Coronavirus Pandemic Forces Burke to Close

Burke will now be closed through at least March 30th in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

In an email to the school community on Friday, March 13th, Head of School Damian Jones cited closures of other local public and private schools, as well as the recent national emergency declaration.

According to this email, the week off will officially be an early start to Spring Break, with no plans for immediate distance learning and no additional homework assigned or due before the 30th, except for in AP classes.

Amidst growing national and global responses and coverage of the pandemic illness officially called covid-19, Burke students recognized the need for this decision. “I was somewhat relieved that Burke decided to close because it relieved a lot of tension and questions,” said Bailee Chism ’24. “I’m sad that school had to close for this reason but I think they made the right call.”

Emma Paladino ’25 took a similar stance, saying “I was excited and also worried because the coronavirus has gotten to this state that they have to close school.”

The outcome was a mixed bag for DiDi Ogba ’21 as well. “While I’m happy we get an extended spring break, I’m also worried that I’ll get so much homework since basically all my classes are AP classes,” she said.

Previously, on Thursday, March 12th, Jones sent an email to the school community announcing the school would close on Friday, March 13th and Monday, March 16th. In that message, he emphasized that there was no imminent safety concern for the school, and the closure simply intended to “provide our community with some time to step back, rest, and evaluate.”

In an impromptu assembly speech that afternoon, Jones spoke to students and faculty about the importance of calm and caution in such a tumultuous. He also mentioned that the fluidity of the crisis and the lack of clear guidance from governmental bodies meant that Burke’s plans could change at a moment’s notice.

The environment in the atrium was tense as all who were present slowly realized the gravity and uncertainty of the situation, but Jones’ transparency and personal honesty seemed to soothe some of the concern.

“I don’t think Damian could have handled it any better,” said Chism. “He did calm me down and his speeches were very effective.”

Students went home Thursday afternoon after being told they were scheduled to be back on Tuesday the 17th,.

“At first I was really happy that we didn’t have to go to school,” said Ogba. “But I also didn’t want to stay home for too long because I would get bored quickly and wouldn’t be able to see my friends.”

Essential school personnel met at Burke the next day to discuss next steps and continue their development of potential distance learning frameworks for the possibility of an extended closure, and as news continued to develop, Jones opted to close the school for the next two-plus weeks.

Faculty, staff, and administrators do not get as much of a break, as they will have to discuss distance learning and other contingencies for the event of an even longer interruption.

Ogba was optimistic about the potential viability of online classes as a form of distance learning, but acknowledged some potential limitations. “I think [online classes] will probably work… I think they will be more effective for classes that are mainly lecture-based or just discussions/talking,” she said. “I think it will be a little harder for when some classes have to do demonstrations.”

Chism agreed with this assessment and mentioned the possible inevitability of online classes. “I think online school is a good idea for right now considering there is nothing else we can do.”

However, the current plan is for students to return to school on March 30th, avoiding the need for any distance learning. There is still a high degree of uncertainty as to whether this will happen; there are multiple scenarios in which an even longer closure would be appropriate

Paladino, though, expected to be back on the 30th barring any drastic worsening of the situation. “Unless someone from Burke gets it or things get really bad, no, I don’t think that we will close after spring break if it’s unnecessary,” she said.

There are currently no reported cases of covid-19 in the Burke community, but Jones’ first email said the school had already been in contact with the D.C. Department of Health regarding two specific situations. According to the email, neither ended up posing a risk to the school.

In addition to assessing the overall situation and describing Burke’s specific response regarding the academic schedule, Jones also addressed other areas of Burke life affected by the virus.

First, he announced that the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference, in which Burke’s teams compete, had suspended competition indefinitely.

He also announced the cancellation of the scheduled 6th grade trip to New York in April and the high school trip to Italy in the summer, citing high concentrations of coronavirus cases in those areas and overall travel uncertainty. Per Jones, the school is still evaluating non-international trips later in the year, such as the 11th grade trip to West Virginia.

Regarding Burke’s annual auction, scheduled for April 18th, the email said the school has not made a final decision, but the pre-existing online portion of the Auction offers something of a safety net.

The pandemic has also affected Burke’s high schoolers as they navigate the college process. As colleges and universities nationwide are closing their campuses and transitioning to online classes, they have also canceled on-campus visits and information sessions. Jones mentioned this problem in his second email, noting “particular challenges” to juniors who planned to visit colleges and seniors who were working on their senior projects. He added, “We share those concerns and are working to address them.

Additionally, numerous Burke students were scheduled to take the SAT on Saturday, March 14th before learning of test center closures that forced their tests to be relocated, rescheduled, or canceled.

Another unanswered question is the possibility of an extension to the end of the school year to make up for this extended break. Both Ogba and Paladino mentioned that option as a possible downside to the longer spring break, but Jones’ email on the 13th downplayed the potential. “As we have not used any snow days this year, the effect on overall school days will be minimal,” the message read.

Social media reactions immediately after the announcement ranged from celebration to disbelief. However, Jones’ consistent message throughout has been that students should take advantage of the time to focus on their mental and physical health while staying calm, safe, and informed.

According to Ogba, this is valuable advice and emblematic of successful crisis management by Jones.“I think Damian and Burke have handled it really well,” she said. “They are trying to keep everybody calm and they are letting us take this time to just relax.”

  • Note: For efficiency purposes, all student interviews in this article were conducted via social media/messaging apps and lightly edited for clarity.
  • Special Thanks to Madeleine Lampietti ’24 for getting middle school quotes!