Contract With Our Community

Chris Agnew
3 min readSep 17, 2020

We’re three weeks into our PreK-12 academic year (more for Grad) and we’re growing accustomed to new habits and protocols enabling modified in-person learning. It gives us a sense of what to expect for the fall and academic year. Right now, the Teton County (WY) School District has four cohorts in quarantine. Yesterday, we had the second positive COVID case in the TSS community and the first one during our academic year. Huge congrats to all staff following the pandemic response plan consistently. Your good actions meant broader exposure was minimal.

As you know, we have four goals to navigate the pandemic — health and safety of our community, integrity of TSS, steward faculty/staff, and look to evolve TSS learning opportunities as conditions change. The order is intentional. At various points over the last six months we have made some decisions that sacrificed revenue because we are commited to the health and safety of our students, faculty/staff, and community.

We have likely all watched news and reports of elementary schools to universities starting across the country with mixed results. A uniting theme for the beginning of the academic year are teachers and schools working hard to rethink education delivery to match the health and safety needs of their community. It’s not easy. Without consistent guidance from global or national organizations, schools and communities are left to design for themselves. Over the last month, we’ve seen high variability across the country in practices implementing in-person, hybrid, or all virtual.

Several weeks ago This American Life dedicated an entire episode to the restart of school across the United States from a student, parent, teacher, and administrator perspective. It’s not pretty. I appreciated their focus on COVID’s impact on education though I believe it missed a necessary ingredient for success for our community and our country. I interpreted Ira Glass’ thesis at the end to be students, parents, and teachers are looking to leadership at all levels and it has failed. End of story.

It’s true — agencies dedicated to national health, research, or education are not consistently clear or specific enough in best practice for COVID testing, online learning, or even mask-wearing. Schools, districts, and organizations are left to use their best judgment and learn quickly. While it certainly would be helpful, clear direction from agencies is not the entire recipe.

Each of us shares an unwritten contract with every circle of community we are a member. A core part of this contract is the personal responsibility we have to our cohort, our campus community, the broader TSS community, or the greater Teton community. Beyond the six principles of place-based education within the TSS Framework is “Community Leadership”. Relevant for TSS and place-based education, it is not just leadership but specifically community leadership. The community portion of leadership is all the more important in a pandemic — the systems thinking to understand our impact on others, the integrity to practice responsible behavior when on campus and when no one is watching, and the resilience to be consistent even when it gets hard.

Even with the best practices and protocols while at TSS campuses, modified in-person learning is vulnerable without following through on our community contract with each other. In a recent interview, Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of ethics and government asked, “even as the pandemic highlights our mutual dependence, it is striking how little solidarity and shared sacrifice it has called forth. Why do we seem incapable of solidarity at the time we need it most?”

It isn’t about pointing fingers (this is important). It is about having integrity in our behavior, supporting others in doing the same, and having a clear vision of the need for place-based education now and how education anytime, anywhere, grounded in our communities can improve our sense of mutual dependence to serve our planet better in the future. Thank you for doing the hard work in big and small behaviors every day to keep us moving forward towards goal number one — protecting the health and safety of our students, staff, and community. With good organizational practices AND commitment to our community, we can successfully navigate the pandemic to emerge stronger educationally, culturally, and financially.