Voices from the Field: Full Stop

Following the stress of the 2020–21 school year, one school experimented with a coordinated, school–wide break.

Jan 31, 2022  |  By Leah Johnson

From the January/February 2022 Net Assets Magazine.

Voices JF22.jpeg
Feature image courtesy of Friends Seminary.

At the end of this past June, all employees at Friends Seminary were told to set an auto-reply message with the following text:

Subject: Out of Office — Campus Closed

July 2–25, 2021

Thank you for your email. Friends Seminary is closed July 2–July 25. Our campus will reopen for administrative offices on Monday, July 26, at which time I will be happy to address your email. If yours is an urgent matter, please email communications@friendsseminary.org, and we will work to address your issue as promptly as possible.

Yes, you read that right. Every staff member took a three-week coordinated break, for the first time in school history. Why? The answer can be summed up in five letters — COVID!

Like schools around the U.S. and the globe, Friends Seminary closed our campus in March 2020 and transitioned to fully online learning. Due to executive orders at the state level as well as safety concerns, we did not resume in-person instruction until the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

The work in the interim was unstoppable and overwhelming at times. Administrative staff team members worked around the clock, seven days a week to prepare for the reopening. Our facilities and operations teams worked 13-hour days during the summer to have the physical campus ready for the community’s return. We were recruited for ancillary duties, such as symptom pre-screening monitors during arrivals and monitors during lunch period and dismissal. Keeping our school open was highly rewarding but the workload and the constant unknowns of COVID meant it was also exhausting.

After 16 months of non-stop work, the administrative committee realized that we had to change course. Our faculty’s last day was approaching, but what about the administrative staff?

Necessary Respite

After 16 months of non-stop work, the administrative committee realized that we had to change course. Our faculty’s last day was approaching, but what about the administrative staff? Three committee members along with myself, the director of human resources, created a new vacation schedule for summer 2021. As a result, the administrative staff received:

  • Two days in observance of Juneteenth,
  • Two “summer Fridays” in late June and early July
  • The first-ever three-week coordinated break through most of the month of July.

As context for the change, we historically encouraged administrative staff to take their vacation days during winter, spring and summer breaks.

As I messaged staff about the breaks, I reminded everyone to:

As we approach the end the school year, please remember to replenish your cups — emotionally, mentally and physically … Wishing us all a relaxing and rejuvenating summer as we prepare for the 2021–2022 school year.

And the head of school followed up with a note that included the following:

I thank you for your tireless commitment to Friends and your work during this emotionally and physically demanding period of the COVID-19 pandemic. I know that we are all exhausted and while we will finish in style (I love the quote “function in disaster and finish in style!” and we have and will!), we will likely need to collapse at the finish line.

To that end, I am locking the school doors on Friday, June 18 and Monday June 22. No one will be allowed into the buildings, no exceptions (even for those who know the alarm code—and you know who I mean!). ALL administrative staff will be given these two “recovery days” with no vacation deduction.

Leah, thank you for giving form to our hopes for a placid, healthy summer.

My best and deepest thanks to all.

A New Era

The coordinated vacation break was received with mixed emotions. Many employees were grateful for a time to fully stop after working non-stop since March 2020. They truly felt as if they were on a vacation and did not feel obligated to check emails, as everyone else was on vacation as well. Some found it hard to stop and went through a “withdrawal,” after months of continual work. Others were happy for the break but wished the three weeks came at a later time period in the summer. And a few wished that the coordinated break had not been implemented, and that they could choose their time off for vacation.

After the coordinated break, all employees were allowed to work from home until one week prior to our new hire orientation. During that time, the campus was transformed back to pre-pandemic status, as it seemed we would be returning to pre-pandemic normalcy. The Delta variant, however, put a wrench in our plans.

The “COVID cloud” still looms over our campus, so although productive, employees are feeling overwhelmed.

After much deliberation, we have agreed to again schedule a coordinated break this summer, but it may be two weeks instead of three. While administrative staff members have different perspectives, we all agree that 2020-21 was an unprecedented school year that called for an unprecedented break.

Leah L. Johnson is director of human resources at Friends Seminary, a K–12 school with 780 students in New York City.



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