STORIES of  PERSEVERANCE

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Choral Teacher Erika Schroth reimagines her classroom.

Teaching and Learning in the Time of COVID

This spring, as the coronavirus swept through our world and nation, schools across the country faced a crisis that months prior, few if any could have foreseen. By mid-March 2020, as students prepared to leave the campus for spring break, Hopkins made the decision to close the campus and to shift from an in-person, to an entirely remote, learning model for the remainder of the spring term. 

It was a seismic moment in the school’s history that truly shined a light on the extraordinary commitment and character of the community. Following is a closer look at how faculty, staff, and students supported one another, forged new paths and created new avenues of communication and collaboration — a true Hopkins story. 

Sowing the Seeds

According to DJ Plante, Director of Technology at Hopkins, his department began sowing the seeds of success a decade before.

“We had a scare back in 2009 with the H1n1 Swine Flu pandemic, and at that time, there was discussion about how we would operate if we physically had to shut down the campus. And so it was around that time we really started thinking long term.” Strategic decisions made over the last 10 years included a shift to cloud-based service, Google Drive, and use of a shared platform to support everything from enrollment management and learning management to the school’s website. When it was confirmed last March that students and faculty would not be returning to campus after spring break, DJ said, everyone realized very quickly that these were crucial elements in the transition to remote learning. 
 
A survey in February of 2020 fortunately showed that a majority of Hopkins students had access to a laptop. In March, the remaining students, faculty and staff who did not were loaned laptops, Chromebooks, webcams and other hardware they needed to stay connected. The technology department also launched a dedicated support phone line that instantly connects the community with help as they need it. An extensive training program was led by science faculty member Ben Taylor in his new role as the school’s first Director of Academic Technology. Taylor, who is also the Dean of Instruction for the Malone Schools Online Network, has been integral in planning, implementing and supporting the Hopkins faculty and students in their transition to a virtual environment, including training faculty on how to use Zoom technology and to successfully incorporate remote learning into the pedagogy.


 
The Home Stretch
The spring 2020 semester resumed, virtual campus had been implemented and a major transition had been accomplished. By mid-summer, as the COVID epidemic continued its unpredictable trek, Hopkins made the decision to enter the fall term with a hybrid plan that would have students alternate between remote and in-person learning. The tech department once again sprang into action, with the goal of enabling students learning from home to have as authentic an experience as possible, and to feel as much a part of the classroom as their peers on campus. The team recommended Owl, a 360-degree smart camera able to automatically highlight and shift focus to different people in the room when they speak. Not only can the camera follow teachers around the room, but it also goes to split screen mode when students participate in class discussion. Two motivated donors, as well as a robust Hopkins Fund and the benefit of a fully-enrolled school, gave Hopkins the ability to not only place Owl cameras in each classroom, but to also  perform the critical task of rebuilding the school’s network from the ground up by replacing the fiber optic cables in all buildings. “We had a one gig network prior to this, and after replacing the fiber optics, which was project number one, we had 10 gigs,” said DJ.

A Window in Time

One of the bigger challenges in a season that was all about transition was how to honor and perpetuate the traditions and programs that have long been hallmarks of students’ growth and the Hopkins experience.

This includes the Senior Projects program, in which members of the senior class elect to embark on a self-selected and self-designed project with the support and guidance of faculty mentors. The program culminates in May with the annual Senior Project Fair showcase in Upper Heath Commons, during which faculty, staff, students and alumni are invited to campus to view the work and speak to students about their creative process. 

As Hopkins entered the spring of 2020, it was clear that this live event would not be taking place. Yet, that did not stop this year’s group of enterprising seniors from finishing their projects. After the shift to virtual campus in March, students were asked whether they wanted to stay involved in the program. An overwhelming majority said “yes,” and subsequently submitted new proposals with reimagined projects that could be adapted to a virtual format. Although initially viewed as a handicap, being separated from the physical community gave students the space to really think about their projects from a different perspective and proved to be a truly transformative experience, prompting them to come back with even more ambitious ideas, Program Coordinator Ian Melchinger said. 

This spring, there was also a greater focus placed on the actual process of creating and learning. Students’ incremental progress was documented via Facebook and Instagram posts, which highlighted a “Senior Project of the Day” throughout the end of the term.

The Senior Projects Fair was held remotely in May, with students setting up their works in a series of virtual “rooms.” Community members were then invited to a scheduled Zoom event, in which they could enter each virtual room to view the projects and talk to students. The silver lining was clear: attending the Senior Project Fair had once been an opportunity only for those who lived in close proximity to the school. Now, the experience was open to Hopkins community members far and wide.

Faculty Innovating, Thinking Creatively

Since the onset of Virtual Campus and the implementation of the hybrid learning model in the fall of 2020, teachers in all departments have been thinking not only about how to adapt, but also about the possibilities for growth in this new paradigm -- how to engage students beyond a standard lecture format. Science teachers Kristen Abraham and Jennifer Stauffer, for example, were able to record themselves doing a chemistry lab during the first week of spring break. Their students later watched the recorded video and collected the data gathered in the lab to write their own reports. In the History Department, teacher Sarah Belbita built an active component into her virtual classroom every day, whether pairing students up for group work in breakout sessions or playing games.

The Athletics Department has continually brainstormed ways to move the program forward despite COVID limitations. In the spring of 2020, an at-home athletics component replaced the on-campus athletic activities. Most of the coaches offered exercise and fitness workouts for the students, providing “skills and drills” at home via Zoom.  They kept tabs on the students with regular check-ins, and used Google Forms to track their progress, all of which served to keep them motivated and engaged.

Throughout much of the summer, Hopkins Athletics Director Rocco DeMaio and his team met weekly with FAA Athletic Directors to brainstorm ideas, and held Zoom meetings with the National Federation of High School Sports and New England Prep School Athletic Conference. “We tried to keep as close to the same programs we were offering as possible, and to keep teams together for the experience and the relationships,” Rocco said. “For the social and mental benefits for these kids, athletics plays a major role.”

Keeping the Arts Alive

Art Department Chair, Bobby Smith, said that a teacher professional development workshop he attended last year — a department chair training program held by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) — was a catalyst for the creative adaptations that moved his department forward last spring.


The colleagues he met at the workshop continued to share ideas and perspectives throughout the year, and once the crisis took hold last March, said Bobby, “we organized a Zoom meeting to talk through what we could do.” That led him to the idea of creating hopkinsarts.com, a dedicated web site where the department hosted community-building exhibits, such as the Keator Online Gallery, and special events including the radio play, Execution of Justice, for which the Drama Department received a Halo Award for Ingenuity. 


True to form, the challenge of virtual learning and teaching was greeted with a burst of creativity from the rest of the Art Department faculty. Collectively, they had some unique challenges to overcome. Although the Zoom platform and Owl cameras facilitated classroom teaching, they were not ideally suited to all of the department’s needs. Thanks to a special arts fund created by an HGS alumnus and his wife, the department was able to purchase iPads and special software that teachers incorporated into their classroom work. The iPads were a tremendous boon to the drama department, said Bobby, serving as a portal to students at home and, because of the iPad’s portability, allowing a flow of interaction critical to rehearsing a drama production.


Choral teacher Erika Schroth and Bobby are also using Soundtrap, a software that allows students to collaborate on recordings, work on songs, and submit videos of themselves playing. Using Adobe Premiere, they were able to put together the recordings into one virtual ensemble. 
Art teacher Jackie Labelle created YouTube lessons for her students on how to create art. “They’re so wonderfully done, it’s something you’d pay a subscription for!” Bobby said. In sculpture classes, students were tasked with making sculpture out of items around their home. Students in studio art, graphic design and architecture were given art kits to continue their work from home. 


Virtual learning has reinforced collaboration and mentorship among students and faculty, Bobby added. “We’re there for each other, just trying to make lemonade out of lemons!"