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The outdoor Hemlock classroom

A new “hemlock classroom” at the edge of campus

Humanity and Purpose in a Pandemic

NMH has one overarching goal: to keep students safe, happy, and learning.

In late summer, schools across the country were struggling to prepare for an academic year fraught with uncertainty. There were so many questions, most of which had no clear answers: In-person classes or remote learning? What was safe? What was too risky? And what would all the chaos mean for the children whose learning and development are at stake?

NMH had already been grappling with these questions for months. School leaders started looking ahead to 2021–22 almost as soon as the pandemic forced them to close the campus last March and take all classes online. “During the spring and after we finished the year, there was constant analysis and review of what we were doing,” said Bea Garcia, assistant head of school for academic programs and dean of faculty. “We were not going to compromise the excellence of our program.” At the same time, Garcia said, NMH had to be flexible, and laser-focused on student well-being.


The advance planning paid off on Aug. 31, when NMH was able to launch its 142nd year — on campus and in person. It was a massive undertaking in the midst of continued COVID-19 outbreaks, and while Head of School Brian Hargrove reported that he was “filled with hope and optimism” when he saw students walking around on campus, he also acknowledged that the school “is certainly in for a year of new trials as we navigate this pandemic and seek to keep our community as safe as possible.”

Thank You written in chalk

“Safe” meant that back-to-school must-haves included face coverings, hand sanitizing stations, and buckets of disinfectant wipes in every classroom along with the more typical fresh notebooks and special first-day outfits. The campus felt a bit surreal with protective plexiglass dividers in the dining hall, dorm bathrooms, and mail center, and with chairs placed six feet apart in classrooms for physical distancing, but students and teachers took the changes in stride. “If there is a school positioned to succeed in the face of this pandemic, it is NMH,” Hargrove said. “We are grounded in the reality of the moment, and we understand the nature of the challenge we are taking on and the complexity of the environment we are navigating.” 

That complexity is what NMH’s extensive planning sought to address. By mid-summer, health center staff had launched new COVID safety standards and testing protocols, deans had developed new residential-life guidelines, and Garcia’s office had created a new initiative called the Lab Program, a stand-alone educational experience to accommodate students who are unable to travel to campus. Athletic teams, performing-arts ensembles, admission tours, meals — nearly every aspect of NMH’s operation — underwent some sort of re-imagining before the start of school. “We could do all that we did because we have a dedicated and resourceful faculty and staff who are committed to working hard and empowering our students,” Garcia said. 

And on the first day of classes, those students numbered 670 — 532 boarding and day students on campus and 138 in the Lab Program. Bill Wu ’21, who’s participating in the Lab Program from his home in Shanghai, says his NMH teachers, who are based on campus, are making it work. “They’re offering a lot of office hours throughout the week to talk about more than just what the class is learning, and their support and patience really make me feel integrated and cared for.” 

Life at NMH is definitely different. The Concert Choir now rehearses in the hockey rink. Some classes are spreading out into two rooms to maintain proper physical distancing. Travel off and onto campus is extremely limited. Breanna Kirk P’20, ’21, head of the NMH Parents Council, acknowledged that it’s hard not being able to visit NMH and see her kid. But NMH, she says, “is doing exactly what it should be doing. The school is protecting its people and making sure that students have the best possible experience.” And when the school reported in late September that it had conducted 2,300 COVID tests on NMH students and employees over a six-week period — with all negative results — Kirk knew one thing for sure. “I’m not worried about my kid’s health, safety, or community. And during a pandemic, that feels like an absolute gift.”


Photos: Glenn Minshall