Cheshire Academy’s Head of School Julie Anderson admits that, when students returned to classes in the fall, she and her staff were prepared for a variety of eventualities.
While they were hoping for the best, they were also planning for the worst — constant delays and cancellations caused by COVID-19 that could perhaps even cause the school to have to return to an all-remote learning environment sooner rather than later.
But now, as the Academy enters a new year and a spring semester, Anderson looks back on the last few months with a mix of pride and awe. The school stayed in operation with few interruptions, Anderson explains — closer to their best-case scenario than anyone could have possibly imagined.
“We didn’t know what to expect … whether we’d have to shut down for a week or two (during the fall) but the kids, they did an amazing job of doing what they were asked to do,” said Anderson. “I think everyone just wanted to be here and make sure we stayed here. (The students) didn’t want school in front of a computer anymore.”
Like all schools across the state, Cheshire Academy went full-remote learning in the early spring of last year, and made the decision to keep students learning remotely throughout the entirety of the spring semester, even before the state mandated that school buildings remain closed through June.
Unlike public schools, the Academy, as a private boarding school, has students from all over the world attend each year, which put even more strain on the school’s plans. Bringing students back onto campus would mean ensuring they were quarantined upon their return to the state, and that testing was conducted on a regular basis.
Yet, the Academy made clear its intention to have in-person instruction in the fall, believing they could return to some semblance of normalcy while maintaining strict safety measures and keeping everyone from the students to the staff safe.
According to Anderson, approximately one-third of the school community is not attending classes in person at the moment, and 80 international students have decided to learn remotely throughout the year. Social distancing has been enforced on campus, and Anderson admits that recreating a fun and welcoming environment has been difficult when “you really can’t be together, can’t smile.”
However, despite the difficulties, the school was able to function nearly as normal throughout the fall, and Anderson reports that not a single boarding student who remained on campus throughout much of the fall semester, tested positive for the virus.
“We had music, we had theater, we had 40 athletic activities,” said Anderson. “We were even able to play some football games.”
“Everything that we do, we were able to do, just differently,” she continued.
Like most schools, the Academy has leaned heavily on technology to help make the education of students both in and out of class as seamless as possible. It’s even more important for Anderson’s staff, however, as they are responsible for students who are “logging in” from as far away as China and Lebanon. That’s required some drastic alterations in both when teachers teach and students learn, as staff at Cheshire Academy has had to adapt to staggered teaching times that see them instructing different groups of students throughout the day and into the evening — some sessions are for remote learners only, others for in-class students only, and other times the two are mixed. Students logging in from different parts of the world have also had to adjust, as some may be attending class in the evening hours, given differences in time zones.
Yet, Anderson has been impressed with the way both staff and students have made it all work. She points to a visit she made to a class where students were providing feedback to their peers on a recent art assignment. Many of the students were in class, but one was attending via remote from her home in China.
“The students were commenting on her work, as she was Zoomed in on the (television) screen at the front of the class,” said Anderson. “It really was wonderful to see.”
That kind of innovation has led to one of the more unique aspects of the last several months, Anderson admitted. While she calls it the hardest year of her 28-year career, it has also been in some aspects “the best.”
Student attrition is the lowest it has ever been at Cheshire Academy, attendance is high, and there is a gratitude expressed by both students and staff for the ability to once again be on campus, learning and interacting with one another.
“For the students, they’ve really thought about what they’ve gained, not what they’ve lost,” said Anderson, “and our teachers — just the love of our teachers is amazing. It may sound hokey, but this really is a lifestyle rather than a job for them.”
The week before Thanksgiving, the Academy went to a full-remote schedule and didn’t return students to campus until later in January. As winter progresses, Anderson is confident that the school can duplicate the success of the last several months and she anticipates that students will have the same opportunities as they did in the fall, while most if not all of the safety measures will stay in place.
Anderson explained that, as of now, the Academy plans to have graduation this spring and hopes that, if the threat from COVID-19 begins to fade as vaccinations take hold, the school can open up more to students in the coming months.
However, whatever comes in 2021, Anderson will always be impressed with the way her school, her staff, and the students who call Cheshire Academy home have adapted to one of the most difficult years in modern history.
“Our mission is to promote collaboration, problem solving, and this (pandemic) has certainly reinforced that mission. It’s the only way out of this,” said Anderson. “I believe we are equipping the students to emerge from this pandemic stronger, and I’m so proud of everyone (associated) with the Academy family.”