Adapting to a new normal: BBA, LTS work to be ready for students

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It was expected that the start of the school year was going to require some flexibility.

That was put to the test right away on Tuesday, as Burr and Burton Academy and Long Trail School, the Manchester area's two independent high schools, learned that Gov. Phil Scott had pushed back opening day until Tuesday, Sept. 8, to give the state's pre-K through grade 12 schools more time to prepare for opening. What that meant for the two schools remained a question mark.

Long Trail had envisioned classes beginning well in advance of that date, on Monday, Aug. 17, with a goal of ramping up online instruction for a start to on-campus learning on Sept. 8. BBA was ready to start new student orientation and back-to-school meetings with a welcome to freshmen starting Monday, Aug. 24, and transition into regular classes Sept. 3.

Those dates were in the air as of Tuesday following Scott's announcement that the opening would be pushed back. "We want schools to take the time to get this right, so students can hit the ground running," Scott said.

Long Trail head of school Seth Linfield is in wait-and-see mode for Gov. Scott's order to be made official on Friday. Burr and Burton Academy headmaster Mark Tashjian is also awaiting guidance, but hopes orientation events can carry on as scheduled.

That said, officials at both schools have made clear that in a post-COVID educational world, change is the only constant.

"We've emphasized with our community that there is a dynamic with all the plans," Linfield said last week. "We are continuously monitoring assessing, and titrating our plans based on the latest information."

"What it will require is constant monitoring of local conditions," Tashjian said Monday. "If we can get started and COVID rates remain exceedingly low that will give us the opportunity to start to dialing up our scale of operations. However, if we see a spike we have to be ready to fall back.

"We would do that not only out of concern for students and faculty but we would be ready to dial back as part of the community, in a coordinated and collaborative fashion."

NEW YEAR, NEW REQUIREMENTS

Both schools are starting the year with big changes, from daily health checks to rethinking how lunch will be delivered.

But one thing's for sure: The hot new look for back to school 2020 is a face mask.

The state of Vermont's back to school guidance called for masks for students and teachers well before Scott announced a mask mandate would take effect on Saturday. Both BBA and LTS are firm on the matter: Masks are expected.

Tashjian is confident BBA can build a culture where mask wearing is just a normal part of everyday school life.

"We are building culture of normalcy around wearing masks," he said. "Today is first day of Student Success Camp, we've got 50 ninth graders on campus, and they're engaging in all kinds of activities and they're wearing masks."

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While there's flexibility around many aspects of life at Long Trail, that flexibility can't extend to use of masks indoors, Linfield said.

"So we have to find a balance between needing to adjust and making sure the baseline elements of the social contract are complied with by everyone. "

But the onus isn't only on students to wear masks, BBA associate head of school Meg Kenny said.

"It's going to take all of us to abide by simple measures we know are effective — wearing masks, keeping physical distance and not coming to school when you're sick," she said. "It's going to become really clear to students and families that these things are required."

MAKING IT WORK

Leaders at both schools shared their deep respect for the efforts made by faculty and staff to get ready for reopening.

"Our faculty is amazing," Linfield said. "It's humbling and inspiring to partner with our faculty — work of faculty covers what takes place inside the classroom, but just as important is their relationship with students and families outside the classroom as well."

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Kenny had similar praise for that school's teachers and staff and their participation on task forces and leadership teams to ready the campus for the students' return — whenever, and however, that happens.

"Our faculty and staff are passionate about their students' learning and the health and safety of our community," Kenny said. "All BBA teachers are participating in professional development to deepen their understanding of hybrid learning."

"This is biggest challenge we have ever faced in our professional lifetime," Tashjian added. If the return to campus is to succeed, he said, it will require "a lot of coordination, an incredible sense of teamwork and a lot of community support."

Whether it's in August or September, Long Trail and Burr and Burton are both planning a mix of in-person and remote instruction, with the intent of keeping students, faculty and their families safe from COVID-19. Daily health screenings will be part of the routine, masks will be compulsory for everyone, and full online learning options will be available to students for medical and other reasons.

The additional challenges are many. Long Trail has purchased 200 new individual desks so students will no longer share tables. LTS has also made structural modifcations throughout its campus to open up some areas to allow more distancing, while dividing some larger areas, and converting former common areas into classroom space.

BBA invested in tents so that as many classes and activities as possible can be held outdoors.The lunch routine is changing. Months of experience in remote instruction, put in place practically overnight when the pandemic struck in March, have been refined.

Leaders at both schools acknowledge that there's going to be challenges ahead. And both are mindful that plans which have been in development since spring could change, depending on how the community at large protects itself against coronavirus outbreaks.

AT BBA

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BBA will begin the year in a hybrid teaching and learning model, with the goal of working back towards in-person learning as long as conditions permit.

The BBA school year will start the same way it has for some time — with orientation days for incoming freshmen and transfer students grades 10-12, and separate welcome back days set aside for sophomores, juniors and seniors.

"We really want to intentionally set students up for success with understanding our digital ecosystem, making sure that they understand our health and safety procedures, and making sure that they feel connected to this place," Kenny said of the effort.

From that point forward, the BBA student body will divide its on-campus student body into two groups — green and gold, naturally — and alternate school days between the two in order to maintain social distancing. The school will use remote learning exclusively on Fridays, so its facilities can get a weekly deep cleaning.

The school hopes to offer as much programming outdoors as possible in the fall, Tashjian and Kenny said, taking advantage of evidence suggesting that transmission rates for COVID-19 are lower outdoors than indoors.

"We have to recognize there are people who are ready to go full tilt and there are people who have justifiable and understandable concerns," Tashjian said. "So this is a way of bringing community together in a way we think people will be able to wrap their minds and hearrts around. And it gets us going. "

"We are working hard to set up systems and protocols so that everyone feels safe on the BBA campus," Kenny said. "With the right protocols, routines and culture, with all of us working together, we can keep BBA and the wider community healthy, while staying true to our mission of providing engaging, vigorous educational experiences."

AT LTS

To begin the year, through Labor Day, students will alternate attendance with middle school students attending together one day followed by upper school students the next.

There will be no bus service for those weeks as the school works through the complicated busing system that brings students from up to an hour away in all directions and is co-mingled with public school busing in some areas.

In the classroom at Long Trail, students will have a choice between attending in-person classes or through distance learning. Students will also be able to transition from one to another at any time.

"Our aim is to present the same academic content to all students," Linfield said. "Faculty will prepare a weekly overview that will feature a brief video introduction describing the week's goals, accompanied by readings, exercises, and assignments. The student will then livestream into the classroom and hear and see the live instruction."

Linfield said that initially, students on livestream will not be able to participate in class discussions, but "To the extent feasible, the student will take part in project-based learning with their classmates. The student will have opportunities to receive attention from the instructor before or after class through email and other platforms."

Linfield said that the school appreciates that the plans "suits smaller literature classes more than art workshops or science labs. Our department chairs and faculty are exploring how to offer high-quality experiences in these more challenging disciplines."

Darren Marcy contributed to this article.


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