Standing in the hall at Pacem School in Montpelier, you’ll hear the hum of voices. Step into the bright classrooms and you’ll know by the calm and generous atmosphere, the flow of students from one room to another, and the discussions taking place here and there in the fascinating nooks and crannies that a lot of vibrant learning is taking place.
This fall, however, like other schools across Vermont and around the world, Pacem won’t look quite the same. Instead of the usual classroom setting, learning will take place outdoors under two tents and a tarpaulin-covered meeting place for the months of September and October, except in the case of extreme weather. Outside, students will be able to spread out and enjoy outdoor learning. Being close to nature, so near to the surrounding fields, woods, and streams on College Hill, offers exciting opportunities for learning about the terrain, its history, and its treasures. These classrooms will also have available power and Wi-Fi technology.
The model of outdoor education is well suited to Pacem’s values. During a “normal” school year, hiking and camping days at the beginning and end of the school year foster a sense of community and teach environmental stewardship through organic experiences in the wilderness. “We’re moving our classes outdoors to keep us all healthy, and I am excited to see where it will take us,” says Lexi Shear, director. “We always encourage our students to explore their passions. I hope that being outside will help them to explore their world as well.”
Pacem has made detailed plans to deal with the ever-evolving health situation, a plan that may have to be altered throughout the year, requiring everyone’s patience and flexibility. Once cold weather arrives, classes will move indoors. Spacious classrooms easily allow students to have their own workspaces 6 feet apart. The ventilation system will be upgraded to ensure a healthy environment, and each class will have no more than eight students, with no more than 25 students in the overall regular program for 10- to 18-year-olds. Teachers are also launching a new program this fall with a series of nature-oriented classes open to 8–10 year olds.
Whether indoors or out, students will have to complete an online health questionnaire before arriving at school and answer questions upon arrival. Everyone will be required to wear cloth face-masks and to follow strict cleaning and hand-washing protocols. There will be exceptions to the face-mask rule when everyone’s outside and 10 feet apart. In addition, students will always have the option of completing class work remotely for part or all of the day.
Pacem can adapt to the new COVID-19 requirements because of its small size and excellent teachers. The small community gives students time and freedom to pursue their individual interests. Supported by an intellectually rich curriculum and expert teachers, each student is known and cherished. Guided to be architects of their own educations, they are free to satisfy their curiosity about a wide range of historic, scientific, literary, and artistic spheres. They learn to solve problems peacefully and collaboratively and are encouraged to become caring, responsible, and confident members of their communities. A unique feature of Pacem is that its policies are made by five inter-connected governing circles — general, faculty, parents, students, and board, involving the whole community in school-wide decisions.
Schools certainly will face many challenges in the coming year, and Pacem teachers are embracing new possibilities. Through thoughtful planning and decision making they are expanding and strengthening the community even with the inevitable limitations. This fall Pacem will look different, but its commitment to a meaningful safe education and, of course, the connections, collaboration, and joy of discovery inherent in this wonderful little community will stay the same.
Pincus is a member of Pacem’s Board of Directors, and founding member and co-author of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”