An Email Forward
It started with an email forward. “Have you heard of this new virus that causes pneumonia?” from Gunston’s Head of School John Lewis to the school’s senior leadership team on January 19. After the confirmation of the first case in the USA on January 20, Gunston sent out their first health notice about the virus that would later become known universally as COVID-19. On January 28, as the scope and challenge of the infection became apparent, Gunston made the decision to institute a 2-week self-isolation for several students and a faculty member who recently returned from an area designated by the CDC as level 3 or higher.
Life went on. Second-quarter honor roll grades were announced. The school celebrated Global Awareness Day and invited admitted students and their families to celebrate on Friday, February 28.
Meanwhile, the school’s leadership team remained on high alert, following news of COVID-19 closely and consulting with state and national associations, peer institutions and the local health department, and on Sunday, March 1, Lewis called an emergency meeting with senior staff.
“This virus is going to spread. Extended school closure will happen, and Gunston needs to be prepared,” Lewis announced to the group.
And then they got to work.
Assistant Head of School Christie Grabis immediately began to formulate an academic continuity plan, contacting vendors, compiling resources, and learning everything she could about how to structure a robust distance learning plan. A survey was sent out to the Gunston community to collect information about which faculty and students may have limited access to the Internet. Students were advised to take all of their school materials (textbooks, notebooks, devices) home with them for the upcoming spring break. “That was one of the best decisions we made,” reflected Grabis.
On Saturday, March 7, Gunston’s spring break vacation had officially started, and Lewis made the difficult decision to cancel a student educational trip to South Africa. On Thursday, March 12, Gunston advised students and parents that spring break would be extended by a full week to allow the leadership team and faculty time to finalize preparations for the delivery of remote instruction. Two hours later, Governor Hogan made an announcement along with State Superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon that all Maryland public schools would be closed through March 27. The Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools recommended that member schools follow this directive. On Friday, March 20, after three intense days of faculty training, Gunston launched a “test run” of distance learning and by Monday, March 23, distance learning at Gunston was fully launched.
Distance Learning Launches
At this point, Gunston’s administrative team and faculty were working around the clock to learn new software and programs (Zoom, Google Hangouts, and more), crafting detailed communications and instructions for families, compiling resources, creating contingency plans for various upcoming events, and implementing a temporary distance learning leadership structure so that every aspect of this new reality was covered.
“Our first goal was to get distance learning up and running smoothly to engage students, and re-establish the sense of community and support,” recalls Lewis. “The value of community is central to our distance learning efforts. In all of our academic and non-academic planning, we prioritized the value of relationships and connection.” This included a number of video Q&A’s with students and faculty.
“When the second announcement was made to extend the school closure to the end of April, we were more than prepared,” says Emily Beck, Director of the Chesapeake Watershed Semester, who was appointed to co-chair the school’s newly formed Distance Learning Steering Team, and as the Chair of the Academic Conduit Team, which is responsible for supporting academic departments and faculty professional development to integrate a best-practices distance learning program.
“In effect, every Gunston teacher suddenly became a first-year teacher again. As teachers, we have found this experience to be disorienting, but also exciting. In the past week, we’ve learned to use new instructional tools. We’re thinking about pedagogy and assessment in fresh ways. Most importantly, we’re participating in a robust professional development ecosystem that Gunston has developed to support the growth of every teacher on campus. Our goal is to improve week-by-week, and we believe that one positive outcome of our campus closure will be the opportunity for faculty and students to develop an entire new toolkit of teaching and learning skills,” says Lewis.
The Return of the Gunston Community
While much of the planning was focused on streamlining the academic process, Gunston spent just as much time formulating plans to keep community members connected, keep spirits high, and promote self-care and healthy habits like daily exercise and time away from the screen.
Student leaders were asked to form a “Good Vibes” committee and collaborate with Gunston’s communications team to come up with fun daily social media challenges like #gunstonpets, #gunstonbestblooms and they even made a Spotify Playlist called #GunstonGoodVibes.
Athletic Director Jon Mellinger sends out weekly fitness challenges, offering students and faculty the opportunity to win points for their team. Every student and faculty member at Gunston belongs to either the Green or White Team. Competitions exist in the form of both traditional and non-traditional athletic events as well as intellectual and artistic competitions.
“Needless to say,” says Mellinger, “we’re going to have to get creative this spring with how the Green and White teams win points. Between physical challenges like push ups or running a mile, and non-physical challenges like bakeoffs and open-mic nights, it’ll be exciting to see how the spring shakes out. We’re also looking into creating virtual athletic competitions with our interscholastic programs in our league. Anything we can do to stay engaged and competitive.”
Lewis and his two young daughters made a series of funny campus videos. Students volunteered to vlog their daily routine to help others get organized. Standing virtual lunch invitations were established. National Honor Society members were emailing to offer their tutoring assistance to fellow students.
The community was coalescing back together (albeit virtually).
Two separate surveys went out to parents and students asking for feedback. “The Distance Learning Steering Committee meets three times a week and we are constantly reviewing survey responses, addressing concerns, and planning, planning, planning,” says Beck. “The committee also devotes time during each meeting to discuss if any community members are struggling in this transition — faculty, staff, students, parents — and how can we help them? We may not be physically together, but the supportive community that defines Gunston remains firmly in place.”
Gunston’s New Normal
Gunston continues to look ahead, keeping a close eye on potential community burnout. “The amount of positive feedback that Gunston has received about our distance learning program has been appreciated and we’re grateful for the support of our community,” adds Lewis. “At the same time, we soon expect to exit the ‘Honeymoon Period’ and see rising levels of angst and dislocation that are consistent with the effects of culture shock that one experiences when being thrust out of a comfortable routine and culture. But I have full confidence that we will once again pivot, adapt, and grow. I’m especially inspired by the support of our parents and the adaptability of our students.”
Lydia Periconi ‘21 notes, “Even though the switch to distance learning was a big adjustment, I think I have adapted well. Although I am sad not to see my friends and teachers in person, I really enjoy the days that I get to chat with my classes over a video call. This makes the switch much easier, and it’s fun to see everyone face-to-face and catch up!”
Mekonnen Sahle-Selassie ’23 shared that “As a hands-on learner, it took me a while to adjust. But after a couple of days, I finally adjusted to this new way of learning thanks to the teachers. I am very impressed with how the teachers transitioned from the classroom to the computer. Even though we aren’t in class, we still communicate well and learn efficiently.”
“Our family feels so blessed to have our daughter attending Gunston,” wrote Dawn Clair, parent of a child in the 10th grade in an email to Lewis. “The overall joy we feel at having chosen a school that has been there for our family during the good times and bad sure feels special and goes above and beyond.”
Founded in 1911, The Gunston School is an independent, nonprofit, nonsectarian, coeducational, college preparatory high school located in Centreville, Maryland. Gunston is home to the nationally recognized Chesapeake Bay Studies program, (now in its 24th year) as well as the recently launched Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program. Visit gunston.org for more information.
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