There are unofficial rules a new head of school is expected to follow when arriving on campus: Listen. Focus on relationships. Learn the culture. And don’t make too many decisions while doing the first three.
Of course, rules change if your first year happens to occur within a global pandemic.
This has been a year full of decisions. I've tried to get the balance right of making calls when they need to be made and listening when I need to listen.—Head of School Mick Gee
“This has been a year full of decisions,” said Mick Gee, who is completing his first year as Rowland Hall’s head of school this June. “I've tried to get the balance right of making calls when they need to be made and listening when I need to listen. That's been a bit of a dance.”
In fact, Mick’s input on Rowland Hall’s COVID-19-related decisions started before he officially did. Though his role was scheduled to begin on July 1, 2020, Mick began closely collaborating with former Head of School Alan Sparrow in March 2020, not long after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
“Every time there was a decision that the school was making that Alan felt would have impact beyond his tenure, he would run it by me,” said Mick. “He was open and enthusiastic about me being involved in conversations, because I was going to inherit the decisions that were made.”
Because of this, Mick was often doing double duty at Rowland Hall and Allendale Columbia, the Rochester, New York, independent school he previously led, and it became rapidly clear as the weeks passed that the pandemic would continue to be the focus of his first year at Rowland Hall. By the time he arrived in Utah in summer 2020—joining his wife, Amy, and daughter, Madeleine ’21, who had moved to Salt Lake City ahead of him—Mick had a good grasp of how Alan had been guiding the Rowland Hall community and was able to jump right into discussions about the probability of offering in-person learning in the fall. Much of those weeks, Mick remembered, were spent wading through a constant stream of new information about the virus.
“There was a new article coming out every week: kids can catch COVID, kids can transmit it; kids can't catch it, kids don't transmit it as much,” said Mick. “We had somehow to pick our way through that.”
It was a time marked by fear, and though the Rowland Hall community was hopeful that classes could be safely held in person, people understandably wondered if that was too risky. Faced with a flood of questions and opinions, and knowing that no decision the school made could be risk-free, Mick, a former physics and chemistry teacher, put his trust in science. Alongside his administrative team and a cadre of medical experts from the Rowland Hall community, he led the charge of weighing the many risks—from probability of spread to the harm distance learning was doing to students’ mental health—through the lens of the most recent sound scientific data, and with an eye toward what was best for students. He accepted that there was no way to make every person happy.
“It's a compromise. I can't remember a decision where everybody felt good. There's always risk and there's always uncertainty,” Mick said. “If we just made decisions based on what's best for COVID protection, we would have closed the school for a year. But we knew that was not going to be the best thing for the mental health of kids. It was not going to be the best way to support families.”
And while Mick understood and trusted in the science behind these decisions, he acknowledged that it was a challenge to ask people to make major changes to their school days—like filling out daily health screenings, wearing masks, and staying home with even mild symptoms—before he had a chance to get to know them.
“I didn't really have a relationship with people, and I’m asking them to do things that are far from normal,” Mick remembered. “I hadn’t had a chance to deposit anything in the goodwill bank, and I was making withdrawals.”
But the Rowland Hall community was willing to extend that credit to Mick, agreeing to adhere to the school’s health and safety guidelines to ensure that students could be on campus in some capacity. From the Upper School athletes who wore masks while competing to the families who chose to forgo holiday travel, Mick knows that every person in the Rowland Hall community played a role in the school’s ability to remain open all year.
We can plan the best possible protocols, but if the students didn't buy in, if the parents and community didn't buy in, then it really wouldn't matter. How we've responded as a school to create an environment where kids have been able to go to school every single day is pretty remarkable.—Mick Gee
“Every single person stepped up,” he said. “It's hard, but everybody fell in with the philosophy and made it possible.”
Mick knows how easily the year could have gone in another direction. He’s heard firsthand from administrators who struggled with families’ willingness to take precautions outside of school, leading to community spread and necessitating continued distance learning, with some schools unable to open until as late as April 2021. He remembered fully understanding these struggles while on a call with 100 other heads of school, where he realized that only 12 of the attendees were sitting in offices on campus.
“We can plan the best possible protocols, but if the students didn't buy in, if the parents and community didn't buy in, then it really wouldn't matter,” he said. “How we've responded as a school to create an environment where kids have been able to go to school every single day is pretty remarkable.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Mick is especially grateful for Rowland Hall’s choices, and the community’s actions, as each passing week seems to confirm how critically important in-person learning is to student well-being. By early April, Rowland Hall was fortunate to be able to end its hybrid-learning model, opening full in-person learning to all interested students (while continuing to support those who have chosen to finish the year learning remotely). And though things are still far from normal, this decision—alongside increasing vaccinations, which most faculty and staff, and some students over the age of 16, have received—has helped make a difference in students’ mental health. It’s also allowed for the careful reintroduction of certain spring events, which has benefited adults including Mick, who’s been able to safely increase his in-person interactions with students. During this year’s Battle of the Classes, for instance, Mick, a lifelong athlete, joined faculty and staff in a kickball match against seniors, then enjoyed a pick-up game of cricket with a group of middle schoolers. He said letting kids get to know him in these casual settings makes a difference.
“Being out there is probably worth 10 Zoom meetings,” said Mick. “You see students in the hall and you just played sports against them—it's different in the way they see you. It's a game changer, really.”
Moments like these are, of course, what Mick pictured during his first year at Rowland Hall, but he doesn’t let the pandemic demands that took their place bother him. Rather, he’s tapped into his lighthearted personality to find joy in the everyday and to keep this year’s challenges in perspective. “I never really take myself too seriously,” he said. “I think you can do all of this stuff—make all these hard calls—but you have to have fun doing it. That seems a silly thing to say in a year where so many people have suffered, but there has to be levity and joy in the work, and a sense of humor.”
Mick’s also using this year’s experiences to help him make decisions around the future of Rowland Hall, emphasizing the importance of understanding how schools’ decisions truly affect students—a skill that he believes schools have had to sharpen this year and one that shouldn’t be abandoned in favor of the education status quo.
“‘What's the best thing to do for kids? How is this decision going to impact students?’ That's the criteria for making decisions,” said Mick. “I think every school in the country will tell you, ‘Of course, we do that all the time,’ and they do not. That is one thing I think that we can do more of, and we've learned this year.”
I think it's a misconception to think everything was better before COVID. This year has taught many schools, including ours, that you can change quickly, and pivot, and make decisions that are extremely impactful.—Mick Gee
In addition, Mick wants to continue to encourage the ingenuity teachers showed throughout the pandemic. He noted that many have found ways of presenting a variety of subjects, from math and English to arts and PE, in ways that better serve how today’s students learn.
“I think it's a misconception to think everything was better before COVID,” said Mick. “This year has taught many schools, including ours, that you can change quickly, and pivot, and make decisions that are extremely impactful. And knowing that we can get through that and be successful where, frankly, not every school has succeeded, builds a bit of confidence.”
That confidence seems to be reflected in the larger Rowland Hall community, as evidenced by re-enrollment figures. Mick views families’ enthusiasm to sign on for another year as an indication that, though not everyone may have agreed with all of the decisions made this year, they believe in Rowland Hall’s capability to support students and families through crises, while still delivering a top academic program.
“Our re-enrollment has gone really well—that's a sign that people are reacting to what they've seen and experienced this year,” said Mick. “So that feels really good.”
But even with ongoing community buy-in, Mick won’t be taking it easy. He’ll be spending much of next year revisiting his pre-pandemic to-do list, especially when it comes to building relationships with students, families, faculty, and staff. “There's lots of people who don't really know me,” he said. “That's going to continue to be a work in progress.”
And even though he’s had to shift some of his year-one priorities to year two, Mick is excited about what lies ahead: he sees the 2021–2022 school year as a second chance to experience what traditionally makes up a head of school’s first year.
“I feel like I almost get a second lease of life because I get to do my first year all over,” he said. “I feel super lucky to be here and to be part of all we've done this year—and we're not done. I'm always like, ‘What's next?’ And, luckily, there's always plenty next.”