In order to satisfy pandemic distancing requirements for the 2020-21 school year, Field School requested of its landlord (Albemarle County) in 2020 that it be allowed to erect six tents and four portable restrooms on spaces outside of its Crozet Avenue school building. At the time, the only legal means for the county to approve the request administratively was to charge the same rate per square foot for the outdoor space as currently charged for indoor space ($4.43 per square foot per year), for a total annual rent increase of about $25,000.
“Since the county owns all of this property, any time you use any of it you have to sign a lease agreement,” said Charles Skipper, Head of Field School. “Now that we put tents over [some parts of the fields], it’s a different use, so we had to rent the land.” In December, Field School requested forgiveness of about $20,000 of the additional rent so that the payments would fall in line with outdoor use. “That was to the credit of Michael Freitas and the team at the county—they helped facilitate the process and came up with a number for us,” said Skipper. “We didn’t know if it would work, but it made sense to ask.”
The rent relief was granted, and Field School may decide to use at least some of the outdoor space for the upcoming school year. “We want to keep the idea and the tradition of outdoor classes alive, and I’m not sure if the tents are the best way to do that or some kind of other outdoor classroom structure. It’s tremendously nice, to be honest, because we can come outside for a number of different uses. One of the best and biggest uses we had was having our lunches outside, which also helped with one of the biggest transmission vectors (eating together).”
Skipper emphasized the importance of giving the faculty as much flexibility as possible with their classes, which the covered spaces help facilitate. “We have the autonomy as an institution to say that a teacher has the authority to say, you know, we’re just going to go outside and do something today instead of whatever else we had planned, and to us that’s a net gain,” he said.
For now, Field School plans to keep its distancing measures in place for the fall, a decision that meant the school admitted fewer new students for the coming year than it otherwise would have. “We are not going back to our normal class sizes, we’re staying with the six-foot distancing,” said Skipper. “At the end of the day it will be less disruptive to keep things where they were and then to loosen up controls as we go along, rather than to admit more students with shorter distancing and then have to go back because of one of the variants came out. It’s not a decision without its costs, but it has the upside of a lot of benefits.”
Skipper says the school’s pandemic experience presented real challenges and now provides a “serious opportunity for reflection.”
“In conversations I have with [other school administrators], I feel like some people want to run to the past and ‘go back to the way things were pre-Covid,’ but I don’t think that’s best. Let’s stop and think about all of the lessons that we just learned and everything that we have now figured out. Let’s talk about what differentiated instruction really looks like. One of the great virtues of technology is it’s allowed us to envision a wider range of what’s possible.”
As always for the school, “the relationships are at the center of it all, and we know how important they are to learning in general,” said Skipper. “We’re developing some ideas around [student] accountability, a quality that both students and parents have expressed interest in, and our board as well. It’s partially a function of philosophy and mission and numbers and size. We are pursuing what we call the four A’s: authentic relationships, agency, accountability, and autonomy among the student body.”
“The audience here is middle school boys, a group that often people say least embodies these characteristics, but honestly I don’t know why it has to be that way or what it means,” said Skipper. “For us, we value middle school as a time of life where you’re learning a lot of different things—that’s the big deal. We believe in the capacity of the boys to do X, whatever X is, to demonstrate agency and take accountability for their actions, to make things happen. It’s actually fascinating to watch these ten or eleven or twelve-year-olds do these things.”
This summer, Field School will offer a full summer program that is activities-based, and two weeks of academic study skills and organizational skills instruction in August, as well as math and English preparation and review sessions for upper elementary and middle school students. “We’d love to be offering afternoon and summer programs to help deal with equity issues as well, and we hope over the next year or two we’ll be getting those programs going.”
Meanwhile, Skipper is counting his blessings. “I feel acutely—and am humbled by—what we’ve been able to do here because it could not have happened without the entire school community behind the effort, even when it was quite inconvenient. The coolest gift of this year has been the community coming together.”