our current limitations, where we’ve learned how to continuously adjust and evolve moving into the winter semester with boarders back in the dorms, and ultimately into the fall, when we expect our entire community will be on campus together once again.
BLAND: I’ll echo Lisa—the kids are resilient and show amazing creativity. I am so proud of our students. And I am so grateful for our dedicated faculty and staff, working so hard under extraordinary circumstances. Honestly, it takes my breath away. This has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone, but good things will come out of it, including the resiliency and adaptability it’s taught people. The work we’ve had to do to function within the parameters of the pandemic will also provide the School with important, lasting lessons that will affect so many things: how we operate, how we teach, what we teach—and how we appreciate one another. We are optimistic for the future. We look forward to moving beyond this stage of the pandemic, to the vaccine rolling out despite early hurdles, and to being back together again, all of us, on campus and in person in the coming school year.