(This week’s letter is adapted from my address to the MICDS Upper School on Friday, March 13.)
I expect that many of you have heard the term “filial piety” before. It refers to care and reverence for one’s elders and ancestors. I would like for you to take a few seconds right now to think of an older person who is dear to you. It could be a grandparent or a neighbor or a family friend. Fix the image of that person in your mind’s eye.
You might also bring to mind a friend or a loved one whose immune system is compromised and therefore less resistant to infection than most because of a current or previous medical condition. Fix the image of that beloved person in your mind’s eye.
I have just drafted an email to our school community that looks ahead to the coming weeks and acknowledges that we are prepared to close our campus and implement online learning at MICDS should the course of the coronavirus pandemic require that we do so. You will all receive that email later this morning. You are doubtless already aware that many other institutions and organizations around the world have made, and are continuing to make, such decisions to cancel or to suspend or to disperse their activities; and while we have not yet decided to close our campus, I certainly respect the possibility that we will have do so.
It is important, therefore, that you understand why we would make such a choice. Unlike the vast majority of our decisions at MICDS, this one would not be made principally on your behalf, or at least not on behalf of the majority of you who have robust immune systems — according to what we understand about the pandemic so far. It would be made on behalf of those people whom I have asked you to visualize in your mind’s eye.
The 2009 flu epidemic – the so-called “swine flu” – infected upwards of 20% of the world’s population, but it had a very low case fatality rate of about 0.05%, and only about 20% of the deaths that it caused were of people over the age of 65. COVID-19, by contrast, appears to be both more contagious and more of a threat to older people.
Few places are more efficient hubs of contagion than schools, and ours is a sizable one. If I choose to close our campus to students, I will do so because, in view of the nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, my obligation to protect the most vulnerable persons in our wider community – perhaps the person you are seeing now in your mind’s eye – has eclipsed my obligation to sustain a normal operating environment for our immediate MICDS community.
Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch asks, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” It is ever our duty to make life less difficult for others, near to us and far.
Have you heard of the 2080 pandemic? Of course you haven’t! You aren’t time travelers. But there will be a 2080 pandemic, or a 2070 pandemic, or some similarly unanticipated outbreak, and by that point in your lives you may rank among the more vulnerable members of society. You will depend upon the choices of billions of people who have not even been born yet to make life less difficult for you, to feel a sense of filial piety toward you, perhaps to imagine you as beloved in their minds’ eyes. What a gift we have in this moment to act in the interests of the most vulnerable among us. I encourage you to rise to this occasion. We have good work to do.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. Happy spring break. I will see you on the other side.
Head of School