By Dr. John Stegeman, Upper School Head
CONTINUOUS FEEDBACK IS A hallmark of the Eastside Preparatory School experience. From Head’s Table breakfasts with Dr. Macaluso, to Parent Coffees with Division Heads, to Student Experience Surveys in classes and Advisory sessions, we are constantly gathering information about what’s working and what’s not in our academic program. When we transitioned to EPSRemote in March 2020, feedback circuits that relied upon face-to-face encounters became constrained. It’s just harder for people to talk with one another when interfacing through a screen, and yet we knew it was more important than ever to understand how students were experiencing our program and how their overall health and well-being were holding up as we conducted school from a distance. So we made it a priority to ask students and parents how things were going every few weeks. Surveys and Advisory sessions on particular topics, one-to-one Advisory check-ins, division head listening sessions, and virtual office hours with no pre-determined agenda were a few of the tools we used to stay in touch, gauge how school was functioning, and make adjustments as we went. Some of what we learned about remote instruction was significant in the moment and helped us refine the model. Other insights have had longer-lasting impact and continue to inform our efforts in the 2020-2021 school year. All of this work has confirmed the importance of building and maintaining mechanisms for feedback, and the value of designing flexible solutions that meet the individual needs of students.
The rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced a wide range of concerns from parents and students, which mirrored debates that schools around the country were having. Some parents wanted to ensure that the pace of instruction and curricular progress did not slow, while others wanted to scale back instruction or adjust grading practices to reduce stress and academic pressure. Everyone wanted to protect students’ well-being, but prioritizing physical health through isolation carried potential risks to mental health and social development. While quarantined, interactive technology like Microsoft Teams gave us powerful tools to provide synchronous instruction from teachers and interaction between students (both academic and purely social), but it added up to long stretches of time interacting through digital screens. At every turn, solving one problem seemed to exacerbate another. Amid such situational tension, our aim was to generate balanced solutions that worked for most students, while at the same time extending flexibility to those who needed greater accommodation.
WHEN WE SURVEYED STUDENTS ABOUT THE SCHEDULE, SOME EXPRESSED A PREFERENCE FOR A RELATIVELY QUICK PACE THAT ALLOWED THEM TO COMPLETE WORK WITHIN THE SCHOOL DAY, WHILE OTHERS WANTED TO STEP AWAY FROM THEIR SCREENS FOR BREAKS DURING THE DAY AND DIDN’T MIND CIRCLING BACK TO COMPLETE ASSIGNMENTS IN THE EVENING.
Our daily class schedule provides an illustration of the conceptual framework behind our thinking. We were resolute in our belief that maintaining a full-day academic schedule of classes carried immense benefit for students and families. It allowed us to carry forward academic progress, provide time for social interactions within class and between periods, provide much-needed structure for our youngest and most vulnerable students, and bring a measure of normalcy to students’ daily experience that was otherwise disrupted by prolonged isolation. And yet we also wanted to help students monitor and manage their workload and leave room for students to create a rhythm and daily routine that worked for them.
When we surveyed students about the schedule, some expressed a preference for a relatively quick pace that allowed them to complete work within the school day, while others wanted to step away from their screens for breaks during the day and didn’t mind circling back to complete assignments in the evening. Our solution was to shorten class periods from eighty-five minutes to sixty, with thirty-minute breaks in between. We hoped that this would allow some students to use the half hour between classes to work on assignments, while others stepped away from the screen for a walk, a snack, or to simply rest their eyes. Students craving the company of their peers could use the time to maintain social connections with friends and classmates. This modified schedule was a compromise solution, in response to feedback that expressed a range of needs and preferences. While it seemed to address much of the varied feedback we received, like any compromise, it was imperfect and somewhat unsatisfying to those who asked for more extreme modifications. Some students felt that thirty minutes was an awkward “in-between” timeframe—a bit long for a break, but not quite enough to complete each assignment in its entirety. Other students needed to reduce or modify their course load more substantially, which we were able to accommodate by relaxing some academic requirements and increasing flexibility for course withdrawals, incompletes, and pass/fail grading for individual students when necessary.
The principles outlined above continue to inform our planning and decision-making processes as we head into the 2020-2021 school year. While we will be starting the year remotely, we know that our best work on behalf of students is interpersonal and that we can do that work most effectively on campus. While COVID-19 keeps us away from campus, we will use these and other feedback mechanisms to monitor our students’ progress and well-being. As the virus subsides, we anticipate bringing students back to campus in small cohorts at first. To support that transition, we have developed a hybrid instructional model, where students come to campus for classes in a regular rotation and continue remotely when not physically present. We have outfitted classrooms with videoconferencing technology so that students (and potentially teachers) can participate remotely for longer stretches of time if their health and safety require it. This model will call for another innovative leap forward, both from our faculty and our students, and is bound to carry complications and imperfections that we are committed to working through together. You can count on us asking for your feedback and partnership as we explore this uncharted territory together.