Behind the Scenes of the Front Gates


As we begin our third week of online learning, The Record is honored to interview Mr. Craig Bradley, head of school, for insight on the administration’s decisions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 


This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Who makes the decisions about how the school will respond to events like the COVID-19 pandemic?

We have something called the Emergency Planning Group (EPG), which includes various senior administrators: Dr. Jared Zelman P’04, medical director; Ms. Danielle Shippey, director of the health services; and Mr. John Bryant, director of facilities, among others. When we were heading into Spring Break, we started to meet daily, and in the last couple of weeks, we have been meeting every other day. About midway through the first week of Spring Break we started to meet by Zoom, because we heard that we weren’t meant to be getting people together.

Dr. Zelman and Ms. Shippey [have been working on] getting information from public health officials and the CDC, and we were looking at CDC [information] together. Dean of Faculty Dr. Merrilee Marden; Dean of Academic Life Mr. Jared Hall; and Associate Dean of Faculty Mr. Richard Davis, were especially important as we were thinking about academic decisions regarding online teaching. Director of Information Technology Mr. Kevin Warenda is a member of the group who helps us with more technological aspects of the process.


What major factors guided your decision to move the fourth marking period to online learning?

We were paying close attention, and we still are, to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Public Health Department of the State of Connecticut, which provide guidance to schools and institutions in the state of Connecticut. It became clear that it was going to put people at risk to bring people together in the same place. …We realized we weren’t going to be able to bring people back for some period of time, because we knew a need for social isolation and a more extreme outbreak in the United States was coming. …We decided to extend the break by one week to give faculty members coming back from break time to prepare lessons and prepare for teaching online. 


What has been the most difficult part of the decision-making?

I would say that the decision [to switch to online learning was the hardest part]. I think throughout this process, it takes a little bit of believing in the information you have and acting on it even though it is not directly evident. We did not have anything happening here, it was just normal in Lakeville as students had just left for break; however, I got a daily email from the CDC, and had very close contact with the State Department of Public Health, [and realized] we needed to do something. Trying to understand that we need to do the switch to online learning to flatten the curve, which wasn’t a concept we even fully understood at the time, was challenging. This was why, in my first letter to the community, I went into some detail about what flattening the curve meant. We had to first educate ourselves about the virus and its national effects, which wasn’t difficult but was part of the learning experience coming out of these circumstances.


In a letter to the community on March 18, the Class of 2020 petitioned the administration and the Board of Trustees to wait before making a final decision on whether to move marking period four online and cancel on-campus graduation. Did it have any impact on the decision?

I would say the Seniors’ petition did, and at the time, we had not made a decision about spring and about graduation. At the time, a lot of schools were deciding to scratch the spring term. I had been having conversations with all the other heads of the school. We were helping to guide each other and think about this collectively. I was aware of other schools such as Lawrenceville that were not carrying out the spring term on campus anymore, though I felt like that was not something Hotchkiss was ready to declare. …I wrote in one of the letters, as I tried to be very open to the community about this, saying we just don’t know. Would you rather live with uncertainty and hope or certainty and no hope? I can live with uncertainty, students can live with uncertainty, families can live with it. …Now it’s more evident. The more recent part of the story is that in Connecticut, the governor extended the stay at home rule until May 20th, so we have no choice. At least we tried. 

I feel so bad for the Seniors. It is no one’s fault and it is not avoidable, but it is a great loss and I feel badly for them. I just hope that everyone and their families are able to stay healthy, which is why we are doing this.


What was the biggest concern when making the decision to switch to online classes?

My concern was that we are asking people to make a big shift in the way they work, both students and teachers, in a short period of time. This was a fundamental shift in the way that students and teachers are interacting, and we did it in a week. …We have a couple librarians, one of whom, Ms. Erikka Adams, emerging technology librarian, has a specialty in online teaching and learning, so she has been doing a lot of professional development with teachers, which has been great. …I have been asking every student I have interacted with in the past few weeks “How is it?” 


What do you think students need to keep in mind as we continue with online learning?

I think people really need to build in time to step away from the screen. Just shut the computer down, go for a walk, get some exercise, don’t look at another screen, don’t look at your phone, read a book, or maybe do something creative. I don’t know what it is doing to us on a neurological level. I think people are getting good instruction, but I also think there is something about staring at a Zoom screen for multiple hours a day that is somewhat exhausting. It has its own kind fatigue that comes with it. I want people to take care of themselves.


Overall, can you comment on your experience as Head of School during this time?

Everyone had a choice to be really grumpy, negative, and really unhappy about the switch to online learning, but I have not seen any of that. What I have seen is that people have really thrown themselves in. I see that the faculty really want to do right by their students in terms of thinking through the lessons, advisory, and all of that. My sense of the students is that they are really taking it seriously, and they really want to learn everything they can and get everything they can from it. 

It has been a really challenging and fascinating experience to plan ahead with so much uncertainty, so I have been learning that you need to consult with lots of different people. We have a trustee task force that has been working with administrators to think about the long term ramifications of this. We are trying to make the best informed decisions we can, drawing on our network of contacts. You cannot predict that future, but you can see the trends, so it has been a really interesting planning process.