Leading An Independent School Through COVID-19
An interview with Cushing Academy's Head of School, Randy Bertin
When COVID-19 emerged here in the United States, sectors in every industry seemed to shut down overnight. Front doors shuttered as everyone huddled indoors in an effort to stay safe and healthy. However, many independent school campuses did not have that luxury, with hundreds of students calling each home. What was it like planning school operations through a deadly global pandemic? Randy Bertin, the Head of School at Cushing Academy, successfully did just that. With so many moving parts, angles to cover, and issues to plan for - both known and unknown - it was a monumental effort to keep the isolation bubble a safe one. Randy has graciously answered my many questions about how he and his team were able to pull off the seemingly impossible.
When did you first realize that COVID 19 was going to impact your community, AND what were the initial steps you took in preparing for the possibility of the virus spreading to the US?
"Because of our international population of students, particularly those from China, we were attentive to what was happening there in January 2020. As more news on the emerging virus came in, we knew it was important to address the situation quickly and provide some direction to our international students and families.
Cushing’s first community letter in response to the COVID-19 outbreak was January 25, 2020. It outlined what we knew about the situation, informed international students that they could stay on campus for Spring Break, and implemented some early protocols such as limiting the number of visitors to the Admission Office. We were also preparing for an upcoming Family Weekend in February and issued a notice to families that the weekend would be a “no handshake event” to limit the spread of the virus. That event went very smoothly; everyone cooperated with the new policy, which really speaks to the strength of community at Cushing.
That January 25 email was the start of what became regular communications with our community around COVID-19. We committed right away to thorough communication and transparency, and those strategies proved extremely important. In addition to the formation of a medical team, implementation of social distancing protocols, and stocking up on hand sanitizer, we quickly developed a communication plan for families, students, faculty, and staff to help ensure that everyone was kept up to date on what was a rapidly developing situation. We also brought together an all-star team of experts to form our Bring The Penguins Home Task Force to advise our Senior Leadership Team on decisions pertaining to the preparation and execution of viral mitigation strategies for the 20-21 school year. The group included an epidemiologist from Dartmouth, a physician with a specialization in adolescent infectious diseases from UMASS Medical School, our own Medical Director, and an Operations Specialist. Our CFO, Associate Head of School, and I, along with our Board Chair, were also members of the Task Force. While we took the same early precautions as other institutions, we were ahead of some in the timeliness of preparing for the situation, for which I credit our Leadership Team."
How did you balance safety with the need to keep the school open?
"In some ways, this balance was one of the more difficult challenges; in other ways, it was easy because our priority was the safety of our students, faculty, and staff, first and foremost. Because the boarding school experience is one of community, the balance was between keeping the community safe while also providing the communal environment where our students felt comfortable and able to thrive.
We approached the balance of student and faculty/staff safety with the need to keep the school open by breaking our approach into two phases: immediate change and long-term change. For example, we extended our Spring Break in March of 2020 by a week to effectively support the infrastructure for remote learning and social distancing. We spent that extra week piloting remote learning practices, employing tools like Zoom classrooms and digitized textbooks. When students returned remotely, we had only seven weeks of class remaining in the school year. During that time, we also tested financial models to examine the viability of different educational models for both the current and next school years (in-person, remote, hybrid, etc.). This is when long-term planning kicked in, and completing the current year and planning for the next year felt very doable with the creation of our Bring the Penguins Home Task Force.
However, the importance of planning in-person learning for the next school year while maintaining the health of the community and limiting the spread of the virus involved making difficult decisions that impacted our student and faculty experience. Those decisions to implement regular COVID testing on campus, to change boarding protocols and meal distributions, and to cancel sporting seasons all required very difficult sacrifices. I praise and thank our students, their families, and our faculty and staff for understanding the importance of those sacrifices. We balanced those needs as one might use a dimmer switch - a little lighter, a bit stronger, depending on the moment. This helped our medical team and Task Force make quick adjustments and effectively communicate the specific elements of balancing safety with the community experience. Many of those adjustments were communicated through a bi-weekly (leading up to the school year in the summer of 2020) and then a monthly webinar series that I presented to our parent community."
What changes will become permanently part of the new normal (dorm spaces? Remote learning options?)?
"Ideally, not many – if any. Currently, we do not have plans to continue remote learning options and are aiming to resume in-person instruction, roommates, sports, and group activities in the new academic year. As I said earlier, the changes we made during the pandemic intentionally pulled the community apart, at least physically, for the safety of everyone. We hope to bring things back to the way they were – to instill our sense of a strong, tight-knit community. This is consistent with what makes a boarding school special. With that in mind, in the future, Cushing will aim to be more intentional in supporting that community environment, particularly as we look to recreate it in the coming fall."
What aspect of the boarding school world has been permanently changed for the good as a result of the pandemic?
"I think the regular communication with parents and families, both in writing and over video, is a change for good that could permanently remain after the pandemic. For the past year, I was hosting monthly Zoom webinars with parents and sometimes included Cushing’s medical team to make sure we established an open line of communication and allowed everyone to ask questions during an unprecedented situation. Continuing something like Zoom webinars could also help boost admissions: parents and alumni may want more face-to-face with the school’s leadership and we will be more available to participate. This is a significant benefit for a boarding school as parents are spread out across the globe. Before the pandemic, Zoom and Skype seemed a bit cumbersome, but now they are natural ways to communicate.
Additionally, as a leader of the school, I would like to see the close contact with my peers around the country continue as a way to connect and share best practices. I have been participating in a regular call with fellow Heads of School, which was something that started during the pandemic. This sharing of experiences – what went right, and what did not – was so very valuable. I hope to see it continue well past the end of the pandemic."
How did this impact the school's operating budget?
"There were impacts to the school’s operating budget as a result of the pandemic, as was the case for every other institution of learning. Once we went remote, we were among the first schools to provide refunds to all boarding families, and we lost revenue due to the elimination of our on-campus 2020 summer program. We also had over $1 million in unanticipated operating and capital costs due to testing, expanding our health center and health service staff, building modifications, investing in wayfinding signage, and increasing outdoor spaces. These large increases in expenses were significant but critical to promoting the safety of our community and the operation of our program. Given all those circumstances, Cushing was fortunate to manage our expenses and have a healthy year. We were also fortunate to make no layoffs and were able to give yearly increases to our faculty and staff."
Will you budget for something like COVID 19 moving forward?
"It is very difficult to budget for something as catastrophic and unprecedented as a global pandemic. But we know to always be planning for that “flashing red light in the distance” as coined by Carmen Twillie Ambar, President of Oberlin College. If we operate in a way that keeps us flexible on the balance sheet, we can withstand these kinds of challenges.
In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb identifies events like the global pandemic as a combination of low predictability and high impact. Events like this have forced us to think differently and also to think of risk in a way that includes “Black Swans” – therefore we will continue to be as efficient and sustainable as possible in order to be insulated from unpredictable events in the future. Luckily, we had already begun this practice of increased efficiency and sustainability before COVID, which was a huge advantage in achieving success over the past 16 months."
Do you believe boarding school is in jeopardy because of this?
"I do not think boarding schools are in jeopardy because of COVID-19. If anything, it shows how resilient these institutions are through the community they create. We were fortunate to have the financial resources needed to provide our students and faculty with the equipment to learn remotely and live on our campus safely. Other institutions did not have those resources as readily available.
However, I do not think that international recruitment is going to be as fruitful for boarding schools in the future. As an industry, over the past 20 years, we have seen a 1% annual shrinkage in our domestic boarding population, and the pandemic accelerated the shrinkage among many international markets and made the runway much shorter. Bigger schools and bigger brands will be able to withstand this - and there are other international markets expanding as others shrink - but I believe smaller, single-sex, and rural boarding schools will feel the hardest squeeze from the challenges of international recruiting in the wake of the pandemic. In the short term, we have seen domestic interest increase and international interest decrease."
Has international recruitment overall been impacted?
"As I noted, as an industry, we have seen our pipeline shrinking for the past 20 years, and this has certainly been exacerbated by the global pandemic. And as we have seen, the pandemic continues to impact countries differently. Mainly, international recruitment was severely curtailed by the inability to travel. I had to postpone multiple recruiting trips to Asia, Brazil, and Mexico throughout the last two years. The combination of the residual effects of the pandemic, as well as world events, are presenting new challenges for international recruitment."
Has COVID-19's impact on public school education led to more day student interest and enrollment at Cushing? Less day student interest and enrollment?
"At 92 percent, Cushing Academy has the highest boarding percentage of any school in Massachusetts. The remaining 8 percent are day students and half of those students are the children of faculty members. COVID-19 had a limited impact on our day program. We also do not expect much change as we return to normal next year. Additionally, our regular communication with parents has helped us understand that families are looking forward to returning to the conventional boarding school experience."
Did you increase more faculty housing as a result of wanting to keep the campus bubble secure?
"We did not experience the need to increase faculty housing, as our demand for 75 percent of faculty living on campus remained static. I am also proud to say that our day faculty abided by our safety protocols without issue."
What are some lessons you learned while leading Cushing Academy through such an unprecedented global event?
"The main lesson is that when the situation becomes quite challenging, it is critical to stay calm. During the onset of the pandemic, things were changing quickly and sometimes the guidance was contradictory, or there was no guidance at all. There were moments when it would have been easy to lose control and make hair-trigger decisions. But by remaining calm, you can make clear-minded decisions that demonstrate a thoughtful, measured response to the needs of the community. I believe that we did this, and while in the moment the situation did feel like a crisis, managing it thoughtfully helped us to be successful.
In addition to that, I learned about the importance of leaning on qualified experts to guide you. In this case, it was our Task Force and medical team at Cushing, aligned with following the protocols of the state and the CDC. These types of professionals helped us realize the importance of playing our role as part of a larger community.
Lastly, I learned that providing various and regular avenues of communication and being accessible are very important to maintain the fabric of our community. Email, webinars, and phone calls were overutilized to ensure everyone was up to speed and the community could remain safe. I also offered weekly office hours for all employees to ask questions, and our Dean of Faculty did the same."
What do you feel were the most difficult decisions you had to make for your community?
"There were a number of extremely difficult decisions I made throughout this pandemic, the top ones being the canceling or postponing of sporting seasons and school events that play crucial roles in creating memorable high school experiences and strengthening the camaraderie of our students. At Cushing, we have multiple traditions that alumni remember long after graduation – Mountain Day, the Holiday Stroll, Dorm Olympics, the All-School Handshake at the beginning and end of the school year, and others. These had to be canceled for the sake of health and safety. The cancellation of these traditions, in addition to the one-off decisions to limit campus visits and parent visits, were some of the toughest decisions I made.
Additionally, I was unprepared to suddenly find myself so immersed in the social and personal lives of our students, faculty, and staff. After living, eating, and learning together at a boarding school, I had a great appreciation for the lives of those around me. But this past year, I found myself learning more about the students’ and faculty’s personal lives than I previously had. Similarly, because prioritizing the safety of our community was such an operational challenge, I found myself with a more hands-on approach than has generally been my practice. I am very fortunate to have a great team at Cushing who pulled together to make this work, and because of that, we were safe and made it through this challenge. I am very grateful to each and every one of them."
What lessons did you, as a human being, learn from being a leader of such a tight-knit community during such an unprecedented time in world history?
"The first lesson was one I suspect was learned by leaders across all industries: the importance of prioritizing mental health, both for yourself and for your people. This, of course, was something I knew, but I saw it driven home through the emotional toll on our students and their families, our faculty, and staff. I observed this not only in our school but also in talking to colleagues at other schools. Leading the school during such a challenging time is 24/7 in normal times, and COVID only increased those demands. Like many of us, I found myself going full speed for an unrealistic amount of time, which was hard; however, I am not sure we could have handled this in another way in order to achieve the results we had. Our leadership team's work and efforts laid the groundwork for additional teams and committees that have proven their capabilities.
The second lesson was something I have always believed, but which came to life in new ways during the pandemic. At the beginning of each year, I tell our students, “We are all at each other’s mercy,” meaning, what we do impacts others. This time that lesson was literal: we were all at each other’s mercy in terms of what we touched and what we breathed. Our interdependence and reliance upon one another has never been more clear, and I hope that we will all carry that knowledge with us, in our own school communities and beyond."
As Randy has made clear, the effort to keep Cushing Academy operational during the deadliest global pandemic in modern history was nothing short of miraculous. I know a lot of faculty and staff at residential independent schools across the country and all of them have said the same thing - it was an all-hands-on-deck effort, no exceptions. However, hearing what it was like from the desk of a Head of School was eye-opening; the scope of the planning needed with such limited information and time is remarkable. I have known Randy for many years and have always felt he was one of the strongest leaders in our industry. After hearing about the details of the job he has done over the last 15 months, that sentiment has only been further solidified. Cushing Academy is lucky to have him on board. I look forward to seeing what the future holds on campus in Ashburnham as we slowly move on to the new "normal" of independent school life.
About Dr. Randy Bertin
Dr. Randy Bertin has been a leader in independent boarding schools for the past two decades. Before joining Cushing Academy as 13th Head of School on July 1, 2018, he spent twelve years at Besant Hill School of Happy Valley in Ojai, California, serving seven of those years as Head of School.
During his tenure as Besant Hill Head of School, Randy was recognized for his leadership and is one of only two independent school heads to receive the CASE District VII CEO Leadership Award. He was also awarded the honor of Head of School Emeritus at Besant Hill. Before becoming Head of School, Randy served in multiple leadership positions including Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Director of Advancement, and Assistant Head for Advancement. He also served as the school’s Varsity Boys Basketball Coach from 2007-2011, earning California Southern Section Division V coach of the year in 2010. Randy previously spent seven years at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, Massachusetts, serving in several roles including Certified Athletic Trainer, Residential Faculty, Teacher, Coach, Sophomore Dean, Director of Athletics, and Development Officer.
Randy is an expert in the areas of school leadership, international fundraising, and boarding school admissions, and he has presented several times on these topics. Other topics that he has presented and written about have included the Head of School’s Role in the Admissions Process, Financial Health Indicators for Heads of Schools, Integration, and Immersion of International Students at Boarding Schools in the United States, and Perceptions of Independent School Leaders in California: Global Issues. Randy also serves on the boards of the IECA Foundation and the International Center for Global Leadership. He lives on campus with his wife, Karen, and their four children.