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International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Suzanna’s Scoop: Looking Back on a Pandemic School Year

An IB HL English Class Conducts a Hybrid Lessons (Courtesy of Zach Roberts)

The usually packed Davies Hall is sparsely populated, every second seat marked “Do Not Sit Here.” Middle schoolers take to the field with pool noodles, a now necessary tool for maintaining a six foot distance. Each class period ends with Clorox and disinfectant wipes. Tregaron Campus is littered with casual reminders that school life has been uprooted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In an academic year characterized by COVID, Dateline took the opportunity to speak with Head of School Suzanna Jemsby on the impact of the pandemic on the 2020-21 year, and look ahead to future plans as WIS attempts to find its footing in a post-pandemic world.

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity)   

Looking back on the past year, how would you summarise WIS’s COVID response? 

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Looking at our campus, I think we’ve done as well as we could. We were one of the earliest schools to get back, and we had a plan that unwittingly I think worked quite well; we decided one week on, one week off. The hybrid system means we have five days of school each week. A lot of schools are struggling to do that, and are shortening their days. So I think we’ve done as best we can to deliver a normal school year, obviously with half the students at home. 

What do you think has been the most difficult aspect of COVID-19 on the WIS learning environment? 

I really feel for students in all of this. Mental health, across the world, has been really impacted by having to be at home so much, and to be isolated from friends. From the perspective of running a school, I had a lot of nervous adults as well, as they all had their own families to worry about. Despite this, I think we got to a good place. I feel fortunate that we pushed hard to have teachers on campus and have got to a place where we are safe. The COVID testing really helped as well for peace of mind. 

How do you think the cohort system impacted the school community? 

It’s so sad. I think about plays, and musicals, and concerts — it’s unfortunate to only have half of the student body at any given point. But I think it was the only way to do it, given the restrictions on us for classroom size and six foot distance. I wish we could have done it with more students more of the time, but Tregaron is a tricky campus, with small rooms.

Have you seen any benefits, or “silver linings”, from COVID-19 on the school community? 

I have been surprised about how some things work well on Zoom. Take things like the parent teacher conferences, families don’t have to drive across town, things like that I think went well. I do really miss seeing the whole community together. But I think COVID-19 has forced us to find digital solutions to things that should’ve happened anyway, so there is a positive for sure. 

What would have to happen for WIS to move to join the two cohorts? 

First of all, the transmission rate has to drop below 15 for several days, so we know that it’s not a high transmission. If the transmission rate is steadily below 15, we can reopen Tregaron with three foot distance (vs. the current six foot distance), which gives us more flexibility. That is a case scenario for August, where we have to maintain three foot distance. However, given that public schools will struggle space wise to adopt three foot distance, I suspect that distance regulations will disappear completely. So we are assuming there will be no physical distancing in place and high schoolers will be mostly vaccinated. I look forward to having everyone back in August, all being well. 

Is there a situation where we wouldn’t all be back in person next year? 

I have four tracks in mind for next year. One is the worst: we go back into distance learning, if there’s a new variant or something. Two is the six foot distance, what we have now: it’s red cohort, blue cohort. Three is the three foot distance, which we can make work by August, it’s just a matter of scheduling. The final is no distancing, and we are all back by August. The hard work now is creating the three foot scenario, just in case distancing stays in place.

Would pooled testing continue into next year? 

The medical advice on that is unclear at the moment; do we need to continue testing if people are vaccinated? We have been lucky since we are getting tested through a medical study, but that study finishes at the end of this school year. Of course we have to make the right decision for health reasons, but the medical advice is unclear as to whether we need to continue testing those who are vaccinated. We will continue to test those who are unvaccinated, for sure.

How do you feel about WIS in comparison to other schools in the area in regards to opening fully? 

Some of these other schools have had the space all along, so I’m surprised they didn’t open fully sooner. I think WIS has actually been in school more than these other schools, even if they finish up these last few weeks on campus. I wish we had more space, but teachers at WIS don’t have their own classrooms, so there aren’t empty rooms. We desperately need the new science building, but that won’t impact this year of course. 

What do you think has been the most difficult part of hybrid for the faculty and the students, and how do those experiences differ? 

So for the faculty, no one was ever taught to become a teacher to teach online and in person at the same time. The teachers almost found it easier to be completely home, and have all the students at home, because it was just one modality. To have to do both, the teachers have just been amazing, they’ve been truly heroes in all of this. I would say for the students, I would observe that for the weeks that you’re at home there is a lot of sitting, and a lot of time at Zoom. It’s easy to “zoom out,” and for the learning to become rather abstract. I’m sure there are students that have engaged less because they’re not physically there. We know that school is designed, at least at WIS, to be in person — and I can’t wait to get back to it. 

Do you think there will be any leniency from the school as students adjust to being back full time next year? 

If there is one thing I would say in all of this, maybe to a fault, WIS has really kept the pressure on. We don’t believe that students have been learning less in this time. I know that some schools have had community days where they haven’t been learning. Ultimately, we have the IB to answer to so we’ve kept the pressure on. We like to hold people to high standards, the students have been amazing and have performed exceptionally well in spite of all of this. So, I can’t imagine there will be a conversation about being lenient. However, of course we will look out for students who are struggling, and I know that number has grown a bit during COVID. 

How do you think WIS students have upheld COVID guidelines outside of the classroom? 

I probably don’t want to know. I will tell you that the sheer lack of spread within the WIS community gives me great faith that students took it seriously. There was not a call with students or parents where we didn’t say “please take this seriously.” I think it’s a very purposeful and academic-orientated school, and people put the ability to come to school high up on their reasons to keep safe. But I’m sure there are things happening that I would rather not know about. Particularly to be at your age and not be able to see friends as you wish must be highly frustrating. Relative to what I’m hearing from other schools, I think students have been highly respectful. It will be very clear if there is a superspreader event, we can prove that in half an hour of testing, which no other school can. 

By Beka Tatham

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