Open House Exclusive: Minimizing the Spread

 Open House Exclusive: Minimizing the Spread

Saint Ursula Academy models innovation and creativity to lead students through COVID-19

2020 is a year like no other. Challenges from COVID-19 have affected nearly every aspect of our lives. That has challenged the leadership at Saint Ursula Academy to model the actions they ask of their students: to be creative problem-solvers, reflective thinkers and confident informed leaders. In planning for the current school year, they also needed to ensure their plans allowed for appropriate care and support for students and adults in the community.

The biggest challenge was developing a plan to keep everyone safe on campus while maintaining SUA’s high standards of academic excellence.

After months of research, data collection and discussions with state and local health department leaders, medical, mental health and education experts, SUA implemented a plan in August to balance community safety, academic progress and individual safety and well-being.

Saint Ursula’s fall schedule is a one-of-a-kind hybrid. Students report to campus four days a week, with a virtual day in the middle of the week on Wednesdays. The on-campus days are shortened, to avoid the close contact of all-school lunch, allow for a deep cleaning of campus and to give the girls a mid-week break from wearing a mask. It also keeps the teachers and students practicing their virtual class skills in case SUA ever needs to return to Distance Learning.

Each grade level arrives early one day a week for grade-level-specific programming. Students are welcome to stay after classes to meet with teachers, participate in clubs, athletics, or activities, and teachers and counselors are also available to students virtually.

“Our COVID-19 schedule ensures that our girls and adults are being kept safe, experiencing increased social and emotional support, and learning through different and more forward-thinking modalities,” says Saint Ursula Academy Principal Dr. Mari Thomas. “To ensure that we are providing the best possible support to our faculty, staff and students, we are assessing our schedule on a regular basis. Data will drive any decisions to alter our schedule and programming throughout the school year.”

Senior Gracie Scheve ’21 is impressed with the way the COVID-19 schedule has exposed her to new technologies.

“Even though we’re having in-person classes this semester, I think COVID-19 has inspired all of our teachers to experiment with new technologies. We’ve been testing out new programs in the classroom, like virtual discussion boards in my physics class, interactive PowerPoints in AP chemistry, or video recordings that have replaced in-person annotation checks in AP literature.”

Although the look and feel of the SUA COVID-19 schedule is different from the more familiar face-to-face 8 am to 3 pm schedule, it does not mean that it is less effective. Teachers continue to challenge the girls and report lessons are on track and students are getting the skills they need.

Scheve shares, “My current semester of classes is actually the most difficult one I’ve had over my four years at Saint Ursula. I think our high-quality teachers have been really key to

maintaining our advanced academic environment, and, despite all the unknowns this semester, they’ve been able to still teach effectively.”

Saint Ursula’s seven certified counselors join the faculty in supporting students in the continued identification and pursuit of their passions, aspirations and career interests. SUA also added a resident therapy dog, Angelo, to provide additional care for students.

Scheve says she feels supported through this unusual school year.

“My teachers and counselors have been sacrificing much of their own time to help me and my classmates. All of my teachers have significantly extended their office hours this year, with some coming in two hours early and others staying three hours late. Not only this, but they have made their willingness to help us known: They constantly reassure us during class that their job is to be there for us and that it is zero hassle for them to help us out. It’s really genuine! I have met with all of my teachers outside of class this semester.”

This new schedule has also allowed teachers to help students grow as out-of-the-box thinkers and creative problem-solvers, skills that will serve them well as they move to college and beyond.

“I’ve really learned a lot being able to face a brand-new challenge and try to approach it from unexplored angles,” says Scheve.

According to students, parents and faculty/staff, the COVID-19 schedule has allowed the girls to get more rest and to be less stressed.

“Other than safety, I think this schedule has made getting through each week very manageable,” adds Scheve.

That doesn’t mean the schedule model is without challenges.

“The biggest challenge for me has been navigating the social aspect of school with this COVID-19 schedule. Under a normal schedule, we would get a 35-minute break and a 55-minute lunch each day, and these times are usually when I roam the halls or bounce from lunch table to lunch table catching up with all my friends. I’m grateful that we’re given a break at all in this schedule, but I feel like it’s not quite long enough for me to have any real conversations or see a varied group of people before I have to head to my next class. Another difficulty has been trying to keep attendance and engagement up at club and organization meetings, which would normally meet during break or lunch but are now scheduled after school hours.”

“As we continue to make our way through the first quarter of classes, we are cognizant of the importance of assessing the impact of our COVID-19 schedule on the mitigation of the spread of the coronavirus, the support of our girls in terms of social and emotional well-being, and continuation of learning,” says Dr. Thomas.

Scheve says she believes, for now, the schedule is doing what it was intended to do.

“The main goal of our new COVID-19 schedule has been to minimize time spent passing by other students to reduce the risks of COVID-19 spreading, and I think its biggest success is that it’s achieved just that. I feel extremely safe at school, and I haven’t heard a single one of my peers concerned about the virus’ spread at school either.”