“One of the many joys of working in schools is that no two days are the same. New experiences greet educators every day,” says Robert Pollicino, head of Upper School. “We can learn from those and be better prepared for whatever comes through the door tomorrow.”
In March, 2020, no one in education had any idea what was coming or how it would transpire over the course of the school year. Bullis was well equipped to handle the transition to remote learning in Spring 2020 because of the School’s previous experience designing and implementing online snow days, adding technical tools for teachers, and relying on the expertise of our strong technical support team. When summer arrived, Bullis faculty and administrators took a collective deep breath and began planning for an unknown school year.
Here, the three division heads—Margaret Andreadis in the Lower School, Dr. Marilyn Moreno in the Middle School, and Robert Pollicino in the Upper School—reflect on the challenges and changes that this past school year brought to Bullis.
This year, Lower School teachers pulled out all the stops. Whatever it took, from rethinking methodologies to carefully preparing individual materials for each student, Bullis teachers stepped up to get the job done. Every year, teaching brings exciting challenges, and this year’s issues were unique. With no sharing of tools or materials permitted, our Lower School teachers found creative and efficient ways to ensure that every student had individual access to books, writing tools, technology, and STEM materials. With cooperative hands-on group learning kept to a minimum and separate yet collaborative learning in place, we made sure that the elements in lessons and classrooms felt as familiar as possible. Some results were anticipated—children continued to learn and thrive in the modified classroom environment—and some were unexpected: noise levels were higher as kids compensated for wearing masks and distancing!
From the start, we kept our Lower School students in a bubble, protected from unnecessary campus contact beyond South Hall. While Middle and Upper School students followed hybrid schedules on and off campus, Lower School students were in their classrooms five days a week, with early dismissal on Wednesdays. Lower School lunches were delivered to South Hall, while on Wednesdays, weather permitting, our young students enjoyed walking to the Dining Hall to pick up bag lunches. Within the bubble, we found opportunities to bring the joyfulness so typical of Lower School energy into the week.
Through it all, Lower School classroom and specialty teachers were keenly aware of the needs of their younger students, including the importance of getting kids outside when possible. Physical education teachers took Lower Schoolers out in small groups for games and activities, finding creative, fun ways to include distancing and individual rather than shared use of sport equipment. A portion of a parking lot was even cordoned off to make room for a huge tent exclusively for Lower School PE use, with equipment and hand sanitizer readily available.
Our Lower School students have been simply amazing this year. They adjusted to every change with ease, happy to follow new rules and safety protocols. They encouraged and helped each other, an important Lower School value that was even more essential this year. At home, Bullis parents took to heart the seriousness of the situation as we all worked together to keep our kids safe and healthy inside and outside of school. As an added bonus, we saw a decline in Lower School sickness thanks to mask-wearing and additional handwashing.
The important collaborative relationship between the school and parents thrived as well. Although parents missed making connections on field trips and in campus volunteering, we held virtual coffees and events, including Back to School night, which proved efficient for parents with scheduling or childcare needs. Conversations and frequent communication between parents, the school, teachers, and counselors helped families and classrooms stay on an even keel. The mental and emotional health of our students is a priority for our faculty, and our Lower School counselor provided parents with resources, strategies, and check-ins during this unusual and sometimes challenging year.
As we begin to move past the pandemic crisis, we are looking forward to the familiar excitement of Lower School days, with cooperative learning, hands-on and shared work, and kids sitting close together on classroom carpets once again. In September, Bullis will welcome many new families, and I want them to know—if you think Bullis is great now, just wait until you see how wonderful this school is next year!
On August 26, 2020 (masked, nervous to be on campus during the COVID 19 pandemic, and skeptical) I greeted 30 faculty members (also masked and skeptical) for our annual opening meeting. Instead of huge smiles and hugs, we stood six feet apart in the Studio Theater of the Boarman Discovery Center, cloth masks concealing smiles and expressions as we awkwardly greeted each other.
I wondered what I could say to ease their personal health and safety concerns while sharing divisional goals and objectives for the upcoming school year. How could we redirect our focus to students, with teachers returning less rejuvenated and somewhat anxious about remote, hybrid, and in-person instruction?
I thought of the challenges students faced, too, during this unprecedented pandemic when returning to school. How would the changes impact them? They might have anxiety about health and safety, feelings of isolation, disrupted summer routines, and/ or academic, social, or emotional apprehensions. It was clear that students would study our attitudes and look to us for a degree of comfort and direction.
Then I looked at the waiting faculty and said, “Let excellence be our brand!”
These words, spoken by Oprah Winfrey at a Harvard University commencement, were important for faculty who must represent excellence every day for students during an unusual school year. Being available to students regardless of our feelings amid the pandemic and providing outstanding instruction was imperative. Additionally, finding ways to uplift fellow co-workers to maintain high spirits was paramount.
We talked, and the teachers left the meeting motivated and eager to collaborate. We developed lessons to ensure continuous instruction regardless of circumstances, participated in training to use cameras in the classroom, researched new educational technology tools, and scheduled drive-throughs to share class materials and supplies with students.
The results of their efforts were outstanding.
- In Middle School Latin, teacher Wesley Wood used a green screen to insert himself into remote screens, allowing all his students equal instruction and interaction.
- Science Teacher Chelsea Fajen’s classes participated in NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory touchdown lander activity as part of their STEM engineering design projects.
- Seventh grade Science Teacher Karen McPhaul introduced kits so remote and in-class students could learn how a virus infects a cell and how antivirals can stop viruses from attaching to cell receptors and slow the growth of a pandemic.
- Language Arts students in Maggie McConnaha’s class analyzed characters and themes in historical books, culminating in our first Reading Gala.
- During Wednesday Middle School Community Days, the Baking Club met virtually to bake recipes and have fun together.
- Virtual speaker sessions during Middle School lunch brought fascinating guests including a physician, an NFL director, a Holocaust survivor, and a current U.S. soldier.
- Entrepreneurship Director Maria Antokas and Technology Coordinator Rita Gerharz organized our third annual Social Entrepreneurship Hackathon as a virtual event. Students worked collaboratively to design solutions to social issues.
- STEM Director Mark Walters organized a Middle School building and engineering challenge that invited students to present innovative projects in four categories.
This year, our Middle School faculty dedicated themselves to excellence in effort, communication, and collaboration, finding new ways to empower and engage learners, discovering creative solutions, and providing initiatives and support for their students throughout these past months.
Thanks, Middle School Faculty, for an awesome year!
In the Upper School, we considered weekly and daily schedules, student and teacher experiences, and kept community safety at the forefront of our decisions. School values of responsibility and integrity were at the core of each conversation.
Every decision we make can impact other areas, and we kept that in mind while preparing for an in-person and hybrid learning model. We looked at the schedule as a source of support for group and individual concerns. With diversity a core value at Bullis, we considered diverse learning styles as well as the various experiences families might face during the pandemic. A 70 to 90-minute block schedule might work for students on campus, but a student learning from home may struggle to remain focused that long. A rotating schedule is great for in-person students, but one that changes every day could be challenging for students developing routines at home and for teachers at home balancing responsibilities as educators and parents. So we decided on 45-minute classes and moved from a rotating schedule to allow classes to meet every day. Remote Wednesday community days provided a break for students and teachers and allowed time for virtual gatherings, meetings, and planning. Through thoughtful discussion, we created a supportive and engaging schedule to meet the needs of our Upper School community.
Part of this year’s successful classroom experience is because Bullis teachers are incredibly resilient and resourceful. We saw them navigate a hybrid learning schedule and engage in professional development, developing remote lessons and finding new ways to assess students and teach in a hybrid model. Our technology department provided cameras and other hardware and trained faculty to use new tools, allowing students at home or in the classroom to have similar learning experiences. Bullis teachers embraced the uncertainty and dove headfirst into the unchartered waters. For years, they embraced EdTech tools, amplifying those resources to seamlessly transition teaching modes and methods.
At Bullis, we always recognize the importance of community, and so our student government recreated Upper School assemblies as a morning talk show, “Rise Up, Bullis,” that we all looked forward to each week. Remote Wednesdays allowed us to make sure students felt connected, so vital to mental health and well-being, and during on-campus community events, Upper School had fun playing kickball and noodle tag and enjoying chocolate chip muffins. We even staged an outdoor prom at Calleva for Juniors and Seniors, including an amazing fireworks display!
As we look toward the next academic year, I think of Albert Einstein’s remark that “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” We must continue to move or lose the focus and agility that supports our mission, our students, and our faculty. There are always new opportunities to grow or to face challenges. Last year, the challenge that caught us off guard is still testing our resolve. Now we can use those experiences to propel us forward.
This article is featured in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Bullis Magazine.
- Bullis Magazine
- Spring/Summer 2021