March 27, 2020

Dear MA Family,

I’m sure that most of you are aware of the fact by now that Governor Ivey announced yesterday afternoon that the state’s public schools are closing for the remainder of the school year as a result of the ongoing threat posed by the spread of the novel coronavirus. Furthermore, the Alabama Department of Public Health issued an order today keeping all independent schools closed at least through April 17th.  Please know the entire COVID-19 emergency planning team and I have been closely following this major news development. As a result of the governor’s decision and careful consideration of the current situation, I am announcing today that MA’s Remote Learning Plan will now remain in effect indefinitely until further notice. 

Given the news regarding the public schools, I know that everyone will be eager to know if this announcement means that the Remote Learning Plan will remain in effect throughout the end of the school year. I believe that it is premature to make a final decision for MA at this time.  I completely respect and support the difficult decision that Governor Ivey and Superintendent Mackey made for all of the public schools in Alabama, particularly given the size and scope of that system.  However, given the smaller size of our community and our ability to mobilize resources relatively quickly, I think that it is reasonable for us to wait on a final decision regarding whether we might return to campus for the final weeks of the school year.  While it is clear that we may feel the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in our community for months to come, we can’t fully predict what will happen and what the specific public health guidance will be by early May. I recognize the fact that not taking a definitive stance risks adding to a feeling of uncertainty during a particularly uncertain time.  However, I do not want to limit our options moving forward at this time. In saying that, though, I also want to be careful not to create false hope within our community that this situation is going to resolve itself quickly. I am under no illusions that we will have a quick return to “normal.”  The current executive order requires us to close at least through April 17, and I anticipate that MA’s campus will remain closed at least through the end of April, if not beyond.  We will continue to keep the community updated in the weeks to come. 

While I know that there is a good bit of uncertainty surrounding us, here’s what is clear to me and what I want to make clear to everyone in the MA community: our first priority moving forward will be the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff and the community at large.  We will continue to align the opening of our campus with the guidance of the Montgomery County Department of Public Health, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and the Centers for Disease Control. The ADPH has included independent schools in the category of institutions ordered to remain closed, and, obviously, MA will comply with any and all executive orders. We will also seek guidance from public health authorities on the wisdom of opening our campus at any point this spring. If there is a point at which there is abundant clarity on the direction that MA must take for the remainder of the school year, then I will definitely communicate that position to you all. Please bear with me as the school determines the best course of action for the health and safety for our community.

As we move forward, we all have to recognize that there is a strong chance that our remote learning plan will have to remain in effect for the remainder of the school year.  If that indeed becomes the reality, MA is prepared to meet that challenge and fulfill the mission of our school. I am confident in and so proud of the exhaustive work that our faculty, administration and staff have completed throughout the launch of our remote learning plan. It’s been remarkable to watch what our students and faculty have accomplished in just the first three days of our plan.  With our first full week of remote learning beginning next week,  we will continue to pursue excellence in the way that we deliver on that plan. Even if our remote learning plan remains in place for the remainder of the school year, we will be able to complete our classes following our normal school year calendar, and I am confident that our students will progress in their learning goals for the year and receive full credit for the coursework that they complete under the strong guidance of our faculty. Yes, learning remotely is different from the on-campus experience, but I believe that we are providing high-quality learning experiences that will allow our students to fulfill our mission as a school.  Furthermore, we remain in complete compliance with the standards of our accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS) as we move to a remote learning environment. Along with SAIS, we have remained in close connection with colleagues across the country in the National Association of Independent Schools, and I am pleased to report that our plans are in close alignment with the plans of the top independent schools in the country.

No matter what happens in the weeks to come in terms of our daily academic schedule, though, it is clear that there will be some unavoidable disappointments as certain events are either postponed or cancelled in the days to come. My heart breaks for the students who will not be able to participate in these spring activities as we had anticipated. At this point, we do not expect any MA events taking place on campus or off in the month of April or beginning of May. Furthermore, even if we are able to have daily classes at some point, the chances of our hosting events with crowds larger than 25-50 individuals are slim.  Please know that the school is deeply committed to preserving the special nature of our MA traditional events as best as we can. While I cannot promise what the exact nature of these events will be at this time, the administration is already working on a number of contingency plans for our closing ceremonies, including the commencement ceremony itself. I know that the thought of having to alter any of those events is devastating to many in our community -- particularly for the seniors and their families. Please know that my heart goes out to all MA families, but particularly those impacted by these changes.  We will communicate those plans as needed in the weeks to come.

When I taught history here at MA, my students and I would often ponder about how the history books would respond to the contemporary events surrounding us.  I remember being in a classroom in the Upper School on 9/11, I remember standing on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial with 8th graders on the night that President Bush announced the plans to begin military action in Iraq, I remember trying to help my students process the financial collapse in the fall of 2008.  All of those events that we experienced in “real-time” have been documented in countless number of history books. This moment in time will also be one of those major moments in our history. Our students will never forget what they are currently experiencing and the history of what we are all experiencing right now will be written in books that will likely continue to be read over the course of all of our lifetimes and by generations of MA students to come.  It is my distinct hope that when our future MA students will read this history, they will read stories of resilience, they will read stories of care and connection, and they will read stories of how we all adapted our lives as best as we could so that we could all continue to engage in our collective pursuit of excellence.  

As I stated to our students at the beginning of the year, the pursuit of excellence is not the same thing as the pursuit of “perfection.”  Sometimes the path that you have before you will cause you to stumble. The true “pursuit of excellence” emerges in the way that you respond to the challenges that emerge.  We are seeking to respond to these unprecedented challenges in thoughtful and careful ways that will allow our school to maintain our mission and create the best possible experience for our students as we move forward.

There will no doubt be more questions and concerns in the days to come, especially as the number of cases increases in the state and the Montgomery area. This is certainly a trying time for all of us. I know that this situation is placing and will continue to place significant burdens on families throughout the MA community;  it has also placed a significant burden on the school along with our faculty, staff and administration as we have sought to navigate this situation to the best of our ability. Together, the MA community will pull through this. 

In the coming days, please continue to take care of yourself and your family. Please engage in the physical distancing practices recommended by the ADPH and the CDC.  You will continue to receive updates from the division directors and from me in the weeks to come. In the meantime, please know that our eagles will continue to SOAR.

Our pursuit continues,
John McWilliams