Scenes from the Final Days in the LA Dorms. Photos by Missy Abbott

When Lincoln Academy announced the campus closure that began on March 17, it wasn’t a simple proposition. The school had to consider the immediate future of 40 residential students living in the LA dorms.

“It was a roller-coaster weekend,” said Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life Jake Abbott. “On Friday [March 13] we were committed to staying open, and keeping students on campus through this process. 24 hours later we offered dorm students the option to go home if they wanted to. And then 24 hours after that we decided that they should all go home during the school closure if at all possible.”

The school made the decision to close the dorms and send all students home based on an assessment of the risk of trying to keep a dorm full of students safe during the pandemic and the utter uncertainty of what lay ahead. “It became a tremendous responsibility for us,” said Abbott. “If one of our students got sick, then none of them would likely be able to travel. During the two weeks we still had students in the dorms, we worked hard to keep the dorm community from having contact with the outside world.” Day students were not allowed to visit residential students to say goodbye. The Dining Commons was closed to visitors and sanitized several times a day. Dorm families limited their outside contact. LA employees with offices in the dorm worked from home to reduce foot traffic. “It was a tremendous team effort,” according to Abbott.

After the first round of students departed, the dorm staff consolidated the remaining students into Kiah Bayley Hall, which custodial staff sanitized on a regular basis. As numbers grew even smaller, students ate their meals in the dorm instead of the Dining Commons. “The LA kitchen shifted to supporting the community through the meal delivery program, and it was easier for dorm parents to cook for students in KB Hall. We also ordered take out, which allowed us to support local restaurants,” said Abbott.

Transportation to airports became an all-hands-on-deck endeavor for the LA staff. “We were driving kids to Portland and Boston to accommodate ever-changing and limited flights. Sometimes flights were cancelled late in the day and the only rebooking available was the 5 am flight the next morning, so 2 am departures became a way of life, but we had to respond as it was sometimes the only option. We were committed to not putting anyone in a taxi, so we made trips to airports at all hours, and completely wiped down and sanitized vehicles between trips,” said Abbott, “We also sent kids home with supplies to stay clean and safe on flights: gloves, wipes, and masks when we could get them, etc.”

LA students are meeting a variety of welcomes on their return to their home country since countries of origin vary in their restrictions for returning citizens. Both China and Vietnam require students to stay in a quarantine facility for two weeks, and in China many regions require that students spend an additional two weeks in a regional quarantine before joining their families. “Many of our Chinese students are looking at four weeks of quarantine before returning home,” said Abbott. “In many cases internet access during this time is limited, so connecting with virtual learning is a huge challenge. We have assembled a dedicated team to help troubleshoot and support these students until they can get home with better access.”

LA junior Bao (Sunny) Le is currently in quarantine in a Vietnamese military facility for two weeks after arriving in Vietnam on March 19. He wrote in a March 21 email, “I share my room with seven other people, mostly middle age. Everything here is almost perfect, the food is decent, the people are nice, and the place is pretty clean.”

Some countries, including Hungary, Poland, Kazakhstan, and Spain, mandate two weeks of home quarantine that is strictly enforced. Others, including Brazil and Nigeria, have less restrictive recommendations for self-isolation upon citizens’ return, but the rules are also changing by the day.

Residential students stargazing on Clark Field on one of their last nights at LA before dispersing to their home countries.

Residential students stargazing on Clark Field on one of their last nights at LA before dispersing to their home countries. Missy Abbott photo.

Not only have the final days in the LA dorms been logistically challenging, they have been emotionally wrenching as well. “It is hard to describe what a difficult and heartbreaking experience this has been,” said Abbott. “At the very heart of this program is the value of building strong relationships. We are parenting young adults, that, for all intents and purposes are like our own children, some of whom have lived on campus for as long as three years. Suddenly, we made the decision to shutter the building and within hours and days, the inevitable became a reality. Some of these kids who came for one year, we probably won’t see them again, which is tough. Then there are the seniors, and there are a lot of unknowns: will graduation happen this year? For students in far off places, the reality is they probably won’t be back. We lacked closure and we all have some wounds that will take some time to heal. I am hopeful that we will all have an opportunity to come together again before the end of the year, but realistically that probably won’t happen.”

“My final days at LA were pretty quick, I didn’t even have time to think about the fact that I’m leaving,” junior Gellert Dabasi-Halasz wrote in an email from his 14-day self-isolation in Hungary. “This situation was so sudden that I couldn’t even realize it fully. After a week at home, it hit me really hard that more than probably I’m not going to go back to this community. It was heartbreaking to realize that.”

And yet, Abbott said, even with the heartbreak there have been positive aspects of this experience. “Since we started our self-isolation as early as we did, we as a residential community have had the benefit of living together in a close community–something not everyone experienced over the last few weeks. The final days of meals and farewells have made us all appreciate each other that much more. Since students have left, dorm faculty are finding ways to engage students and support their transitions–with their families, and with the technology they need to finish their school year.”

By Monday, March 30, all of LA’s residential students had either returned home, moved in with relatives in the US, or transitioned to a temporary homestay waiting for flights to become available to their home countries. “It has been a long two weeks,” said Abbott. “This was definitely an experience we didn’t plan for. But I am grateful for this community and their dedication and hard work, both the people here, and those now spread across the globe. The hard work paid off and now we will find ways to stay connected and rebuild the community from afar, as best as we can.”