Over the Summer, Brebeuf Jesuit prepared for a full school reopening on August 13, with all students invited to attend their in-person classes on a daily basis.
“Our preference will always be full-capacity in-person learning,” stated the public notice in mid July, with caveats pertaining to changing conditions. “Schools may be required to reduce capacity by staggering attendance, or required to move back to fully online learning. We will be prepared to support students in any of these situations.”
While administrators and teachers might feel comfortable with all this fluidity, I wondered how a student might be absorbing not knowing what to expect. Gracie Cohen now is a sophomore at Brebeuf Jesuit. I asked her how she has been preparing herself to face just about any ‘return to school situation.’
“Before shutdown, I was at school and at home,” Cohen replied.
It was the normal way. When she touched on how interactions with her friends and classmates dramatically changed, and on how her days went, I detected a wistfulness of loss that she didn’t want to dwell on. Instead, it seemed to me that she was reaching for a better understanding of what this disruption meant personally.
“I have learned that I need order and a consistent schedule to operate normally and efficiently,” she stated, expressing clearly what educators have been circulating on public media; albeit with caveats for full safety .
Reading through all of Cohen’s email prompted me to reach out to Jennifer LaMaster, Brebeuf Jesuit Assistant Principal, for a comment.
She emailed: “We are in our first day of 50% hybrid parallel instruction so I am moving about the building a bit.” Soon after came an email. “Here are some thoughts,” she offered. “As an admin and a parent, I am super proud to be part of the Brebeuf community. It may show a bit in my response.”
Referring to Cohen’s self-observation: daily routine and social engagement, I asked, what now is possible.
“You are correct — routines are important to offer predictable and supportive learning environments,” said LaMaster. “Honestly — routines offer predictable and supportive daily lives! Something we all need a little more of these days.”
“Jesuit education," she added, "focuses on deep respect for the individual as they live out the nitty-gritty of their daily lives. This respect lives out in our teaching paradigm (formally the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm which you can Google) which starts with learner context — offers experiences; time and process for eeflection, allowing the learner to Act independently.
“Our context is definitely on the frontiers in this pandemic,” she underscored. “Our experiences are fluid, but thankfully, our commitment and skill in reflection moves us to right action.”
This certainly squares with what Cohen emailed.
“Reflecting on other’s actions has made me want to be more effective when I do things, even small tasks, because there are many things that have changed throughout this year because of shut down,” said Cohen.
“Appreciating others, and things, have made me find purpose in my life, because it allows me to see all the little things that make life so sweet. Looking back on the past semester, I miss being able to be with my friends and not worry about being able to go out in big groups. I feel like I have become more humble because I have realized a lot of things I’ve been taking advantage of. I am concerned that things aren’t going to ever go back to normal.”
Normal hinges on safety.
“As odd as it may seem – thanks to technology, our summer looked much like normal,” said LaMaster, describing, “session one fully online/synchronous and session two fully in person, allowing for some students (over 500 total of our 800+ student body) to continue their academic routines and work ahead to complete elective or required coursework with faculty. ”
LaMaster reports that athletics continued with formal practices, informal GMeets, and communication via TeamSnap app (80% of our students participate in athletics at some point in their high school career). In addition, IT and Library Services continued virtual help desks via GMeet as well as email.
"Academic and College Counseling continued programming on college essay writing, course selection, and study skills in parallel learning environments. We just used more video conferencing,” acknowledged La Master, emphasizing, “our fully online summer school students reported making friends and having social connections.”
What makes this possible? “Our students have been one:one in a Bring Your Own Technology Model (like college) for almost ten years so they were well positioned to pivot to blended learning,” stated LaMaster.
A successful summer paradigm now is segueing to a Fall semester as a 50% capacity hybrid model beginning Aug. 13.
Cohen had emailed that she was prepared “to go to school two or three days a week for class and the rest of the week is online.”
I asked LaMaster how Brebeuf navigated this restructuring.
“Our leadership team has worked very hard to be transparent, even when the answer needs to be “we don’t know.” We have offered town hall style meetings throughout the summer for families and staff. Our principal, president, and members of our medical task force hosted town halls, sharing information and responding to live questions,” she said.
LaMaster also points out Brebeuf benefits from weekly contacts with Jesuit schools in the Midwest Province, Jesuit Schools Network (US and Canada), and Educate Magis (global network) to share and experience practices from other schools.
“We are also sharing experiences and resources with other independent and Catholic schools in Indianapolis. Our network is strong and supportive,” summarized LaMaster.
The bottom line, nevertheless, is open dialogue. LaMaster shares what can pass for a homily:
“Dialogue builds trust. Feedback surveys, personal phone calls, town hall meetings, open Q&A sessions, routine newsletters… all this opens dialogue channels and builds trust. Dialogue builds relationships. When students and families feel cared for, listened to, and respected, then working relationships are strong. We need strong relationships to support our community in this shifting landscape.
Dialogue shows respect. Our faculty and staff have designed creative, supportive, educationally sound instructional experiences for students since this all began. They participated in all kinds of professional development experiences over the summer and have returned to build a solid classroom experience for their students.”
LaMaster said that the ongoing joke in the principal’s office is that their job is to point the way and get out of the way. “The classroom experience is the key to learning, not our egos,” she summarized. “Our faculty is blazing new, exciting trails and I am so proud to know them.”
Yet, Cohen Cohen gets the final word in this summation of living in the challenging time of Covid-19 — so far.
“Time goes fast now,” wrote Cohen, “And I have learned to appreciate all the time I get to spend with others because there’s a lot less of it. Making myself clean my room or do other tasks has kept me centered, it gives me something to do.
"From COVID, I’ll remember the joy of school getting out at the beginning of this craziness, seeing people walk around in crazy masks, and having lots of fun with my friends and making the most of it because we weren’t always supposed to hangout with friends.”
What is she particularly looking forward to?
“Being able to play tennis in the Spring, but that,” she adds, “will be determined.”