The Shipley Magazine

Zoomed In: School Life in the Time of COVID-19

Head of School Michael Turner decided early in the pandemic that Shipley would do anything it could to reopen its doors safely. In June 2020, the School released a comprehensive draft Plan for reopening in the fall. With so much uncertainty and no playbook to rely on, Turner and the Pandemic Committee used the School’s guiding principles to make decisions, scenario plan, and do risk management.

The Executive Committee of the Board was particularly helpful, says Turner, in establishing Shipley’s guiding principles to 1) prioritize the health and safety of the Shipley community, 2) deliver on its mission and motto regardless of where or how students learn, and 3) emphasize the importance of in-person interaction to Educational Excellence.

Just as they had in the spring during the initial state-mandated school shutdown, administrators and teachers got to work in reinventing what it meant to go to school. Everything had to be reimagined—from the number of people who could occupy each classroom, how students would move around the buildings, and how to serve lunch to hundreds of people safely, to the daily schedule, teaching in a hybrid model, and how to give tests. People worked non-stop, foregoing vacations and any time off in preparation to bring students and teachers back to campus safely.
How Can We Stay Six Feet Apart? How Can We Safely Eat Lunch?

Over the summer, the School made significant investments to ensure the safety of everyone on campus, including the inspection and upgrading of HVAC systems, which included the addition of filters and air purifiers throughout campus. Procurement of PPE and other operational items that had become scarce (like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Plexiglas) was also a huge priority. Luckily for Shipley, Director of the Physical Plant, Bob Meals, “is the procurement general,” laughs Adam Wojtelwicz, Shipley’s Chief Financial Officer, who is grateful for Meals’ ability to find truckloads of items that other people couldn’t get at all.

Figuring out how to move hundreds of students through the lunch lines and find a place for them to eat safely was critical to reopening. Bringing students back to campus required the addition of supplemental spaces for eating, including Yarnall Gymnasium, the Doc Morinelli Theatre, and outdoor tents. Wojtelwicz is proud of the fact that Shipley was able to open the dining hall and offer large, well-ventilated lunch spaces for the Middle and Upper Schools, and that the School’s leadership team had enough foresight to anticipate and plan for the future (which meant investing in tents and heaters for the winter months).

The shifts to program were most dramatic in the Lower School, where classroom sections went from 18 to 11 students, teachers went from a homeroom to a team-teaching model, specials teachers had to move around the building rather than inhabit their own rooms, and PE would be added to students’ daily schedules—among countless other logistical changes to daily life. Minimizing the risk of transmission meant profoundly altering the Lower School experience—for teachers, students, and even for families, who have not been allowed to enter the buildings all year.

In planning for reopening in the Middle and Upper Schools, the daily schedule was a keystone in the process. A block schedule would be best, with longer class periods and fewer transitions in order to create the safest possible environment. Once the schedule was figured out, the administrative teams had to work on figuring out lunch, movement around the buildings, classroom spacing, and staffing. Even with all of the additional logistics that had to be worked out, the Middle School moved ahead with curriculum changes that had been planned for the year. “There’s not one single thing that hasn’t changed,” says Head of Middle School Shane Kinsella. “Even switching on a light bulb, which we do with our elbow now,” he half jokes.

Meeting colleagues’ individual needs was another priority in planning for the return to campus and what investments would need to be made. “We wanted colleagues to know that we were willing to do anything to help them feel safe on campus,” says Wojtelwicz. This included the hiring of extra personnel to help with essential, non-teaching duties to lighten the load for teachers.
An Investment in Testing

The biggest investment in people’s safety was the implementation of a regular COVID testing program on campus, making Shipley one of the first and only schools in the region to do so. Shipley’s nurses have overseen the comprehensive program, requiring all colleagues and students to take a COVID test at Shipley before returning to campus at the end of the summer and the holiday breaks, while testing 15-25% of the School’s population on a weekly basis. The effort has been expensive (the School has spent over $550,000 on testing alone), but well worth it. (Read more about the Shipley Nurse’s experience this year on page 33.)
Together, We Can Do This

Kindergarten teacher Claire Grillo reflects, “As someone who really grappled with returning to school and feeling really scared—and worried and anxious and losing sleep and fretting and shedding tears about it—it was clear that so much thought was put into the plan to keep teachers safe, to keep kids safe. It made me feel like, ‘I can do this. I can go back in and I can do this.’”

Though Shipley’s leadership team was confident in the School’s Return to Campus Plan, no one knew what to expect. Michael Turner was not alone in thinking, “If we can make it a month, it will have been worth it,” a perspective that was informed by what had been learned in the spring about the importance of building teacher/student relationships in the success of online schooling. With 20% of students completely new to Shipley (thanks to a late influx of admissions enrollment after Shipley’s plan to reopen was announced), building those relationships would be critical to Shipley’s success and would remain a priority for administrators and teachers alike.

A New Way of Teaching

As physical and programmatic changes were being implemented over the summer, teachers and department chairs prepared for the numerous changes they would have to navigate in their classrooms (including the shift to a hybrid model of teaching and learning, with some students learning on campus and others from home). Though in-person instruction was the goal, teachers at all levels were tasked with ensuring that their curricula could be delivered remotely at any given moment.

In order to accommodate a hybrid teaching model, Shipley invested heavily in technology upgrades, including the installation of videoconferencing equipment in classrooms, the purchase of additional iPads and laptops (not easy during a national Apple product shortage), and significant improvements to the wireless network and internet speeds on campus.

Many teachers spent the bulk of their summer planning to offer the best learning environment possible for students in 2020-2021. Taking lessons learned from teaching remotely the previous spring, teachers worked hard to build on what worked and completely re-tooled what did not. The Teaching Resource Center ran over 30 remote sessions where teachers shared ideas, brainstormed, and collaborated with each other to explore ways to enhance student engagement, to build communities of learners, and to adapt learning activities that promote student thinking—regardless of physical location. “Teachers did a ton of heavy lifting over the summer,” says Coordinator of Educational Research Josh Berberian. “It is both amazing and not surprising how committed Shipley teachers are to their craft.”

At the prospect of returning to campus and offering a hybrid model, Bill Lyon, Middle School English teacher, says that he and his colleagues had trouble envisioning what it would be like to teach kids learning remotely, while simultaneously teaching the students in their classrooms. Would they have to scream to be heard? Would they remember to look at the camera every once in a while, to help the remote learners feel included? Would they be able to assign work in the same way?

Fourth grade teacher Nikki Wiseman says that in addition to the natural anxiety that accompanies a change of job in normal times (she was hired in late August)—she was worried about having to wear masks in classrooms and being so spread out in a room. “Lower School is used to group tables and partner work, and a lot of hands-on, engaging learning.” With everybody so spread out, she and her fellow teachers had to be creative and rely on technology to help facilitate the collaborative and project-based learning that are hallmarks of fourth grade at Shipley.

Happy to be Back

Even with all of the safety protocols, the new rules, and hybrid learning in place, people were happy to be back on campus. “The best thing about coming back was that even in their masks, I could see the smiles on the kids’ faces. It was inspiring how happy the students were to be back. It was awesome,” says Bill Lyon.

The anticipated return to campus was a source of anxiety for many teachers, students, and their families. Sue Manix, Assistant Head of School for Community Engagement, recalls, “I hadn’t been anywhere but to the grocery store once a week on Sunday mornings at 6:00 a.m. Coming back, there was this overwhelming feeling of, ‘I’m back. I’m connected again’.” Though she worried about what the experience would be like for everyone, “it was joyful,” she says. “It was downright joyful. People were happy to see one another, and they were impressed with the protocols.”

Lower School parents Carolyn and Vijay Srinivasan agree. “The return to school was so well thought out,” says Carolyn. Though they had initially been on the fence about whether their children would return to school in-person, Vijay says that visiting campus for orientation to see and hear about the School’s preparations assured them of their children’s—and the teachers’—safety.

Overall, students reported a positive school experience, too. For Justin Leach ’21, the weirdest thing about being back on campus in September was lunchtime, when students were spaced out and separated by Plexiglas panels. “I felt the actual class experience was pretty normal,” he says.

“The whole process has had to be adaptive, creative, and resilient, and it’s working well,” says Leach. “Students and teachers are really trying. It shows a lot about the Shipley community and the mentality here. Most people have a mutual understanding and appreciation of everybody else’s role.”

For Upper School chemistry teacher Tamar Norquist, teaching students in masks was unnerving at first. “It’s hard to teach people who are wearing masks,” she reflects. “They never laugh at my jokes anymore... Or I just can’t tell if they do.” Between the masks and the physical distance in her large classroom, she feels that a lot is lost interpersonally with her students. And like many teachers, she struggles with the hybrid model. There are days when the audio won’t work, when remote students can’t see you when you stand in a certain part of the classroom, or when they can’t see the students giving a presentation at their desks. 

In spite of the many challenges, Norquist maintains a positive attitude. “I’m surprised how normal it’s felt—not that it felt normal, because it didn’t—but it felt like a version of normal, which I didn’t expect. A lot of the details are different, but do I get to talk to kids about ideas? Yeah, I still do. I see my job fundamentally as taking young minds and helping them to understand what science is and can be in their lives. You don’t shake that very easily. The true art and craft of helping young people develop their minds—that just doesn’t get messed up by stuff like having to wear a mask.”

Though remote students have experienced additional challenges, Sarah McDonald ’22 says teachers are much better at incorporating remote learners now than they were in September. “I think that they’re doing a really good job. They’re making a really good effort,” she says, but wishes there were more opportunities to connect socially with peers.

Kindergarten teacher Claire Grillo recognizes the tremendous amount of work Shipley has done “to keep us safe, and also to give kids the experience of school. They are really living the mission and the vision of the school. It is Courage for the Deed; Grace for the Doing right now. It really is. We are living that. We’re not only dealing with this medical pandemic, but we’re dealing with a social pandemic, navigating much-needed social change. But we’re still having fun. We’re still, as hard as it is, we are still laughing. Kids are still learning and growing. And I am learning and growing through this experience as a teacher and as a mom.”

Though so much has changed, what’s important about school has not, says fourth grade teacher Nikki Wiseman. “At the core of what we do, it’s still the same. It’s still building those relationships, making the kids feel good about themselves, and making them enjoy the learning. How can I make learning fun and engaging, and how can I make students feel confident and successful in what they’re doing? Our personalities have not changed. How we interact with students on a kid level has not changed. Because that has stayed constant, a lot of my worry about the kids has gone away. I’m still going to get to know them. They’re still going to get to know me. We’re still going to laugh. We’re still going to share stories of our families and ask questions and participate. They still come to the board and share their thinking. I don’t know what I thought coming back would be like, but in the summer, there was so much fear around the rules and safety, and I thought we would be missing the fun, missing the kid relationships, but all of that is still there.”
Social Needs and Well-Being

Large, special events were off-limits for a while, and Upper Campus lunches became stricter with the appearance of virus variants. Sports, theater, music, and service learning were limited by Shipley’s strong safety protocols. Nevertheless, teachers and coaches have tried to create meaningful experiences for their students. Athletes missed out on a lot of inter-school competition, but have been allowed to train together.

Theater students were invited to participate in Beautiful Trouble, a collection of prerecorded performances of student-written and published works around the theme of activism. Upper School singers have had to rehearse and record themselves at home, and there have been no live performances for the music ensembles, which have had to practice outside for most of the year. Instead, performances have been recorded and edited together by teachers-turned-music producers.

Despite these challenges, teachers and administrators at all levels have been especially attuned to students’ social needs. They have focused on creating opportunities for relationship-building and connection, most especially for students learning remotely and those new to the Shipley community. Winter weather and heightened community infection rates limited the School’s ability to offer safe opportunities for in-person gatherings like the ones that took place in the fall—including fall spirit week festivities like the Upper School talent show, movie night, and senior athlete celebration, the Middle and Upper School cornhole tournaments, the Lower School Walkathon for Brain Tree, and the Thanksgiving Food Drive Pack-Up. 

Michael Turner marvels at the energy it took to get to Thanksgiving without any significant disruptions. “The fuel that we’ve asked all colleagues to burn to have gotten to Thanksgiving, it’s a little like putting a rocket into space. We’ve expended an enormous amount of energy to get into orbit, and we can’t continue to burn fuel at that rate.” 

Keeping tabs on colleague well-being has been a priority, and the data collected in surveys have informed decision-making. “We’re not just feeling like people are worn out. We can point to evidence that shows us that not only are people tired and how they’re feeling, but more granularly, is it about appreciation? Is it about exhaustion? Is it about feeling heard? And then we, as the administrative team, can say, people just need time off, or we need to lessen the workload.” The School’s Central Administrative Team has been incredibly responsive and intentional in its care for Shipley teachers, implementing a number of initiatives to support their well-being. Shipley families have also shown incredible support and gratitude for teachers, leading a year-long gratitude campaign in each division.
We Did What We Set Out to Do

More than halfway through the school year, can we claim success? Michael Turner thinks so. In the final Pandemic Committee meeting of 2020, Turner asked the group to reflect. “When we first got together, we didn’t totally know what we were doing. We were making it up as we went along. But,” he told them, “now, we have nursing staffs from other schools coming here to learn how to run a testing program. We’re getting phone calls from schools all over the country. We’re being written up in the newspaper. We’re giving data dumps to CHOP PolicyLab, and they’re learning from us… On top of it all, our students got to go to school right away.”

Shipley’s success in bringing students and teachers back to campus safely, providing meaningful, in-person and remote learning experiences for students, and caring for the well-being of everyone in the community has truly been a team effort. “We did what we set out to do,” agrees Sue Manix. “We brought students and teachers together in person in a different, but incredibly meaningful way. We gave these kids the gift of in-person education. I just think that’s amazing.”

Adam Wojtelwicz agrees. “I am incredibly appreciative of how our community has dealt with this,” he says. From following safety protocols like wearing masks, to adhering to guidelines about virus exposure and quarantining, everybody has played a role in the School’s successful opening amid the ongoing pandemic. “The fact that everybody just kept their eyes on the ball, everybody gave a little bit and took a step towards the middle in order to achieve a common goal—that’s just remarkable. There have been some bumps along the way, but everybody had a rational approach and has dealt with each other professionally and compassionately throughout the process.”
Hope for the Future

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the March 12 shutdown, we recognize the uncertainty, anxiety, and loss that have been experienced this year; we acknowledge and show appreciation for the tremendous amount of work and creativity of Shipley’s teachers, administrators, operational colleagues, Board, and advisors; we remain grateful to our families and students for the sacrifices they have made to keep our community safe and healthy; and we celebrate the silver linings, the incredible pace of innovation, and the opportunities for growth.
With the vaccine in distribution and infection rates decreasing, our students have begun playing sports, performing together in person, and planning for a prom. There is hope for a return to normalcy and excitement about what the future holds for Shipley and the world.

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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.