AWE in the time of COVID-19

AWE is designed to push the limits of its participants. But this year, the program’s own limits were pushed as the directors worked with expert consultants to develop additional protocols to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Additional features were added to an already complex expedition, and the result was a successful trip for a satisfied, if smaller, group of students. 

“Before we went out we had already implemented a number of the protocols. Even so, there was a chance that small groups, or two associated groups, or even the whole course would have to come home,” said AWE Co-Director Phoebe Dameron. But they didn’t—to the delight of students, instructors and families, everything went well and all students completed the course successfully. 

The 26-day High Sierra course, scheduled in late summer, traverses Yosemite National Park north to south – starting in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, resupplying in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, and ending in the Sierra National Forest. The High Sierra course requires one food resupply, compared to three food and water resupplies for the Death Valley course, as there are opportunities to purify water along the way. 

One of the first and biggest changes to this AWE iteration was to make what is normally a graduation requirement an opt-in course. As a result, while a full trip would have had 42 students, this year’s group had 27. Some families didn’t feel comfortable with the risk, and some were not able to abide by the more strict shelter-in-place requirements before the trip went out. 

After the initial opt-in process, the AWE team, which includes Phoebe, Co-Director Jason Ham and Associate Director Whitney Hofacker, proceeded to research the risks so that they could develop a more concrete plan. They engaged two medical providers, administrators, and an external consultant from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). 

Families were required to abide by a quarantine protocol before the trip began, and all students and staff tested negative for COVID-19 before the trip launched.

In the field, groups followed a modified structure. Similar to the strategy that Athenian will follow when students come back to campus, leaders divided the groups into smaller, “mini-groups” with one instructor, rather than the usual eight or ten students with two instructors. Two mini-groups (a cohort) hiked at a distance but in proximity of each other to account for safety concerns apart from COVID-19. 

“There [were] a lot of logistics that went into it,” said AWE Associate Director Whitney Hofacker, “and I think I was so focused dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s that when we finally got out there there I was able to look up and see how special it truly was.” 

After months of quarantine, the social aspect of the trip was one of the biggest rewards, and students were appreciative of the opportunity to be out in nature.

“I found AWE to be a transformative experience especially during the pandemic. It was a welcome adventure that helped me center myself mentally, physically, and emotionally,” said Amanda K. ’21.

After 14 days in smaller “mini” groups the two cohorts were able to combine into a standard AWE group. “For them to be able to interact with each other in person, to be able to hug, laugh, to go through this challenge together on top of the pandemic was unique, and I think they really needed it,” Whitney said of the students. 

Instead of the usual eight-mile run-in culminating on campus, AWE staff created a four-mile out-and-back run from the final basecamp, complete with a toilet paper finish. 

The special basecamp banquet was also different from the family celebration that usually takes place on campus. However, students still presented about their experiences and each other in the form of skits, songs and monologues about one another’s strengths.  

“It wasn’t the typical run-in or banquet like we usually do, but we did it in the field, which was really special,” Whitney said. 

For Amy Wintermeyer, Head of the Upper School, the value of this year’s High Sierra trip was twofold – to maintain tradition, even in such an unprecedented time, and to give students at home and in need of social interaction this life-changing experience when they needed it the most. 

“This is a huge rite of passage at Athenian,” she said. “It was certainly the greatest gift we could have given them.”

Amy emphasizes that the highly detailed planning and risk-management that went into this trip were an enormous feat. 

“I would give major, major kudos to Phoebe, Jason and Whitney,” Amy said.

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