Springside Chestnut Hill Academy head of school Steve Druggan holds a photo of the school’s class of 2020 in one of three videos he posts for students each week. Teachers and students are doing their best to cope with a school year forced online because of COVID-19.

By Jan Alex

Like their peers across the country and around the world, life for the students and teachers at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. For teachers continuing with in person classes was out of the question and the challenge of moving whole curriculums to online platforms is a daunting one. For students, being forced to stay home and attend classes online means missing all the little things.

“The thing I miss the most is probably lunch with my friends. I’m not sure it was my favorite during school but I really do miss lunch now that I’m in quarantine,” said Charlie Wrede, a sophomore at SCH.

For the high school seniors, the closing of school has also meant missing out on a lot of the big things too. Chase Rotelle is a senior at SCH and he says it’s tough to have worked so hard throughout all of high school and now be missing out on its conclusion. 

“You don’t get prom, you don’t get graduation, it sucks,” he said over a video call. “I just wish I knew when my last day was going to be, we didn’t get to do any of the fun stuff.”

Dane Harmaty, another SCH senior, agrees. He wishes he could end his senior year in the way he and his friends had looked forward to for so long. He said the online classes just don’t feel the same as a normal school day. 

“It just doesn’t compare,” he said. “I don’t really have classes. It’s like I just have homework to do.”

Unfortunately, SCH, like all other schools, had no choice. These days, the school’s cafeteria remains empty, the sidewalks along its campus vacant and no more sports teams can be seen practicing on their fields. The normally vibrant campus is devoid of the constant daily activity that was once the norm. 

SCH had kept an eye on the developing situation throughout the winter, tentatively preparing for the coming reality of taking school remote. 

“We started planning in early February and looked at research done on previous instances of schools going remote just so we had a plan,” said Dr. Steve Druggan, SCH’s head of school. “At first we didn’t think we would make it to Spring Break.”

That prediction proved accurate. SCH closed its campus four days before spring break and has since taken classes online. For teachers and administrators, the big question was how to remain flexible in the face of uncertainty while still delivering the best quality education. On top of that, the question of how to maintain a sense of community has been on the minds of teachers and students alike. 

“You’ve got families who are directly impacted by the virus,” Druggan said. “You’ve got people trying to teach and raise kids, it’s a fine line between flexibility, delivering the content, and making sure kids still feel like they belong.”

Since going online, the school has implemented a curriculum that mixes live meetings between teachers and students with weekly assignments. Each class meets for a minimum of 15 minutes a week. The goal of this mix between weekly posted assignments and scheduled video calls is to ensure students remain engaged with their courses while also maintaining the sense of community that is so important to the school experience. For teachers the transition has posed a lot of challenges.

Matt Norcini, the Dean of SCH Upper School, was involved in planning for the shift to online, and as a teacher of 9th grade world history himself, acknowledges that the virtual classroom is far from ideal. 

“Google Meet and Zoom are not super effective learning environments, but you can do some things,” he said.

Norcini said that in his last virtual meeting with his freshman World History class, he took the opportunity to not just check in on students, but also answer questions about a long-term project. He feels that the virtual meeting platforms are better used to maintain a sense of community and ensure understanding of assignments, rather than as a stand in for the classroom.

Bridget Farnack is an art teacher and advisor at SCH who has always designed a curriculum with her well stocked art classroom in mind. Like many teachers, she has had to completely rethink the projects for her students.

“I had to assume that my students only have a pencil and paper to work with, so the first assignment was to do a scavenger hunt around your house and find everything that could be used for art” she said, highlighting the challenge posed by removing the students from the resources and facilities available on campus. 

She said she would much rather be teaching and advising students in person but acknowledges there’s only so much that can be done given the circumstances. 

“You want to fix things for them, but you can’t even fix things for yourself,” she said. 

For the foreseeable future SCH will have few other options than to continue to tweak and adjust how it conducts school remotely, and to continue looking for ways to keep students engaged. For all involved, it’s certainly uncharted waters.

Jan Alex is an SCH grad and a former intern at the Chestnut Hill Local. He’s currently a student at New York University studying journalism.

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