CENTREVILLE — Every year, the Gunston School kicks off the fall semester with a special ceremony called Embarkation, where new students, faculty, and staff arrive by boat to be formally welcomed by the entire Gunston community and sign the school’s Honor Code. While this year’s celebration looked a little different than previous years — with a limited audience, cohorts, masks, and social distancing — it was nonetheless exciting to welcome the largest incoming class to Gunston since it first opened in 1911.
On Monday, Aug. 31, a total of 70 new community members, which included 57 of the 60 incoming 9th graders, five 10th graders, one 11th grader, and seven staff members were divided into cohorts and arrived at the Centreville Wharf about a half hour apart.
After a health screening, they boarded a flotilla of boats and, in four separate “waves,” cruised down the Corsica River to meet Head of School John Lewis with a “foot tap” greeting in lieu of a handshake.
From there, they were invited to sign the “Responsibilities of the Community” by Assistant Head of School Christie Grabis before making the trek up the hill to Gunston’s campus. Lining a wooden fence in six foot intervals were a limited number of student leaders and faculty members who waved and welcomed them warmly.
Parents and family members were called down to the waterfront a few at a time to watch their student formally join the Gunston community. Typically, this event is held on the first day of school and is followed by convocation with the entire student body in attendance.
“A considerable amount of planning went into making sure this day could still happen,” said Lewis. “We are so fortunate many parents and friends of the school stepped up to offer more boats this year, and the weather was just fantastic.”
The week prior, on Wednesday, Aug. 26, Gunston hosted an in-person orientation for 9th grade students, held outdoors. Students and faculty brought stadium chairs and sat six feet apart, participating in various activities and ice-breaker games. “This interaction and team building before the school year begins is so important. The class of 2024 hails from more than 22 different schools in five counties across two states,” said David Henry, director of Admission and Financial Aid.
On Tuesday, Sept. 1, the school year officially began with a phased reopening in which all 9th grade students begin in-person instruction, while 10th, 11th, and 12th graders begin with distance learning, with the goal of having further class groups re-enter the campus in phases starting in late September.
“By starting with 25% of the student body on campus, as well as smaller numbers of faculty, the school has the opportunity to integrate a complex set of new health, screening, and safety policies with lower campus density,” explained Head of School John Lewis. “New 9th grade students possess the greatest need for direct connection with their teachers and classmates, and they are easier to cohort, given their schedules.”
This approach also allows Gunston to maximize the use of indoor and outdoor teaching space, as well as the opportunity to resolve any glitches related to concurrent teaching (where classes have students both inside the classroom and students connected online), lowers the initial student density on school transportation, and minimizes a campus outbreak, should it occur.
“Most importantly, our Phased Reopening gives us opportunities to effectively adjust policies and procedures as they are implemented. Indeed, it is our belief that a cautious, phased reopening raises the chances of Gunston remaining open over the longer term,” said Lewis.
Additionally, Gunston is moving forward with an intramural sports program and is only offering Tier 1 sports including golf and cross county.
“Together with a group of student leaders, we are designing an intramural sports program that will allow us the best opportunity to create a meaningful physical health and wellness experience this fall,” said Director of Athletics Jon Mellinger. “While we have not yet finalized the rotation, sport choices will likely include waterfront activities such as sailing and paddling, various court sports like pickleball and badminton, and some field sports such as kickball and other lawn games.”
Melinger continued, “We’re very excited to be offering two varsity sports, golf and cross country. Gunston had two individual champions in both of those sports last fall. While we graduated our cross country winner, we have some up and coming runners and our golf program looks to have another strong finish.”