HMI Semester Update: Student Departure; March 15, 2020

March 15, 2020
A message for current families

Dear Families,

I write with a brief update from a quiet HMI. Students left for the airport before 6:00am.

I want to share with you how proud I am of them. We had a wonderful day yesterday. Our morning announcement was hard, but Amy Roberts and Dean of Students Jess Wolinsky did a wonderful job of framing the challenge to students and the ways in which we hoped they would rise to the occasion. And rise they did. We spent the morning and early afternoon packing, doing laundry from expedition, and processing. Students chose different activities in the afternoon. I went on a six-mile run with a large group of students; a strong cohort went for a long walk, and several spent the afternoon cross-country skiing. Jess Wolisnky and faculty member Hayden Shea, along with our fabulous apprentices, oversaw expedition skits and an impromptu HMI prom yesterday evening. When I left campus at 7:30pm, uproarious laughter had replaced the tears of the morning. 

Expect the adolescents who return to you today to be still processing (a lot happened in a 24-hour span), proud, and very tired. (Many are a little sunburned too from the blue-sky expedition.) Under normal circumstances, it takes a few days to recover from the winter expedition. Instead of having this space, Semester 44 had a physically busy and emotionally trying day.  But they responded amazingly yesterday.

I want to share a couple of thoughts too as you help students with reentry. First, we deliberately decided to treat yesterday like students will return to HMI–though we were transparent about this being far from certain. We sincerely hope this happens, and thought acting otherwise would be too much to ask of Semester 44, coming right off of an expedition. So we did not have closing ceremonies or “last day” events, though we did add some time to reflect and express gratitude for one another. This was a choice we had to make, and it carries some risk along with the upsides. But I think it was the right decision, and it is the mindset with which students are returning home.

Finally, please allow me to humbly suggest ways to frame discussions with Semester 44 students if they ask you for thoughts about our Public Health Department’s decision. While I cannot say one way or the other (my expertise is not in public health) whether I would have made the same choice to ban groups of 50 or more people, I understand what public health is facing. Know I have great respect for our county health officials. I have known them for a long time and find their decisions in general to be thoughtful and balanced. They also receive direction and take guidance from state health officials and coordinate with other regional governments; their agency is not complete.

For a long time, I assumed the risk of having our students spend time in cities across the country and return to HMI potentially outweighed the risks for students, employees, and our Lake County community of having them stay here. This might be the case, but it might not be. HMI is not a bubble; our faculty and staff live in town and interact regularly with the general population. I am also concerned about healthcare. Should our rural healthcare system become overwhelmed, I worry as much about our students being able to receive care for basic aliminets, like strep, that often run rampant through our school, as I do about them contracting COVID-19. One of the things I need to be able to confidently feel is that our students will have access to basic health care for daily concerns. This was starting to feel risky to me personally. All this to say–I am trying to model what I believe the world needs more of in general and certainly in these days: to suspend judgment about whether I would have made a similar decision while focusing my energy on trying to understand how it might have come about.

This is all for now. Please enjoy today with Semester 44, but don’t expect much from them other than that they will need lots and lots of sleep. This will be essential before students begin the next chapter of their HMI Semesters.

Thank you as always, and talk soon.


Daniel O’Brien

Head of School

High Mountain Institute