KO moves to in-person learning for fall semester

Investigative

By: Ashleigh Stepnowski ’22 and Teddy Crowther ’22

For the 2020-2021 school year, Kingswood Oxford has faced a daunting task as the coronavirus pandemic has impeded the school’s ability to begin a normal school year. Thus, the start of this school year has been complete with extensive health and safety regulations, social distancing and mask protocols, and an altered ambiance to a campus greatly affected by this new reality.

On March 13, 2020, Head of School Thomas Dillow and the KO Administration made the momentous decision to move to an online learning format indefinitely. As many students and teachers know all too well, this reality continued for the rest of the school year, leaving the school in an uncertain place regarding the upcoming fall semester. “It really began back in the spring,” Mr. Dillow said, “and thinking about what it would take to be back on campus, with all the possibilities you had to consider.” With a short window and a large task to accomplish, the school began to formulate a plan.

The school established the Pandemic Response Team, led by Assistant Head of the Middle School Kathy Dunn, with various members of the staff and faculty contributing. Together, they drafted the basis of what would become KO’s protocols for achieving in-school learning during a global pandemic.

Many critical plans needed to be established to even begin thinking of having students back on campus. During the initial planning stages, the team brainstormed what in-person learning would look like if students had to be socially distant, wearing masks and adhering to COVID-19 protocols. “A lot of my inputs, thoughts, questions, and continuous concerns is that we want it to be safe, but we want it to feel like school,” new Dean of Students Krista Sahrbeck said. “Occasionally, where the rub is, is that for how much we want it to feel like school, the safety measures and keeping everyone healthy trumps everything.”

Several key changes were made to life on campus in response to these concerns. The cafeteria installed plexiglass barriers on every table to allow students to each lunch safely, but still with their peers. Tables, benches, and chairs were placed in outdoor spots on campus to allow students to socialize outside and further apart from one another. Teachers are required to disinfect their entire classroom in between classes, and porters traverse the school, cleaning various doors, buildings, and bathrooms. While many more changes were made to the campus, these ones provided a basis for the school’s safety regulations and brought KO closer to their goal of in-person learning. 

Arguably the most central change that has been made to the daily lives of students and faculty alike has been the new schedule. As opposed to the schedule of past years, which had five, one-hour classes each day, with each class having a 75-minute “flex” period a week, the new schedule consists of four classes per day, 75 minutes each. On Wednesdays, classes meet for only one hour, as opposed to 75 minutes. Each class meets five times every two weeks, differing from the old schedule, which had classes meeting six times every two weeks. In addition, this schedule creates 15-minute blocks in between classes, intended to give teachers time to disinfect their classrooms and students to potentially take a “mask break,” if socially distanced and outside. 

The new schedule was made with the intent that it could easily translate through the different scenarios that COVID-19 could present. In addition to being used for the “Code Yellow” scenario that KO is currently within, which is in-person learning with precautions taken, the schedule could also translate to a “Code Red” scenario, in which all students would be online. A potential “Code Orange” scenario also exists, where a hybrid model would form, with half of the student body online and half on campus. The flexibility of the schedule was something that was kept at the forefront of the process when creating it. Additionally, it was important to ensure that the schedule would be easily adaptable to the Middle School, an important factor for teachers who teach both in the Middle School and Upper School. 

Currently, the majority of students attend in-person, but students and faculty have the opportunity to learn or teach from home through concurrent, online learning. Despite the inherent challenges that this concurrent learning presents, faculty and administrators have worked hard to ensure that the community, both in-person and online, are able to be successful. 

Over the summer, the school purchased various technological accessories to allow online students to participate in their classes as they happen in real-time. “We bought a lot of technology,” Head of the Upper School Daniel Gleason said. “We bought a lot of external cameras; we bought these devices called swivels where you put an iPad or a phone on a device that actually turns and follows teachers as they walk around.” The school also purchased microphones to allow online members of the community to hear what is occurring in the in-person classroom. In addition to this new technology, the school also ensured that all of their projectors and in-class technology was working as well as possible. 

Even with the best efforts of the school, some challenges still present themselves. Most difficult for the teachers, both online and in the classroom, is controlling the different platforms where they interact with their students. For classes that have students both in-person and online, it is crucial but difficult to ensure that they remain engaged and involved in-class discussion or lectures as if they were in the classroom itself. Balancing the needs of students and the additional challenges concurrent learning brings has been a difficult task for teachers. 

In order to provide for all their students, teachers have had to prepare more for their classes and plan more closely how they will organize and present material. Dr. Gleason expressed that classes with both remote and in-person students have the most organizational challenges for teachers and require extensive advance planning. 

Upper School Spanish teacher Carolina Croes, who is currently teaching remotely, echoed his sentiment. “I probably put in about an hour of prep for every online hour of teaching,” she said. “It’s a lot, but I have to create content that I can teach online.” Ms. Croes went on to say she’s created slideshows, Google docs, and Flipgrids for this purpose, as opposed to her normal whiteboard writing. To assist teachers in her position, each class taught by a remote teacher has a proctor, which is another teacher who remains in the classroom to ensure that the class runs smoothly. 

An additional challenge that comes with in-person learning is the inability of many teachers to do group and collaborative work as they normally would. Due to the fact that people must stay at least six feet apart, group work that would put students in close contact with one another is no longer able to be done as it has in the past. This rules out collaborative work on a math problem or being paired up in a language class for a conversation. Yet another change that the age of COVID-19 has forced on the community, this presents the challenge of providing similar experiences while still abiding by safety guidelines.

Around campus, there have been varying levels of reception to these changes. Some students applaud the new ways that KO has kept the community safe throughout this pandemic, and are open to the new changes. “I think [the changes] are working, and I think they’re doing everything that they can,” junior Abby McLaughlin said. “It’s definitely weird, but it’s better than being online again.”

This school year, KO has put a special emphasis on making sure everyone feels safe and healthy on campus. While some of the changes may seem annoying or questionable to some students, they have been justified in the name of keeping the community safe. This has not gone unnoticed by some KO students, who have appreciated the school’s dedication and commitment to safety. “I really appreciate the rigor that has been applied in terms of the rules and regulations, and in following health guidelines that are set forth by the state and the federal government,” junior Nathaniel Welsh, a new student to the KO community, said.

Overall, students have been accepting of the changes, seeing this as an alternative to once again going to remote learning. “I’d rather have it without [the changes],” junior Max-William Kanz said, “but I think it’s necessary to keep school open, so I’m fine with them.”

One of the biggest critiques students have had when it comes to the in-school learning format has been the schedule. Students were disappointed by the fact that the school day was made longer, even though the number of classes was shortened. They also thought that too much break time was added in between the day and that the 75-minute classes felt too long. “I don’t like the new schedule,” Abby said. “I think we could’ve kept the other one and been just fine. I feel like the classes are way too long, and my attention span is not good enough to handle that. I also feel like we’re rushing because some classes only meet twice a week.”

Other parts of the schedule have been appreciated by faculty and staff members. Breaks in between classes allow teachers the time to clean, fewer classes meet a day to prevent more long-term exposure, and lunch was staggered to provide a safe space to eat and socialize. “With the schedule, there were a host of other considerations,” Mr. Dillow said, “like the amount of cleaning and disinfecting we now have to do, and making sure the surfaces were regularly cleaned and in good shape.” 

However, some controversy on campus has occurred, with faculty and staff ramping up the punishments for safety regulations on students. On Thursday, Oct. 1, Dr. Gleason sent a letter to the KO community to remind students of the critical policies they must follow and announced that students who don’t abide by these changes will be punished. “We could always be better and improve,” Ms. Sahrbeck said. “This is a new behavior that we need to adjust to, but knowing that, if [students] are not going to adjust, there may be some consequences attached to that.”

Time will tell if the changes made this fall will prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially if Connecticut sees a spike in cases, or if a member of the community tests positive for the virus. Many people have also worried about the logistics of keeping the student body inside once temperatures start to drop. “It’s always on our mind, asking ‘How do we pivot quickly?’” Ms. Sahrbeck said. “I think our process and what we do if a positive case happens is really set in place. I think what will happen is if those cases continue to come, whether or not we have to go fully remote due to the amount of cases we receive. I think that’s going to potentially play a part in it.” 

As for right now, however, the campus remains optimistic and hopeful for a fall where students can learn in a classroom while still feeling safe and secure. With the world remaining in a chaotic state, KO has stayed strong to bring the experience students have come to know and love.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, KO hopes to remain in-person, teaching, aiding, and giving students a sense of normalcy, even in a global pandemic.