“At Milton, we were used to building a community of young people and old people who love to learn,” said David Ball, Upper School principal, at a faculty meeting last spring. “We bring them all together and build a community to deepen our understanding of the world. I just assumed the building blocks—the classroom, the dorms, the performances—would always be there. The most challenging part was not having those building blocks. Our situation required careful thought; we had to rethink our building blocks and our circumstances. We were pushed to grow in new ways.”
During the early weeks of March, the rapidly evolving nature of Covid-19 forced Milton to make difficult decisions while surrounded by uncertainty. School-sponsored March break trips were canceled first. But as the crisis deepened worldwide, it became clear that school operations would need to wrap up early for the break, and classes were initially suspended until April 13.
Everything unfolded at a rapid pace. With a student body hailing from 22 nations and 29 states, it wasn’t a surprise that some students could not immediately return to their homes. Forbes House was kept open for those who were staying, and the Facilities Department prepared the dorm and campus for scaled-down operations.
For the Academic Technology Services (ATS) department, the first course of action was to get operational staffers up and running to work from home. While some of them regularly used laptops, others needed equipment. ATS manned a drive-through pick-up on campus. “We carefully and meticulously assembled packages,” says Bryan Price, chief information officer. “Someone would drive up to the back door and we would carry out equipment to their car and off they went. Then our team spent hours on the phone, remotely connecting to their computers to get them set up.”
Over the March break, faculty had the option to take“Designing for Online Learning,” a week-long course from Global Online Academy, which the Deans’ Office arranged.The program took teachers into a deep dive on the differences between synchronous and asynchronous learning; the concept of “wayfinding,” whereby learning materials are designed to empower students; how to arrange coursework so that students could navigate it easily; and how to maintain personal connection in the online classroom.
Meanwhile, the Deans’ Office had to make decisions about how remote learning would work and be assessed. One of the first major decisions was to keep the first two weeks asynchronous: Students would learn the same material on their own schedule without gathering as a class.
“Being asynchronous at the beginning felt right,” says Heather Sugrue, academic dean. “Milton’s strength is our commitment to equity, so we needed to think about where our kids were. Some students had long journeys home or were in hotels by themselves quarantining. Some of our students had sick family members. And making that choice to be asynchronous gave teachers time to think about how to teach, because it was a complete 180 for them.”
Also in keeping with the idea of equity during a time of crisis remote learning, it was decided that all work done in the spring would be assessed on a pass/fail basis. Semester two courses also shifted to pass/ fail. For full-year courses (including half courses), where students had completed work in person up until spring break, teachers calculated a letter grade to represent the work of the year in a meaningful way.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the break, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered all schools closed, which meant that Milton needed to close its one open dorm. Some students were able to return to their home state or country; others were taken in by Milton families. The School extended the return date to May 4 and then eventually extended remote learning to the end of the school year.
When March break concluded, during the course of two planning days, ats led or supported faculty in a variety of training sessions. Faculty and staff could take various levels of training in Zoom, which became an important class meeting tool, and in other programs such as Screencastify, in which teachers could record lessons with an embedded video of themselves. In the past, the Upper School instructional technologists Mark Connolly and Joshua Furst had made video tutorials for the faculty on programs such as Schoology, the School’s learning management system. Now they enhanced and repackaged them to fit the new needs.
“We had systems in place we were able to leverage,” says Connolly.“But we also had to ask ourselves:
What is reasonable in two-and-a- half months, with what we were calling a crisis patch?”
On April 1, a survey was sent to Upper School students via email to ask them about their current housing situation and personal circumstances and whether they had access to the internet and a device. The responses showed that as faculty members started planning their remote learning course material, they needed to think about other responsibilities students might have, such as helping to care for younger siblings and whether a student had space available for quiet and intense work.
“We had to focus on students and where they were at and the idea was to think of students first, pedagogy next,” says Upper School Principal David Ball.
Milton’s Health and Counseling Center advised the faculty to expect to see heightened anxiety among students as a result of so much uncertainty, fear of getting sick or knowing someone who might get sick, and isolation and separation from friends and School support systems. Faculty advisors were designated as a key access point for students and stayed in contact with their advisees, following up on any issues or questions.
ATS helped students who had issues with internet or computer access. Some students had left computers and other devices in the dorms; these were tracked down and shipped to their owners. Some students needed new devices sent to them. Price says that Milton’s virtual private network (VPN), which securely accesses the School’s network resources became invaluable, whether for the business office staffers or for a student in Vietnam or China, where students don’t generally have access to Google, which is a core platform for Milton learning. As remote learning progressed, both teachers and students wanted more opportunities for classes to meet. First, Zoom office hours were offered for each class, so students could check in with teachers. Meanwhile, in a Herculean effort, Registrar Liz Wood and Sugrue went through all the class rosters, figuring out each student’s time zone and finding time slots for every class to meet synchronously on Zoom. Zoom classes began the week of April 20; a class might meet in the early evening Milton time so that students ina time zone 12 hours away could join during their early morning.
There were also other optional learning opportunities for the faculty. History faculty member Vivian WuWong attended a webinar called “Lessons for Advanced Online Teachers,” by the Aurora Institute. One of the panelists said,“We are all first-year teachers now.”
“This really resonated with me, so I used it to help frame our thinking about the kind of work we needed to be doing in support of our teachers,” says WuWong.
Teachers improvised their classes in creative ways. Connolly and Furst worked with them to make course content more interactive and robust. Some English and history classes continued a hybrid Harkness table style over Zoom. Some math and science teachers recorded desktop whiteboards to break down material for students to watch on their own. Then they used the Zoom class time to answer questions and review what the students had watched. Modern Languages easily adapted and expanded use of audio files. For example, Connolly’s Spanish 2 Honors class worked together on podcasts, writing the scripts on shared Google docs and then recording individual audio files that were spliced together.
“This kind of work felt like a distant relative of the work we were doing before spring break,” says Indu Singh, dean of teaching and learning.“But there were also some pretty incredible things taking place in these classes. Our most powerful resource was each other.”
“We were able to continue core Milton experiences,” says Connolly. “They were adapted, but not forgotten or eliminated.” These included traditional end-of-the-year events that no one wanted seniors to miss out on. ATS staff members Genevieve Healy and Steve Glennon became Zoom masters, creating meaningful virtual events for Baccalaureate, Prize Assembly, and, of course, Graduation. They also arranged webinars throughout the crisis remote learning period that allowed Upper School Principal David Ball and Head of School Todd Bland to host various meetings with parents, faculty, or staff. By the end of the school year, Milton had logged 12,536 Zoom classes or meetings totaling 3,059,788 minutes, and had hosted 69 webinars for 9,106 participants.
In anticipation of the possible disruption of the upcoming year by continued Covid-19 outbreaks, Milton arranged for faculty training over the summer. Every faculty member took a three-week course focused on designing hybrid learning materials through One Schoolhouse, whose mission is to empower learning and transform education. “Hybrid learning is the ability to toggle seamlessly between being online and on campus, and also teaching students online and in the classroom simultaneously,” says Singh.
During the two weeks of asynchronous learning and one week of synchronous learning, faculty members redesigned a unit from one of their classes and were given feedback. Then they applied their new knowledge to redesign all their courses.
By Liz Matson
-When Classes went remote in the spring, Middle and Lower School leaders found creative ways to connect with Milton’s youngest students.-
The unscripted moments of a Middle School day—a passing conversation in the hallway, a pickup game at recess, an “aha!” moment in robotics—are what make the experience special, according to Steven Bertozzi, principal of Milton’s Middle School.
Interviewed at the end of the spring semester, leaders of the Middle and Lower Schools described their efforts to meet the nonacademic needs—social, emotional, and physical—of Milton students as the School began its remote-learning program in response to the novel coronavirus.
“One of the things I promise every parent is that we know our students,” Bertozzi said. “We know them as learners; we value those conversations between classes, the things that happen in advisories. We want to make them feel seen. That’s the promise I still want to provide: We will find ways to make sure that we are seeing your kids, even in this remote setting.”
Necessary measures taken to slow the spread of Covid-19 may have adverse effects on children’s mental health and well-being, the World Health Organization (WHO)cautioned in March. In addition to fears about the virus itself and the potential grief of losing loved ones, staying at home for long stretches of time removes children from critical social interaction.
“If schools have closed as part of necessary measures, then children may no longer have that sense of structure and stimulation that is provided by that environment, and now they have less opportunity to be with their friends and get that social support that is essential for good mental well-being,” the who advised. “Although all children are receptive to change, young children may find the changes that have taken place difficult to understand, and both young and older children may express irritability and anger. Children may find that they want to be closer to their parents, make more demands on them, and, in turn, some parents or caregivers may be under undue pressure themselves.”
The pressure on many parents to balance their own professional responsibilities with managing their children’s education became clear early on, said Frank Patti, principal of the Lower School. Younger students are more dependent on adults to keep up with daily work and progress, so Patti created a team of learning and reading specialists to support students throughout the school day.
To help parents and students adjust to such a sudden, significant change in routine, Patti established a series of webinars led by outside experts in parenting as well as in child and family psychology. The webinars were well received and kept open the lines of engagement between the School and families.
Valérié Thadani, director of health and wellness at the Lower School, saw opportunities for students to have social time despite their physical separation and created virtual friendship-group meetings for kids to have some unstructured time together. She also made videos for students to practice yoga and meditation and scavenger hunts for outdoor walks and exploration, and she started the Lower School Pet Parades, a virtual show-and-tell of pets in the Lower School community.
“We are still very much one community, so there was a driving force behind having those messages and activities geared for the entire School, rather than a specific grade level,” said Thadani, who is also an internal medicine physician. “Kids need structure and dependability, and their routines were upended abruptly, so we wanted to provide them with tools to manage their feelings and cope with stress.”
Both Thadani and Middle School counselor Nicci King anticipated some regression—emotionally and academically—when students returned in the fall after being off campus for at least six months. Playing is such an important part of the Lower School, Thadani noted; social distancing may not allow for the types of play to which students are accustomed, or even for hugs between friends.
“We’re going to really work to put them at ease, because this is a big adjustment,” she said.
Making sure that students had the ability to interact in fun, unstructured ways became important in the Middle School, said King. Teachers began hosting virtual lunches and recess, music trivia, and other activities—touchpoints that helped lend some sense of community to the days.
King stayed in touch, via one-on-one Zoom sessions, with the students she counsels regularly. “Many of the issues have stayed the same, but some have become mostly about remote learning,” she said. A few of the students with anxiety said they felt somewhat validated—now the rest of the world is learning to cope with the worries they’ve had all along.
“There are so many moving parts to this, but I think the Middle School is working really hard to make things as predictable as possible for the kids,” King said.
She put together Padlets—online bulletin boards organized by topic—for parents and students. The parent Padlet provided resources for parents to help their kids cope with the massive changes that came with the pandemic, while the students received tips on self-care and connecting with their families, activities to fight boredom, and ideas for remote community engagement and service.
Bertozzi surveyed each Middle-Schooler, asking, among other questions, whether students had a quiet place to work; whether they felt able to maintain connections with teachers and peers; whether they felt they were staying on track academically; and what highlights and challenges they faced. Some of the challenges were logistical—managing time and finding all the resources for each class—but many were emotional or social. The students felt stressed. The first few weeks of remote classes were overwhelming. They missed one another.
“Not being able to hug my friends,” one student listed as a challenge. “Even though Zoom is nice, it’s not the same as being in school together,” another wrote. Working without the company of classmates could be boring, someone said. An eighth grader wrote that she was staying in touch with close friends but missed interactions with students she wouldn’t ordinarily see outside school.
Data from the survey helped Bertozzi and the Middle School faculty make improvements to the program. Early on, learning specialist Liz West began sending pacing guides to help the students manage their time; smaller-group “breakout sessions” on Zoom provided a more intimate space for students to interact.
Many others stepped up to help: West and music teacher Alan Rodi started a sign-language club. Athletic Director Sam Landau created video workouts. And the students took it upon themselves to help their peers. Some, remembering their experiences arriving at the Middle School, initiated efforts to create a welcome video and offer advice to Grade 5 students and parents as they got ready to start in a new division.
They also honored important social and cultural milestones, such as the Day of Silence in support of the lgbtq+ community—organizing and coordinating with teachers to make it a meaningful day despite the remote environment.
“We have seen a lot of kids rise up and look for leadership opportunities in many new and creative ways that even the adults hadn’t thought about, which has been incredible to see,” Bertozzi said. “And so many of those leadership opportunities they’re looking for have shown what they value in the School, and the community they’ve created, even remotely.”
By Marisa Donelan