How one school leader is winning the trust of parents


Like many parents, I suspect, I’ve been anxiously awaiting news from my twin sons’ schools about plans for the fall in these most uncertain of times.

Last week, one of them, The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, invited all parents to a webinar where they laid out their plans for a reopening and took questions in real time.

The session, which lasted an hour, was one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve had since the pandemic began.

The headmaster, Steven Murray, and his fellow faculty members inspired hope — not just because they are opening the private boarding school — and certainly not because they promised a Covid-free environment for the students. In fact Murray was clear that the school was unlikely to be Covid-free and that the community’s mind-set would have to change: “zero risk tolerance is not realistic; coming to school will not be 100% risk free any more than driving a car is risk free,” he said.

What was truly inspiring was the immense effort, thought, integrity — and above all humility– that went into his presentation. Of course, the school has resources that many public schools and other private schools may not have, but Murray has certainly put them to good use in this crisis.

He and the faculty task force have been on a steep learning curve and already made extraordinary infrastructure innovations and program alterations that include: pre-arrival protocols, testing, tracking technology, tracing, mask-wearing, social-distancing, isolation, an expanded health center, PPE, hepa filters, new air filters, touchless toilets, sinks and showers, plexiglass shields, individual cleaning bags for students, longer lunches to avoid crowding, quarantine facilities, smaller classrooms and staggered arrivals.

But Murray did not promise perfection. Rather, he showed vulnerability, promising to loop parents in on his deep-dive discovery about how best to keep the kids as safe as possible in “the new normal.”

“I never knew I’d be studying viral load in a breath or a cough versus viral load left on a doorknob … or using terms like de-densifying social spaces … but here we are,” he began.

And, for me, the most striking part, perhaps was when he likened the many impressive safeguards being put in place to … cheese.

“Most of the protocols are imperfect, but taken together, it’s a little bit like Swiss cheese, each slice has holes, but layered together the holes begin to be covered and so together a series of overlapping protocols can make us safer.”

Swiss cheese has never seemed so comforting.

And how ironic that Murray should use that imagery just three days before the President used another dairy product, in a horrific simile when describing how the National Guard cleared protesters in Minneapolis “like a knife cutting butter.”

Listening to Murray, I felt hopeful for the first time in days (as did my son when I gave him the highlights).

Yes, it’s possible that my son and other students will get sick he goes back to school — but I take great comfort, as does he, in the fact that he is in the best possible hands, a faculty who are learning and reaching out, unafraid to say what they don’t know to both students and parents, as they go. Also comforting was a study published Tuesday that people under 20 are about half as likely to get infected by the virus than their elders.

Murray’s presentation was a welcome reminder of what real leadership can and should look like in these uncertain times, when there is a vacuum at the top of our country.

Our President continually talks about himself and his management of the pandemic in hyperbolically optimistic — one might easily argue mendacious — language. He has claimed success in confronting the virus, giving credit to just one person: himself.

Whereas Murray was careful to lay great emphasis on how success for the school could only come from a shared responsibility in the community.

“My actions affect others,” Murray said and he talked of new behaviors to be learned, and internalized and how the example comes from the top.

As he said this, the contrasting image of the President’s unmasked face, came to mind, along with imaginings of what the unmasked rallies slated to begin this weekend will look like and what sickness they will spread.

In considering how to open safely, Murray said he has consulted with the CDC, state officials, local hospitals, pediatricians, New England high schools and universities, business leaders including the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Blackstone and the PGA, the owner of an NBA franchise, Pennsylvania University Medical school, state and federal officials and hired an consulting firm that specializes in epidemiology and environmental hazards in hospitals.

At Lawrenceville, unlike the Trump White House, they are NOT taking the view that they know better than the scientists and other experts.

Murray is not running for re-election in November, but in some ways the stakes for him are just as high as they are for the President.

If his school doesn’t open, come September, the outcome could be disastrous, given that his business model is heavily dependent on tuition fees.

So, since he cannot promise a Covid-free environment, he is offering something that is, I’d argue, just as valuable, maybe more: trust.

His webinar showed that even in the midst of the crisis — or crises in which our country is immersed — trust is winnable.

From where I sit, Swiss cheese is a great deal more reassuring than sliced butter.