Returning from March break usually sets in motion the start of our many spring celebratory events. Students return energized and eager to see classmates, and work hard to finish out the school year strong. And yet, this year has presented a bizarre reality that none of us could have imagined.
In the early days of March, just as students prepared to depart campus for March break, it became clear that the global and national public health crisis related to COVID-19 was changing rapidly. And the need to have an online, distance learning module was quickly becoming a likely scenario. Assistant Head of School and Academic Dean Elaine White P’16, ‘21 and Department Heads, in close partnership with members of our faculty, set to work developing Govs’ distance learning module, Together Online. The team was tasked with how to deliver an excellent Governor’s education and maintain our family-like atmosphere with students spread across the country and the globe.
“What keeps that feeling (of being overwhelmed) at bay has been the inspirational, dedicated, and collegial work of our faculty and staff,” said Academic Dean and Assistant Head of School Elaine White P’16, ‘21. “I was buoyed by the way in which our faculty answered my call for help over March break. So many people gave up their vacation and spent long hours designing a system and revising it. We had faculty and staff volunteering to take on tasks that are not in their job description. We had feedback from students and parents in the whole process that only made what we created and practiced better.”
When the decision was made not to return to campus as scheduled after March break, the team began training faculty and addressing the complicated set of technical needs of both faculty, students, and staff to ensure that distance learning would go as smoothly as possible. Initially planned as a two-week solution out of an abundance of caution for the health and safety of our community, our distance learning module has replaced our traditional classroom experience for the remainder of the year. Google Classroom and Zoom have been instrumental stand-ins for face-to-face classroom instruction, but also advisory group meetings, Chapel, Morning Meeting, and club gatherings.
Veteran math teacher Matt Hunt shared, “Accepting the uncertainty and moving forward was a big challenge. This is new to all of us—I can't walk down the hall and ask a colleague what worked last time. The material may be the same, but we are meeting less and the whiteboard just shrunk from 168 square feet to a cell phone screen. It was easy to feel like a rookie teacher again.”
Even under normal circumstances, spring in Byfield often feels like one step forward and two steps back; one day it’s a beach day and the next a snow squall. But we can always count on the cherry trees blossoming outside the library, classes meeting at picnic tables outdoors, and seniors “jumping the wall.” This spring, students and faculty have had to make adjustments to teaching and learning online, and being far away from each other—and it has not always been easy. Alex ‘21 said, “Teachers are thinking of creative ways to support students and teach the material. Though for some students, not having the structure of a set routine can be hard.” Students are adapting and forming Zoom groups just to stay connected, but what Alex and his friends miss most is not seeing each other. “I’m sad that I might not see some of my friends for a long time, especially Govs international students and seniors,” he added.
Academy President Adeliza ‘20 notes, “The most difficult part of transitioning to online school is being a senior. Throughout the last few weeks, I have struggled to accept that I will never sit in a Govs classroom as a student or walk from building to building with my friends again. But through all this hardship and changes to the senior spring I have been looking forward to for four years, I have come to value and appreciate the small moments of connection with the Govs community.”
And yet, Govs students and faculty have shown remarkable adaptability and willingness to accommodate a very different way of learning and connecting with each other. Head of School Dr. Peter H. Quimby ‘85, P’14 remarked, “The creativity and positive spirit with which everyone has embraced the challenge of online learning are a tribute to the character of our community and I am enormously proud of our faculty, staff, students, and their families.”
“I am continually impressed by the adaptability and humility of our students at Govs,” said Spanish teacher Kenny Torsey. “Maybe without knowing it, they do a lot to make the process smoother and more effective just through their willingness to interact with the teacher and their peers and try new things. The students understood early on that this was the new normal and are constantly making adjustments to get the most out of this experience,” Torsey added.
Like her colleagues in other departments, science teacher Dr. Emily Allen acknowledged the challenges in conducting online classes. “We have had to change the way we provide learning experiences to our students, which in science classes has been very interesting! Leveraging great online resources, we have helped students bring science into their own homes with labs that include observation, data collection, and recognition of scientific phenomena they actually see every day in their homes. While there have been many challenges along the way, I believe we will all come out of this as better teachers, students, and learners!” says Dr. Allen.
Online instruction for all students will continue through Thursday, May 28, which would have been the last day of the final examination period had we been able to be on campus this spring. While seniors would have graduated on Sunday, May 24, the extension of the AP examination period requires that we keep all students in session through at least Friday, May 22. Given the remarkable disruption of the spring, Academy Administration decided that it was important and symbolic for the Govs school community to end the school year together, at the same time.
“As we move forward through these extraordinary times, we are watching our faculty reinvent their teaching processes and techniques, and we marvel at the energy and imagination students are bringing to their online learning. Truly, everyone is innovating in the moment – and it is challenging and exciting. This is what makes our community so special,” said Board of Trustees President Jim Pierce '72, P'08 in a recent letter to parents.