By Neva Rae Fox
While most schools were planning and fretting about opening for the fall semester, Saint Thomas Choir School opted for an innovative move – literally a move. The entire boarding school – books, faculty, musical instruments, and 29 students – moved for six weeks from New York City to new quarters at Incarnation Center in Deep River, Connecticut, for the opening of school in September. And, by all indications, the move has been an educational success.
Planning for this relocation started shortly after the pandemic forced the shutdown of all schools in March. In addition to the restrictions imposed on schools, the Rev. Carl Turner, rector of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York, pointed out the Choir School also must follow the COVID-19 guidelines established for choirs of all sizes. “That means they are treating our choir the same as the Metropolitan Opera chorus,” he remarked.
Head of School Amy Francisco explained in a letter, “Following a two-week quarantine period in which every community member completed a symptom checklist, limited their activities to ones deemed safe by medical authorities, and completed a COVID-19 test, the faculty and staff arrived at Incarnation Center on September 10.”
Leaving behind the sidewalks and buildings of a bustling New York City, the students adapted quickly to the new environs, about 30 miles east of New Haven. Saint Thomas’ students hail from eight states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
At Incarnation Center, students and faculty adhered to social distancing standards, and COVID-19 testing was administered. After following this strict regimen plus two negative COVID-19 tests, the students were able to interact and see each other without masks, prompting great joy.
Francisco reported, “We achieved a major milestone: our second round of COVID-19 tests came back negative for our entire community, and we were — at last — able to take off our masks and be socially un-distanced! When they heard the news, the students and teachers ripped off their masks, cheering, hugging, and jumping up and down with excitement. This outpouring was followed by the boys attending their first full choir rehearsal since mid-March and our first time breaking bread sitting shoulder to shoulder around a communal table.”
“When they first took their masks off, their joy was palpable,” the rector reported. “They are singing! They are playing their instruments! They are learning!”
For musicians and budding artists, this was quite the feat. Director of Music Dr. Jeremy Filsell observed, “The irony is that, while academic classes have been made to work so well online by faculty and students alike, music-making cannot and the lockdown sadly denied the boys the musical and social interaction that is so much a part of being in this choir.”
He added, “That the boys have jumped back into their musical pursuits so hearteningly has been to their remarkable credit.”
One student shared, “My favorite part about being at Incarnation was when we got to take off our masks. It was hard to have to wear them around all the time, and when we took them off, we could finally sing as a choir again!”
Much planning went into ensuring a quality education, both academically and musically.
“This is creative problem-solving, thinking outside-the-box in an entrepreneurial way,” Saint Thomas Interim Director of Communications Blake Martin observed. “The important thing is that education has continued. The boys have been able to spend time outside with a front row seat to the seasons change, and that has created an immersive experience.”
“We gave up the steel and concrete of Manhattan for the bark and branches of the woods of Connecticut,” science teacher Dr. Matthew Gilbert echoed. “While the rest of the world adapts to distance learning and part-time, in-person instruction, we have the luxury of an environment in which chipmunks, squirrels, deer, hawks, and frogs are our nearest neighbors, and masks and social distancing are already a distant memory.”
Turner stressed the importance of regular updates that have been shared throughout the Saint Thomas community. “We are a school, a community – not just the church that owns the school. Parents have been involved and have been supportive. Alumni have been supportive.”
The rector added, “Every day there has been a social media feed, just for parents.”
As one student noted, “It still feels a lot like normal school because we have the same teachers and classes.”
Alas, the time at Incarnation Center is nearing an end, as home-schooling and online instruction will commence shortly. The six-week relocation to Connecticut “concludes on October 25, at which point the boys and faculty will have a well-deserved two-week break,” explained Victoria Vanasco, the school’s director of admissions and communications. “Distance learning begins on November 9.” The students will be at their homes while the New York City campus remains closed.
Gilbert observed, “While watching the children enjoy the life we have here, it’s hard to imagine that this must end, and we will re-enter the world and once again help shoulder its burdens.”
While the school continues to assess and monitor COVID-19 restrictions, a future session at Incarnation has not been ruled out. “It was a much-needed oasis of normal for students and faculty alike and vital to our mission of nurturing and training choristers to have a safe place to sing without masks or social distancing,” Vanasco said. “We are deeply grateful to Incarnation Center for being such wonderful hosts and for helping make our temporary residence a great success.”
Saint Thomas Choir School was founded in 1919 for boys in grades three to eight, “in the Anglican tradition of all-male choral ensembles,” according to the website. The boarding school is affiliated with Saint Thomas Church in Manhattan.