Students return to Dorr for the first time since COVID

Sofia Kim and Ceci Coughlin

For the first time in 18 months, students visited the John Dorr Nature Laboratory (Dorr). Over the past few weeks, groups of seventh grade students traveled to the Connecticut campus to collect data on trees and soil for a science lab, Sasha Peters (7) said. 

The seventh grade went to Dorr in 10 different sections separated by science class beginning in the second week of September, Dorr Director Nick DePreter said. It took a lot of preparation, but thanks to support from the school’s teachers, Head of Middle Division Javaid Khan, and Director of Facilities Management Gordon Jensen, they created a great program, he said.

Before the pandemic, seventh graders went to Dorr every year. “The seventh grade trip is a forest study instead of doing team bonding activities usually done in sixth or eighth grade,” Khan said. “This trip is about Dorr as a science classroom.”

The content of the seventh grade field lab changes over the years, DePreter said. “For example, we did stream study for ten years, and now it’s been forest study for the last three and continuing into the next few for sure. We have done different types of labs in biology, geomorphology, and stream studies,” he said.

During the lab, students looked at a plot of land and determined what plants were growing and if the trees there were dead or healthy, Kayla Ogyaadu (7) said. 

Even with COVID-19 restrictions, students still took part in activities besides the lab, Ogyaadu said. “Between lunch or lunch prep you could hang out with your friends,” she said. “There was a piano so we mainly did that. You could also play Uno.”

Having the opportunity to come to Dorr is also important for students’ mental health, DePreter said. “COVID-19 has caused all sorts of different anxieties,” he said. “It helps by being able to come up, engage with nature, take a step back, and realize that there is something bigger out there than just your computer or bedroom. Nature is a real equalizer and Dorr provides all the students that it can with a chance to experience that.”

For students such as Ved Daga (7), Dorr is about connecting with peers through activities that would not be available at school, he said. “Nature is a lot more exciting while exploring with friends, rather than going alone.”

For new MD students, Dorr is an experience that allows them to make memories by talking to their friends and playing cards before bedtime, Gupta said. “Dorr has so much to offer even though kids may not be able to take part in everything just yet,” he said.

Khan and Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly communicated closely with DePreter to discuss the logistics of traveling to Dorr, and Kelly made the final decision in August to allow students to attend Dorr, Khan said.

While making this decision, the school followed CDC guidelines and put trust in the school’s families to maintain a safe community, DePreter said. “The HM promise is the reason we are able to do what we can do both at school and at Dorr,” he said. “Families that have committed to being safe at home means that we can be safe with the kids at school.”

At Dorr, activities like eating, meetings, classes, games, freetime, and more were held outside, DePreter said. “It’s the safest place anywhere at HM because you are outside all the time.”

Dorr also took other safety precautions such as wearing masks at all times, except when sleeping or eating, Kahn said. In the bunkhouses, they used the same surface sanitizing and air filtration units as the school, DePreter said. All of the windows also stayed open with screens, he said.

Though the students stayed together in a cabin, the safety measures allowed them to feel safe. “I knew everyone was vaccinated, as was I, and the Dorr staff took a lot of precautions,” Neeya Gupta (7) said.

“The heart of each program is the same and a lot of the things that we do are the same,” Assistant Director of Dorr Kate Kerrick said. “It’s just the logistics that have changed.” 

DePreter hopes to move forward with school trips to Dorr. “We really hope that we can have the OutDorrs Club come back. We also want any other clubs interested in coming to Dorr to contact me and see if we can work it out.”

Students and teachers alike are excited for Dorr programs to resume. While staying at home, a lot of kids didn’t have the time to explore nature, Kerrick said. “Here at Dorr there is so much space in between planned moments to learn other things or grow as a community,” she said. “It’s nice to see the kids explore the space of Dorr again. It’s those moments that are really precious.”