I went on my first backpacking trip ever at John Dorr Nature Lab (Dorr) during the winter of freshman year, not knowing what I was getting myself into. Throughout the whole weekend, the temperatures were below freezing. Because all twelve of us on the trip were all hiking through the same conditions, we shared snacks and supported each other. The Dorr staff also put in extra effort, which included telling each tent a bedtime story. Even with the cold, it was one of the highlights of my high school experience because of the great people I met and became closer with. I was excited to continue to go on similar trips, but last Monday, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly announced in an email that all residential Dorr programs would be suspended for the duration of the 2020-2021 school year due to COVID-19 related concerns.
Making a decision of this nature in May felt premature to me at first, but after reading the detailed explanation Dr. Kelly sent to The Record (covered on the front page in today’s issue) and reconciling with the current circumstances and the effort it would take to keep Dorr open, I understand the decision.
Dorr represents a space for learning and growth for students from second to 12th grade and as such, the decision was weighed carefully. COVID-19 has affected the world in ways that no one was able to predict and while in recent weeks researchers have made progress to combat the virus, next school year will need to look very different in order to keep students, faculty, and their families safe. Although the pandemic is always changing, the logistical task of planning trips based on medical concern on a week-to-week or even month-to-month basis is too heavy.
One experience that will be lost is Upper Division Orientation (UDO), which is a program for new UD Students. I was new to Horace Mann in ninth grade, and while the transition still had its challenges, UDO eased some of the tension by allowing me to meet students before my first day. I was able to interact with students from different grades in a more relaxed, camp-like environment. Many of the games we played were familiar after years of summer camp. Some of the activities were in small groups that were only made up of freshmen. I met two of my closest friends, Eli Bacon and Lara Hersch, who were also new to the school, through these games. We occasionally laugh about how Eli was so tall that he was able to jump and lift himself 10 feet up in one of the games. Part of what makes UDO a great experience for many students is being at Dorr, and not having the opportunity to be there next year will make transitions for the new students coming to Horace Mann much more difficult.
Dorr provides an escape from the stress of school and the city that most students can not otherwise experience. I have been on many weekend trips to Dorr with different focuses and each one was a great experience. After the first winter backpacking trip, my friends and I have continued to go every year. Hiking and sleeping together in below freezing weather, while challenging, gave us memories that we still joke about. One such moment occurred when, not being patient enough to boil more water, I used pasta water to make hot chocolate. It’s difficult to keep your math homework in mind when you’re freezing in the middle of the forest drinking absolutely terrible hot chocolate. During the same trip, I was eating a bagel and Vivien Sweet took a picture that we have since recreated every year. Both of us have expressed our disappointment that we won’t be able to complete the series. In the other UD weekend trips, I learned about rock climbing, canoeing, and camping. All of these activities brought me closer to nature and helped me forget about the pressures of school.
The closure of Dorr comes during a time of uncertainty about whether or not life will go back to normal. Losing the opportunities that Dorr has to offer, especially during my senior year, is saddening, and reduces the signs of normal school life. I appreciate the caution that the school has exercised regarding the COVID-19 crisis and bringing Dorr to our Manhattan and Bronx campuses is the logical next step, but these programs will not be the same. Having the Dorr staff come to campus will not be able to replace the feeling that being at Dorr provided even if some of the activities can be translated to the Bronx campus. The late night talks and the tranquility of Dorr can’t be recreated in the city. Relaxing surrounded by trees is very different from relaxing a few yards away from your history class.