HMI Semester Update: COVID-19; March 12, 2020

March 12, 2020
A message for current families

Dear Semester 44 Families,

I sat down yesterday evening with the intent of replying to each of you who has written in recent days. The reality, however, is that a growing list of priorities means I would not do justice to any responses I can muster. So I am replying collectively now to share some rationale behind our current thinking and to take the opportunity to explain how we plan to reintroduce students to a changed world when they return from their expedition tomorrow. Thank you for your understanding.

First, I have appreciated so much all of your expressions of support. Like all of us, I am experiencing the coronavirus outbreak through multiple lenses. I am a father, who, though intellectually grasping my children are at little risk from COVID-19, feels an urge to hug them tighter. I am the son of an elderly parent who has an underlying medical condition. I also lead an institution with many constituencies, needs, and priorities to consider. I never forget that families across the country have entrusted this school with the care of their children. This is a sacred trust I carry with me always, all the more so during rapidly evolving and unsettling times. 

I have read in each of your emails an understanding and empathy for all HMI must balance. I am deeply grateful to each of you for this as well as for your desire for partnership. Many of you have suggested you will support any steps we take, including modifying Family Weekend and exploring keeping students at HMI over Spring Break. Unsurprisingly, some of you have urged either more decisive or more cautious reactions. I value all of these opinions and am listening thoughtfully to them. Even if we have different perspectives on how and when to proceed, I am heartened by the strong possibility we will emerge with even greater mutual trust and respect than before. A Head of School cannot wish for more than this.

I am also proud to lead a school where so many families are urging us not to go on spring break. This is the opposite challenge facing almost every other school in the country. Your faith in HMI’s ability to care for your children in this time of confusion and uncertainty is affirming. It is a testament to our wonderful faculty and staff, who–you have already seen–care so deeply for Semester 44 students and their personal wellbeing. We would not be in the position of having families ask us to extend our programming in times like these without an extraordinary program, and even more importantly, extraordinary people implementing it.

My hope is that we can use this situation as a teachable moment for our students. I want HMI  to model for our students thoughtfulness, patience, clarity, compassion, and curiosity in moments of stress. In such a dynamic situation, this will undoubtedly be hard for all of us. We will urge students, however, when they return, to treat each other with empathy and kindness, especially when things feel the most difficult.

Tomorrow we will gather students after cleaning our gear to share with them what has transpired over the last week. Our physician advisor, Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger of Rocky Mountain Family Practice, will share with students facts about COVID-19, its spread, risk factors, manifestations, and ways to deter the virus. We will then talk with students about the changes we plan to make in expectations for handwashing, personal contact, and cleaning and disinfecting. We hope to have our counselor, Dr. Teresa Haynes, on campus over the weekend to talk with students who feel anxious or unsettled about all that has transpired. Advisors and other faculty members will also be available to connect with students. We will allow students access to laptops and telephones Friday evening (mountain time). You can help us by reminding students to seek out accurate and thoughtful news sources for information and to remind them to find adults on campus they trust if they want to talk. Let us know too if you feel your child needs a little extra care.

Several of you asked today why we are not deciding right now about how to proceed with Family Weekend and Spring Break. The best answer we can give is that we are blessed with something precious: time. Rarely do I see the best decisions made in chaotic moments. I hope even a small amount of perspective will allow HMI to collect information, explore options, speak with our faculty (who, remember, have been out-of-contact for over a week now), and make reasoned choices about risks associated with the various alternatives before us. 

We also do not know what the world will look like three weeks from now. The idea, for example, of keeping students at HMI over spring break is predicated on Lake County experiencing lower concentrations of COVID-19 cases than the places where our students would go for spring break. I do not know, frankly, if this assumption will be borne out. We might well reach different conclusions about what to do about Spring Break, for example, if COVID-19 cases are at our doorstep or still undiagnosed in Lake County. Information like this may well uncover itself in the coming days, leading us to make a more informed choice. I am well aware it would be easier for our families to know now what our schedule for the next month will look like, and I apologize for asking you to make plans on parallel tracks. We would not do this unless we thought better decisions for our students and their well-being would result from delaying a bit.

I am sorry for a second long email in as many days, but I wanted to share with you some more of my thoughts and my deep gratitude for the community of Semester 44 as we navigate these waters together.

With appreciation,


Daniel O’Brien

Head of School

High Mountain Institute