Going Remote: A Small School Works To Solve A Big Problem

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At the onset of the millennium, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley claimed, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

Twenty years later, COVID-19 impacts our health and daily routine, and specifically – albeit temporarily – disrupts the nature of brick and mortar education. Distance learning has been a constant for some time, and in both the K-12 and higher education sectors, the tools available for employing it are boundless. However, did we ever predict a pandemic that would shutter schools and compel them into remote operation for an indefinite period?

As the head of an independent preschool-through-grade-eight school, I never fathomed such reality would face our small community that – above all –  balances education with close relationships, sense of community, values and virtues, and individual attention for each child. Even for a small school, the task of mobilizing staff to carry out these ideals – remotely – is daunting and not something I could readily pull from a playbook. Still, we assured families that we would adapt and maintain educational continuity for our preschool through middle school students. Even more, we intended to maintain some special threads of our community and to be there.

Our smallness has allowed for agility from the get-go. Teachers responded with impressive collaboration, willingness and creativity. We allowed them to plan and package materials to distribute. We gave them access to tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Flip Grid, and online math and literacy curriculum already in place to enable asynchronous learning, teaching demonstrations, class discussions and story times for our youngest learners.

While we cannot fist-bump our students upon entering our doors each morning, we now offer a virtual welcome with a familiar face and affirming message. A teacher hosts a one-to-one session to review a challenging math problem, or conducts a lively online discussion about a novel, and students respond to questions in a live chat room. A child receives a saxophone lesson with his band teacher. Our chaplain conducts virtual chapels, and the student council meets to brainstorm special events to promote spirit. Maybe a virtual field trip will be next? And a few times a week, staff gathers via Zoom to exchange ideas, find support and even share a virtual happy hour.

We have agreed to treat this enterprise in the same light as a new teacher treats that memorable first year of teaching. We are all a little nervous, but we are learning, taking risks and being adaptive. We have let go of the school day as we were trained to know it.

We are solving this unique problem with the exact skills 21st century educators have promised to teach their students: confidence, creativity, collaboration and communication. We will model these skills and more in the weeks to come, and soon return “to school” more eager and inspired to educate this increasingly complex world’s future problem-solvers.

St. Martin’s is an independent preschool-through-grade-eight school committed to growing students of confidence, character and compassion. For more information, contact the director of admissions at kdanahy@stmartinsmd.org.

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