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Packer and the Pandemic

“It’s been 175 years since Packer first opened its doors, but we’ve never had a school year like this one.” The opening greeting in Head of School Jennifer Weyburn’s 2020 holiday video captured a complicated truth in simple words

In fact, the story of the current school year began in March 2020, when the World Health Organization officially designated the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic. The following day, amid growing anxiety in our community and our city, Dr. Weyburn announced that Packer would close early for spring break. At that time, few of us understood that a return to campus after spring break was highly unlikely.

Governor Cuomo imposed a lockdown just a few days later, but it was too late: within ten days of our closure, New York City was the epicenter of a global health catastrophe.

For those who stayed in the area, there were empty streets and an eerie stillness punctuated by sirens. For those who left, there were unfamiliar routines in places that weren’t quite home. For some, there was sudden and unthinkable loss.

“Remote Packer” began, somewhat fittingly, on April Fool’s Day, when the treasured experience of learning and being together was transferred to pixels on screens—in some cases, screens hundreds of miles from Brooklyn.

Like most of the world, we struggled but persisted through the many challenges of the spring. Incidents of anti-Asian bigotry increased in the city. Things fell apart further with the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Our community rose up in grief and anger, fueled by the determination to achieve racial justice in our country as well as at Packer.

The year’s culminating events took place virtually. Although largely confined to Zoom, the spirit and camaraderie of the Class of 2020 were powerful reminders of our community’s resilience and sense of connection.

Amid continued uncertainty as the summer began, we turned to the next challenge: our fall reopening. Our teachers studied best practices in remote and hybrid learning. Our operations team consulted with medical professionals and epidemiologists to develop comprehensive health and safety plans. Our divisional leaders rebuilt their programs and schedules. The key question about reopening was one of logistics. With six feet of social distancing, how would everyone fit on campus? Things were about to get complicated.

A Campus Transformed

Photo of two students relaxing in the garden with sign that says stay six ft apart between them

It is October 5, 2020—207 days after our campus closed. Following three weeks of remote learning to establish the routines of the new school year, our students arrive at Packer to attend classes in person.

Changes, large and small, are everywhere. Morning arrivals are carefully staggered to avoid congestion. Students enter the main campus via the gates on Livingston Street, greeted by administrators, staff, and parent volunteers. They give their names to verify that they have completed the daily online questionnaire that screens for Covid symptoms and exposure. Then they are directed through the Garden along marked paths to tented outdoor sinks where they wash their hands. The procedure is the same in rain and snow. Once a week, a small, plastic Covid-test vial is everyone’s required campus-admission ticket.

To reduce students’ exposure, each division has its own entrance and its own zone inside the building. One look at a classroom—with its generously spaced desks and ubiquitous floor markers—and you see it. Almost everything that defines this unprecedented year comes down to one variable: space.

Photo of MS hallway filled with students from above

Under our Covid-19 social distancing protocols, space is at a premium. This means learning occurs in some unusual places, as with this dance class in the Middle School’s South Hall.

A New Educational Model (or Two)

Socially Distant In-Person Learning. This is the primary reason why teaching and learning at Packer have transformed in 2020-21. 

When meeting social distancing guidelines, most of our 65 classrooms can be used only at half occupancy. As a result, in-person learning at Packer is only possible if most classes are split into smaller groups. Every conceivable space has been put to use as a classroom, including the Shen Gallery, the North and South hallways of the Middle School, the Admissions Office, and the Blackburne and Hart Libraries. (The Admissions team is working entirely remotely this year, and the librarians bring rolling book carts to classrooms.)

In the Preschool and Lower School, head teachers and associate teachers teach solo, leading half-sized classes. (At midday, they switch classrooms.) This fundamental shift allows our younger students to attend school in person every day. It also means that these grades need twice the usual space. The entire Garden House is now, once again, part of the Lower School. Rooms that recently housed Upper School students studying calculus currently host students learning their multiplication tables. 

Where possible, the Fifth and Sixth Grades have been assigned to the largest spaces on campus, including the Choral Room, the Dance Studio, and the Middle School Theater. This keeps their classes intact so their teachers can lead each class as one, providing a more cohesive—and slightly more normal—early Middle School experience. 

In Seventh through Twelfth Grade, half of the students attend class in person while the other half joins them live from home, via Zoom. This “hybrid” model requires each of those grades to be split in half, with the two halves coming to campus in alternating weeks.

Just like the city itself, the atmosphere at Packer is unmistakably more subdued. For one thing, fewer people are here. On any given day, due to the hybrid model, only half of the older students attend class in person. Some families have opted into full-time remote learning. For health and space reasons, some Packer professionals teach and work from home (as of spring, most are back on campus). No parents, prospective students, or other visitors are allowed to enter the school.

Students work on laptops with face masks

The student center is often strikingly quiet because students cannot congregate in close quarters. Instead of being served in the Commons, lunch options must be individually packaged and delivered to the zones where students are allowed to eat, including the front hall and the second floor gym. (Packer’s chefs have created new delivery-friendly offerings.) To reduce exposure risks, students are not allowed to leave the building during the day. After classes, the building empties out more quickly than usual. Although athletes and performers practice as health protocols allow, games and live performances are not possible.

There are few in-person meetings. Traditional weekly gatherings, while still called “Assembly” and “Chapel,” exist only in the ether. Students and teachers log in from classrooms and hallways, while others join from bedrooms and living rooms. 

Student sits at a desk in the library, smiling with a mask
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All Hands on Deck

Pulling off in-person learning requires a huge effort. Dozens of new resources and procedures to mitigate health risks have been established.

On the campus hygiene front, maintaining the outdoor sinks at each entrance, which supply hot water even in sub-zero weather, is “pretty much full-time work” for Craig Kennedy and Jorge Montoya, according to Maxine Coleman, Director of Campus Operations.

In our ambitious universal testing program to protect against viral spread at school, every child and adult must take a Covid-19 test each week they are on campus. Head Nurse Liz Ann Doherty supervises the program, which requires an assistant and several additional support staff to assemble, digitally log, sort, and distribute hundreds of test kits several times a week, then collect them back the following day. On average, they process 800 tests a week.

In conjunction with physical health, emotional health is a significant focus of our expanded student support efforts this year. Our deans, teachers, counselors, psychologists, and advisors have deepened their collaboration to provide additional support to in-person and remote students. Wellness programs for students and adults alike offer various self-care activities, such as yoga, meditation, and pleasure-reading suggestions from the librarians.

There is also a significant need for additional staffing to supervise in-person classes when teachers have to work remotely for health reasons or after possible exposure to the virus. Staffing needs don’t just change daily, but hourly. Substitute Coordinator Tory Lacy manages these supervisors and covers classes nearly full time himself. Molly Talbot serves the same vital role in the lower grades while also teaching a fully remote section of First Grade. Matt Hernandez, known to many as an after-school counselor, and Felix Fernandez, who provides auxiliary support in the Middle School, have enjoyed playing a much more hands-on role, assisting students in the classroom. Nick Griffith, often stationed at the front hall security desk in the afternoons, now begins his day rotating through the Lower School as a specialist teacher, sharing his experiences as a racecar driver—a subject that delights his young students. Other professionals and administrators across the school have pitched in as well.

In one way or another, everyone on campus has gone above and beyond the call of duty. And as they’ll tell you, if it allows our students to be together on campus, it’s worth it.

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Remote Learning, One Year In

Even as in-person learning has been very successful, remote learning remains an inevitable part of this school year. Positive cases in the community have necessitated temporary closures, and after major vacations, classes have resumed remotely to allow families, faculty, and staff to quarantine.

Assessing student learning in real time is one of a teacher’s many superpowers. In person, they gauge students’ understanding in a myriad of ways: observing their tone and gestures, scanning their work, checking in individually as they pack up their bags. Few of these techniques transfer easily to Zoom. Instead, teachers check for understanding by asking for a thumbs up or a one-to-five-finger rating.

Teacher wearing a face mask gives the thumbs up sign

With remote teaching, there is no “one size fits all” approach. Depending on the needs of their students and their lessons, many teachers adjust their approach daily. What’s more, leading in-person and remote students simultaneously in a hybrid classroom [demonstrated above by Celeste Tramontin, Upper School English Teacher] “is like trying to read a book and listen to music at the same time,” says Amy Szczepanski, Upper School Science Teacher. “We care so much about the kids. It’s hard emotionally, knowing that we physically cannot do what the best thing is.”

That said, remote learning offers a great deal of instructional flexibility. There are countless options: digital discussion platforms, self-directed assignments, live or pre-recorded videos. “There’s a lot of creative stuff happening, a lot of innovation,” says Greg Benedis-Grab, who, as the head of Academic Technology, oversees how Packer teachers incorporate digital tools into student learning. Even as the pandemic has raised issues of what a healthy technology diet should be, particularly for children, technology is what makes continued instruction possible. It even solves problems that hybrid teaching creates, such as the fact that classroom smart boards are not readily visible to students participating from home. Thanks to a successful pilot iPad program, our math, science, and world language teachers can easily provide visual information that simultaneously displays in the classroom and on Zoom.

Students in classroom view screen of fellow students on Zoom

For students across the school, the experience of remote learning has been a crash course in self-direction. “It takes three or four times the energy to mentally transport yourself into the classroom and then learn,” says Millie H. ’21.

“There’s nobody [at home] to keep you accountable. It’s really up to you.” As Sam L. ’21 points out: “You budget your time differently. With asynchronous [assignments], you have to be more proactive.” For these seniors, remote learning bears some resemblance to the life that awaits them after Packer.

Many students admit that “remote school” has redeeming qualities. For some, home offers a more peaceful learning environment. Self-directed assignments add variety to the school day and ease its intensity. Fewer extracurriculars mean more free time. A later start to the day—with no commute— means more sleep. Families also appreciate some of these side benefits.

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Children Leading the Way

The pandemic has also been a crash course in managing adversity. If it offers any lessons, the greatest one may be a deep sense of gratitude for things often taken for granted. Despite the limitations and trade-offs of this year, it has thrown into stark relief just how important it is to feel connection and community. Being together has been a source of palpable relief and much-needed normalcy.

“There’s a phrase: ‘children will play in a war zone,’” says Carla Kelly, a learning specialist in the Upper School. “Now that [the pandemic has lasted] a year, I understand that statement so much deeper. Resilience is something that has to be fostered. These kids really showed resilience, particularly at the beginning.”

Amy Szczepanksi agrees. “We’ve shifted plans so much that I can say to my students, ‘Next week, I’m teaching Spanish, not Chemistryin the middle of Joralemon Street. Everyone needs to wear pink and bring a salamander to class.’ They’re so go-with-the-flow now. They might not be happy about it, but they’re like, ‘All right, that’s fine.’”

Many feel that there has been value in students’ seeing adults whom they respect “figuring it out as they go,” says Carla. “It brought the teachers and the students closer together. They were understanding each other as people.”

Students sits in chair with a face mask in classroom

In some respects, the students lead the way for the adults, modeling positivity and bringing joy to tough times. “My Sixth Grade students wow me with their can-do spirits, indefatigability, and general love of life,” says health teacher Jeremy Hawkins. “I wouldn’t even know a pandemic is going on with the enthusiasm they bring to each class—whether we’re in remote, hybrid, or whatever comes next.”

This sentiment is shared by many adults. In the early days of remote learning, “my Second Graders reminded me daily that we would get through this and remain a tightly knit community,” says Hardeep Juttla, Second Grade Head Teacher. “Their applause and words of encouragement when technology was misbehaving—or when my own children crashed [our class]—reminded me to remain flexible.”

Students recognize the effort that their teachers are making. Skill with academic technology is de rigueur like never before. Math teacher Tom James “is a tech genius. We love him,” says one senior. They are also deeply grateful to the faculty for showing simple kindness and understanding about the stresses the students are facing, whether by offering an extension on a project or taking a moment to check in with them.

Even some aspects of the year that caused upset in the fall have yielded unexpected benefits. “Splitting the grade in half has given us an opportunity to get to know our classmates better,” says Jordana S. ’21. “New friendships are being made.” That said, Upper School students were excited by the possibility of their grades reuniting on campus in April.

Students work on laptops with headphones and face masks

Despite the challenges that students have weathered this year, many have responded with resolve. The political and social unrest of 2020 and early 2021, in addition to the tragedy and anxiety of the pandemic, has galvanized many, who see these unsettled times as a critical opportunity for change. Though conversations about identity and belonging have been a part of Packer for many years, new and expanded student-led initiatives have given many a sense of purpose and hopefulness. The dialogue on race “is more centered within the community now, which I think is appreciated,” says Amadi W. ’21.

To be sure, the students (like the adults) wish this year were different. They are wistful about the things that have been lost. They worry about the year lacking a sense of closure and celebration, especially the seniors. But they also display a sense of perspective that is wise beyond their years. “Packer students care about their teachers. They care about their peers, and they care about learning,” says Bella P. ’21. “That’s really been shown through this [year]. It shows how special Packer is, how well we’ve dealt with everything.”

Communities facing hardship often discover untapped strengths, and Packer students are no different.

As the conclusion of this historic school year comes into view, there now seems to be enough energy in reserve for the community to begin to exhale and reflect on its successes. On campus, the mood is lighter. There are more moments when Packer feels like itself again.

Students play in garden with masks

On one sunny day in March, Preschool students burst onto the roof garden of the Early Learning Center into the sunshine. On the main campus, Upper Schoolers are arrayed across the patio, relaxing and talking. One has headphones on, eyes closed, taking in the warmth. A dozen more teenagers form a giant circle in the Garden. They’re kicking a ball around, laughing and challenging one another. Eventually, they suspend their fun and head back into the building for afternoon classes. Their voices are soon replaced by high-pitched cries and squeals, as Third Graders in bright colors streak across the wide open space.

Everyone wears a mask (or two), but the smiling eyes and the laughter speak for themselves. And it’s comforting to know that you can still hear it: the sounds of kids just being kids.