Welcome to the 2020-21 school year! While this is not how we envisioned school starting this year, it is certainly a scenario we were ready for. The essential work of teaching and learning is at the fore of a St. Francis education, as always. Coming into this remote learning period, in addition to fulfilling our academic promise to students and parents, we knew that we had to address the social-emotional well-being of our students, just as we do when in person. So this summer, we set up a remote version of the full St. Francis education, one that meets the broad range of students’ needs as much as possible. We believe that students are more engaged with their academics when they feel connected to and supported by their teachers and the school community, so we are focused on maximizing their experience of all these interrelated facets.

As my colleague Shelly Jones notes in her article, there was a Letter to Educators Teaching Online for the First Time published by experienced online educators Reshan Richards and Stephen J. Valentine last spring, and it noted in part (emphasis mine), “The job of an online teacher is the job of an offline teacher is the job of a teacher. Connect to people and help them to feel connected to you and to the dimension of the world you are leading them to experience.” So we began there. Teachers are working on building community within their classrooms, via such strategies as quick community conversations at the start or end of class, and breakout rooms for small-group discussions during class. More broadly, we’re fostering connections within the community by holding “live” Morning Meeting three days a week and “live” Advisee Groups the other two – so every morning at 9:00 a.m., the students are seeing and hearing from one another and the faculty/staff. In Advisee Groups, we’re having conversations on topics such as “brain breaks” (using the 10 minutes in between classes to stretch legs, disconnect from screens for a bit, etc.) and the St. Francis School core values and how those relate to school life and, in particular, remote school life.    

Aspects of normal school structure like classes and Morning Meetings/Advisee Groups are key; as well, extracurriculars are an essential aspect of the high school experience. One crucial reason is that it positively impacts students’ mental/emotional health when they engage with a passion or activity. We’ve been able to hold in-person soccer, volleyball, and field hockey workouts/practices since mid-June. Now, remotely, we also have set up designated Club/Group Meeting times, and thanks to our online Activity Fair, we have student signups and a schedule of meetings for the Jazz Ensemble, Encouragement Club, School Committee, Climate Club, Yearbook staff, Anime Club, Book Club, Sacred Space Committee, Black Students Association, Queer Students Association, Gender Rights and Equity Initiative, and Multicultural Students Association. Additional activities such as Vocal Ensemble, Drama, Film Society, and Literary Magazine will be on the scene soon, as will a voter registration session sponsored by the Constitutional Law class. 

In addition to these opportunities for connection and interaction, we don’t want to neglect the physical well-being (which has a positive correlation with the social-emotional health) of our students. Assistant Athletic Director Olivia Netzler has invited students to 8:45 a.m. “Morning Stretch” sessions and is evaluating the feasibility of midday offerings as well. She and Athletic Director Tony Butler have the freshmen working out together virtually in Fitness and may offer similar sessions for older students if the interest is there. And, of course, these opportunities for physical fitness provide yet another opportunity for students to connect with one another, underscoring yet again the intertwined nature of physical, mental, and emotional health.

So, in 2020, the challenges continue for all of us. But, to paraphrase something I shared at a summer Parent Coffee, there are a few things I know to be true about this year, by whatever means we learn and engage with one another: Students will learn, will be supported, will be loved. Together, we’ve got this, and we are off to another great Wyvern school year!