1. Home
  2. Digital Cortile
  3. Cortile 2021
  4. Bloom Where You Are Planted: How and Why We Persisted During Covid

What follows is a response to requests which have suggested that current friends of the school, and future generations, may be interested in how we managed the COVID-19 pandemic at St. Stephen’s.  It is written without pretense and shared because it’s a story worth telling. Thus far, I think it’s mostly a hopeful story because it illustrates the power of collective decision-making, the extraordinary dedication not only of our employees but also of our families and students, and a country that I believe has managed the crisis reasonably well.

“Is this just a snow day?”

In early March 2020, Italy closed schools abruptly. I called a hasty assembly in the chapel and told students to take their essential belongings from their lockers and head home. Students were generally giddy, reminding me of my own childhood at the news of a snow day. Many of them were smiling and high-fiving, which didn’t thrill me, but also seemed perfectly natural. None of us knew what was coming.

We took one day off and then began teaching remotely. We remained in that mode for the balance of the spring semester, unable to return to in-person teaching. During that time, we made a number of important decisions, some short-term and some long-term.

“The seniors deserve a graduation”

As we watched the semester ebb away on zoom, the all-important question of graduation arose. Usually scheduled for the last Friday in May, all of us were sick at the prospect of mailing seniors their high school diploma. Already the seniors had their senior spring, their prom, their spring sports, and their faculty/senior dinner pulled out from under them, but to end in such an impersonal way -- receiving a diploma in the mail -- seemed unacceptable. 

We set to work. Because we have for years taught English for free to the local police and Carabinieri, we have many friendly and helpful contacts. We pitched the idea to them since it would be those officers responding if there was a neighborhood complaint, and we managed to find an elegant solution: individual students would come on six-minute rotations, accompanied by no more than two guests, and would process up the chapel steps, in the chapel doors, down a red runway carpet, and to a formal dais where they would receive their diploma. In addition, we presented them a framed piece of original artwork (painted by one of our teachers), a typed advisor letter, which was read aloud by their advisor, and a small potted bonsai given to parents in recognition of all their hard work and love.

It took two full days to get everyone through, and we had to do the exercise on zoom for boarding students who had been sent home -- but we had 100% participation, which illustrates how much this event meant to everyone involved. Hearteningly, there were still the tears on the cheeks of parents and the few of us who could be present; there was still Mr. Trythall’s beautiful (recorded) playing of the processional piano theme. Interestingly, several parents -- who had older students graduate years earlier in our traditional ceremony -- noted that they preferred this ceremony: “it was just much more personal.”.

“Will we be able to reopen in the fall?”

While teachers were busy teaching and students were busy learning that spring, this was the question on the minds of senior administrators and trustees.  Would it be safe to reopen? Should we close for a semester or a year? What if we chose to reopen, but half of our families withdrew, perhaps for financial reasons?  Could we even dream of reopening boarding?

Collectively, we spent hundreds of hours on these questions. We scenario-planned for catastrophic circumstances, as well as moderate and best cases. We made educated guesses about the future and continued to refine those as new information emerged globally.


Through sound financial management in the past, the Board had created financial reserves. We determined that even in the most catastrophic circumstances, we could and would keep the School operating. What’s more, to close for a semester or a year would force all of our students into other schooling options, effectively shuttering St. Stephen’s permanently.

“We need doctors to inform strategy”

Once it was clear that we could afford to reopen -- even with the possibility of massive attrition -- we set to work on strategy. As an educator, it was clear that I did not possess the community health knowledge to make intelligent decisions.  I formed a four-doctor Medical Advisory Team, in part because I wanted a difference of opinion; it didn’t feel fair or wise to place all of that responsibility on one medical professional.  We met with the team weekly throughout the summer and monthly in the fall to review our decisions and proposals. There was occasional disagreement, but generally strong consensus, giving us confidence in our decisions.  I assured the doctors that I wanted their honest opinions; I would be the one to make decisions if there was disagreement. I think that freed them up, to be completely frank, leading to more strategic outcomes.

“We need more counseling resources”

As we spent spring 2020 attending webinars, talking to other educators, and reading, one statistic caught my attention: “1 in 3 students will return to school with social/emotional problems from the pandemic”.  While that was speculative, it felt true in my bones.  With the Board’s support, I created a position entitled Community Wellness Counselor, who would attend to the needs of not just students, but also employees and parents.  In addition to our existing school counselors, Katherine Young (who was awarded this position) has done a masterful job offering everything from yoga and mindfulness to stress management and breathing to regular counseling sessions and webinars for parents.

“What about the academic offering?”

We also knew that we would need a different educational product for fall 2020. We expected to have what I called an “accordion year” where the campus would open and close periodically, driven by the local health situation.  We needed a unified pedagogy that would work equally well in-person and remotely. Department chairs and other academic leaders spent the late spring and summer developing teaching techniques, researching apps, and creating structures that allowed us academic flexibility but with the assurance of excellence. We rolled that out in September and continue to draw on that planning wisdom.

“What about boarding?”

No single aspect of the school has been as thorny as residential life. With 18 returning senior boarders, we knew it would be catastrophic for their educational journeys to re-open the school without a residential program. Those seniors (and the younger boarders, as well) were depending on us, and if we could make it happen, we needed to do so.  It felt to me like something of a moral imperative.

We prepared for this decision by logging lots of time with educational leaders from around the world, including the US-based Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), which was suddenly catapulted into a position of global prominence.  With research data and a collection of anecdotal experiences from other schools, we agreed to open the boarding program but with serious changes: to reduce risk, students would live in singles, which necessitated us renting an entire hotel on the Aventine hill for the seniors; students would be clustered in family groups, with whom they would dine and socialize, such that if one student became ill, only that family group would quarantine, not the entire residential program; programming would be reduced to outdoor activities or family group activities, and meals would take place with reduced density in the dining room.

In addition, we knew that the existing single-room infirmary would be insufficient. We made the radical decision to relocate a host of administrative offices to create a 6-bed infirmary, where ill students could be housed before returning home or to hospital if needed.  To staff the facility, we hired an additional nurse to live in a newly-built faculty apartment within the facility.

“We’ve got to test on-site”

One of the themes emerging from educational institutions by late summer was the concept of early detection.  It struck me as an unavoidable truth: the disease is pernicious because asymptomatic transmission is a primary vector, and there’s just no solution but frequent testing.  I knew we couldn’t ask families to test offsite, as there just wasn’t testing capacity in Rome at that time, and that fact further narrowed the decision: we would have to test on-site. Supplies of testing swabs were limited and expensive, but I didn’t see a responsible alternative.

When I announced the decision in September that faculty, staff, and students would all be tested regularly, there was mixed reaction. Some families asked to opt out, viewing my decision as alarmist. “No other schools are doing this.”  Opinions were mixed amongst employees as well.  We proceeded, making rare exceptions for physiological anomalies, even though Italian law did not protect our decision.  I knew both families and employees could challenge this plan, but I just could not responsibly defend any other position.  Thankfully, we had 99% participation in both cohorts (100% now).

Writing this piece in February 2021, as the pandemic rages throughout Europe and America, that decision seems a bare minimum for operating a school. In fact, we’ve increased our testing in response to a minor outbreak in our dormitory last November; our residential staff and students are now tested twice a week, with day faculty and day students tested once a week.  The school covers the staffing costs, and families pay only for the test itself (now down to about $5 per test).

“Seriously, we’ve got to open the windows? In January?”

We knew winter would be our toughest season. Modeling suggested a powerful second wave was coming, and a cold Roman winter, while hardly frosty, would present problems.  As continued evidence pointed to airborne transmission as far more problematic than fomite (surface) transmission, we explored air purification equipment for classrooms. The problem with those portable units is that they’re only functional if windows are closed, and both the decree and common sense told us that windows needed to be open.  To normalize this frigid plan, I referenced how prior generations had educated children during pandemics – – outside with lots of warm clothing.  And so all of us are here in layers, with gloves and hats sometimes.

And now, the variants

We now have a global race between vaccine deployment and the spread of these more contagious variants.  Hopefully, we come out on the winning side of that challenge. In the meantime, we will keep prioritizing creativity, rigorous precautions, and a love for learning here at St. Stephen’s.

Chapter 1: The World Around Us | A Comment on Our Times, Cortile 2021 Highlights

Revenge of the Fringe

Is internet culture driving America to extremes?

In December of 2020, historians in The Washington Post weighed in on whether 2020 was the worst year ever. Materially, the answer is clear: even in a year of tumult, we live in an era of superabundance. Since the turn of the last century, Americans have added decades to our lifespans, easy-to-source food to our tables, and secured health outcomes that, even in a bad year, remain better than anything our ancestors enjoyed.

By Jen Hollis - Former Teacher of IB History, St. Stephen’s School
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Justice, Cortile 2021 Highlights

Understanding the Origins of BLM and the World’s Outrage Over George Floyd’s Death

"I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter... Our lives matter."

- Patrisse Cullors, Founding Member, BLM

By Tatiana Lima '15
op ed2
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Justice

Opinion: George Floyd’s Killing and the Black Lives Matter Protests Against Police Brutality

On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was arrested and killed by Minneapolis Police after being accused of stealing from a store. Outrage followed when footage of the arrest revealed one of the officers--Derek Chauvin--placing his knee on Floyd’s neck during the arrest for eight minutes and forty-six seconds and ignoring Floyd’s desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe… I can’t breathe…” 

By Sofia Ghilas '21
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Justice

Opinion: The Rise of Anti-Asian Sentiment

After the recent fatal shooting of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, Georgia, last month, there is increasing alarm about the proliferation of anti-Asian racist memes, posts, and other online activities that may have set the stage for real-life violence.

By Lixuan Du ‘23
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

Bloom Where You Are Planted: How and Why We Persisted During Covid

“They won’t let you board the plane?” I responded on my mobile phone, rubbing sleepy sand out of my eyes. It was 6 AM on a Sunday in February 2020, and half of our school was at the airport – or soon to be -- for Spring Trips, heading out to destinations like Oman and Morocco (the other trips had gotten out the day before).  So began my intimate relationship with the virus. Though we had been tracking the virus for weeks prior, that moment is the moment it all really began for me.  (And, yes, those trip participants literally pulled their bags off the airline conveyor belts, redialed the rental van, and returned, despondent, to their homes in Rome.)

By Eric Mayer - Head of School
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

Reopening After a School Closure and Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

Dateline: 25 January, 2020

On January 18th, St. Stephen’s students and teachers returned to the classroom for the first time since late October. At 8 am on Monday, a line of excited students wound its way down Via Aventina, each student waiting their turn for morning temperature checks. All around them, teachers weaved in and out of the line, stopping to greet groups of students and remark on how surreal it felt to be back.

By Vittoria Giusti ‘22, Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and member of the Boarding Faculty
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

At War With an Invisible Enemy

The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most challenging issues the world has collectively faced in recent history. We are essentially waging war against a silent enemy--one who has no national borders, knows no social bounds, political systems, nor cultural norms or values. This silent enemy of ours has inflicted harm on whoever crosses its path, upending life as we have come to know it, surreptitiously taking lives, decimating industries, and destabilizing the world economy.

By Xara Al Said ‘23
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

The Disproportional Impact of Covid on Black Americans

 Last year, as we watched the United States attempt to tackle the Covid-19 virus with mixed messages from the former President, spotty stay-at-home orders, at will mask-wearing, and widespread Covid testing, we observed a great divide between those catching the virus and recovering and those catching the virus and dying.

By Tanesha Alexander - Assistant Librarian, EAP Teacher, and DEI representative
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Media and Bullying

Teens and Bullying

Bullying occurs a lot more than one would expect. Injuries, abuses, humiliations, threats, teachers offended while the class videotapes them, kids kicked, teenagers arrested for serious acts against peers.

By Emma Jansen ‘24
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Media and Bullying

A Social Media Guide for Teens

The use of social media has become an inevitability of modern-day life. Whether you’re following your school’s Facebook account, chatting with your family on Whatsapp, or sending your friends pictures on Instagram.

By Sofia Ghilas '21
spirit new
Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Service

In the Spirit of Service

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope; you will fill yourself with hope.”
― Barack Obama

By Dr. Helen Pope - Former St. Stephen’s Teacher and Director of the Dr. Helen Pope Lyceum
Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film review: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

IMDB Rating: 7.6

‘You can kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution.’ Words from the great activist for black rights, Fred Hampton was the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party from 1966 to 1969.

By Luca Vanderson '22
what we started
Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film Review: What We Started

What We Started on Netflix is a beautiful documentary about the history of electronic music that follows its origins from the early 1970s until today. The film explores the genre through interviews with DJs and music producers.

By Matteo Scarfini ‘24
Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film Review: Seaspiracy

The newly released Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, explores the damage the fishing industry is causing the blue planet.

By Gustav Franklin ‘21
gone wind4
Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Gone with the Wind: A Film Review for Our Times

I saw this film for the first time three years ago, and it is one of those movies that you cannot only watch; you have to think and read and write about it to understand it and its impact on you.

By Benedetta Bosco ‘22
Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age drama film directed by Stephen Chbosky, starring globally known actors Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller, and was released in 2012.

By Anita D’Alisera ‘21
favorite online
Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching | Digital St. Stephen's

Our Favorite Online Events

This past year has challenged us to move our events online, from Zoom olive oil and wine tastings that transported us to the Tuscan countryside to gallery openings that brought us to the heart of the New York City and Roman art scene; we have made the best of this pandemic, seizing it as an opportunity to experiment with new mediums and new activities.

Chapter 3: Creative Writing | Creative Writing


As the school's only student-run literary and artistic magazine, INK provides the grounding for your creativity to thrive.

By The INK Team
cw 1
Chapter 3: Creative Writing | Creative Writing

A Selection of Creative Writing

You’ve probably seen that meme: a child in a big armchair, cozily reading a book. All around her head are thought bubbles full of knights and dragons, maps and mountains, ships and seas. And below, the caption: “Reading Takes You Places.”

Chapter 4: Departments | The Lyceum

New Initiatives at the Lyceum Take Off During the Pandemic

"All men by nature desire to know." (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.980a22).

Nevermore than during the last seventeen months did these words from Aristotle ring true for me. We are so fortunate that through the Lyceum, we are able to create special opportunities for our students to learn about the ancient world, whether it’s through weekend trips and lectures or by inviting scholars, writers, and poets who through their workshops, lectures and readings enhance our classes and broaden our students' horizons.

By Inge Weustink - Director of the Lyceum, Classics Teacher
city of rome1
Chapter 4: Departments | Exploring City of Rome II Class

Exploring the New City of Rome 2 Class

Between 1400 and 1700, Rome was reborn as a global city, capital of a growing world ‘empire,’ so to speak, for the first time since antiquity. The city today owes much of its historical appeal, its most eye-catching artworks, and monuments, to this, the Early Modern era (c.1400-1700 CE).

By Dr. Rebecca Raynor - Art History, Dr. Paul Treherne - History
arts hero
Chapter 5: The Arts

The Arts

This year our students have embraced the digital world, moving their drama and art shows online.

Image: Credit in here mentioning that the art work was selected for the cover

Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview, Cortile 2021 Highlights

Nicola Formichetti ‘96

Fashion Designer / Stylist / Creative Director

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and member of the Boarding Faculty
M. Stancati photo
Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Margherita Stancati ‘03

The Wall Street Journal reporter

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and member of the Boarding Faculty
Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Galen Druke ‘08

Host and Producer at FiveThirtyEight.

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and member of the Boarding Faculty
Diva Tommei.Photo credits Ilaria Magliocchetti
Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Diva Tommei ‘02

Investment Director Information Technology ICT at ENEA Teach

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and member of the Boarding Faculty
elizabeth blackwell2
Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Elizabeth Blackwell ‘86


By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and member of the Boarding Faculty
Rachel Sadoff
Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Rachel Sadoff ‘15

MA Candidate in Public Health at Columbia University

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and member of the Boarding Faculty
Healthy Campus team
Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight

Alumni serve as our Healthy Campus Team

With Italy’s many COVID restrictions, we’ve needed additional staff to greet and temperature check arriving students, walk the campus for compliance, assist classes if the teacher is working remotely but the students are here, and various other activities to keep us safe.  To our great fortune, four alumni came forward to help us for the year: Michael Alonzi (2013), Tatiana Lima (2015), David Rosales (2016), and Alessandro Cosmo (2017). We asked about the experience, and they had this to say…

By Eric Mayer - Head of School
online alumni
Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Digital Alumni

Alumni Events Online

From alumni trivia and virtual reunions to happy hours and afternoon coffee breaks, our digital alumni events have enabled us to bring together alumni and current and former faculty members from around the world.