Welcome to Your ClassZoom: SA’s Transition to Virtual School


(Most of) Mrs. Russell’s 12th grade advisory meets up every Tuesday via Zoom, including this meeting on March 14. Top row: Mrs. Ann Russell, Eirnin Mahoney, Arjan Bedi. Middle row: JF Aber, Caroline Cox, Samuel Rampelt. Bottom row: Abby Weir. (Eirnin Mahoney/Sewickley Academy)

Eirnin Mahoney, Editor-in-Chief

“The day that many of us suspected would be unavoidable has arrived.”

With those words and the message that followed on March 13, the Sewickley Academy community launched into a new era of its history: an entirely virtual learning environment. While most of us had anticipated receiving that email from Mr. Kolia O’Connor, Head of School, many were disappointed and unsure of what to expect when we returned from Spring Break on March 30.

Luckily, though, school leaders had been monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic since January, and when a shutdown began to seem inevitable in early March, faculty and administrators began preparing to make the transition as smooth as possible.

“While the move to Virtual School has been unprecedented,” Mr. O’Connor said, “I have been very proud of the efforts that our technology and divisional leaders have demonstrated throughout the preparations for and launch of this initiative.”

According to Dr. Peter Lau, Head of Senior School (SS): “Before spring break, we’d sort of compiled… the kinds of tools that folks are already using, basically communication tools, learning applications.”

These tools included Educreations for the Math Department, Flipgrid for the Foreign Language Department and WebAssign for certain science classes. Zoom was added to this list later to help facilitate face-to-face interaction among faculty and students.

“We were sort of advantaged in the Senior School,” Dr. Lau said, “— probably school wide, but I’ll speak particularly to the Senior School — in that practice of strong elements of blended learning… In the last five to six years and change, faculty have done tons of professional development around educational technology. There’s been a lot of thought prior on how to engage students in an online medium… And of course, all the flipped classroom stuff too…. When you’re in this world that we are now, that’s pretty good training for the type of stuff that has to happen.”

Before Spring Break, Ms. Erin Whitaker and Mrs. Christy McCloskey, the Middle and Senior School technology coordinators, organized training sessions to help teachers adjust to new technology and an online learning environment. The work didn’t end when the break started, though.

What we’re in right now is still part of orientation to Virtual School.”

— Dr. Mulholland

“I think faculty worked an extraordinarily significant amount over spring break,” said Dr. Lau. “They came back really, really ready and prepared… Departments were meeting even before we were coming back, they were doing their Zooms.”

As we all know, however, adjusting to this new environment is time-consuming and challenging.

Dr. Shannon Mulholland, Head of Middle School (MS), remarked, “It’s almost been like September reboot… You know, I feel like we’ve gone back to orientation… What we’re in right now is still part of orientation to Virtual School.”

As middle school students revisit classroom norms and community expectations, faculty across campus are adapting their teaching style for a digital platform.

“For faculty in the regular classroom, they’re really used to [covering topics] in multiples: you get a first look, second look, summation, and then maybe another look…” Dr. Lau said. “Online, you don’t need four bites of the apple because with one good bite, you can revisit it.”

Meanwhile, in the MS: “Mr. [Jon] Riddle is thinking about how to conduct experiments on a stove top, Mrs. [Lori] Sherry is doing something with genetics and an earlobe,” Dr. Mulholland laughed, referencing the sixth and eighth grade science teachers, respectively.

The adults making this process work sometimes feel the strain, though.

Dr. Mulholland said, “For everyone, administrators included, you get up, you sit at your desk at eight o’clock in the morning and you leave it at five, and it feels like ‘we can’t have this much screen time, we have to step away, we have to have lunch.’ Even in the school day, we never behave that way.”

“These are challenging times for everyone,” Mr. O’Connor said. “For students, who may not have the greatest set-up at home for distance learning; to teachers, who in addition to teaching their classes find themselves also taking care of their children; to parents, who find themselves having to work from home and share an internet connection with their children who are using up a lot of bandwidth!”

“Everyone is truly doing the best they can,” Mr. O’Connor continued. “What is so great is that everyone’s best is keeping Sewickley Academy moving forward.”

Despite the challenges, Dr. Lau believes that this experience has some benefits, too. For example, he said, many students are discovering that they can get more sleep but still get all of their work done.

On that subject, Dr. Lau remarked, “Probably the research bears both parts out, that [a] school that can provide some of that is actually a benefit to adolescents. Because, one, they’re trying to be more autonomous, generally speaking, and, two, we know that some extra sleep can actually help you feel better and be more productive, too.”

Behind the scenes, leaders of all ages are working to improve the Virtual School experience for all community members. Dr. Lau began collaborating with Prateek Adurty and Joshua Kurian, the SS Student Body President and Communications Director, respectively, over Spring Break to reinvent their roles and brainstorm ways to engage with their peers digitally.

“We’ve got to have content that keeps people engaged,” Dr. Lau emphasized. “And I think the best content is going to be kid-created.”

To develop similar engagement strategies for the MS, Dr. Mulholland recently met with the MS Leadership Council, composed of the two co-presidents from each of five MS leadership clubs.

“Since they’re young people, my first question was: are you interested in continuing to work?
Dr. Mulholland recounted. “And unanimously, everyone agreed that they were.”

With the extension of Virtual School through the end of the academic year, one group in our community faces special challenges: the seniors. Certain hallmarks of senior year will not be replaced, such as prom and the class trip, and a late summer make-up graduation is currently being planned.

Additionally, Dr. Lau strongly supports the continuation of senior projects. (A senior project is an out-of-school educational experience that every 12th grade student must complete in order to graduate.)

If the decision is made not to cancel senior projects, many seniors will face a predicament, though one that could still yield an enriching project. As Dr. Lau put it:

“How would you adapt what you [originally] wanted to do to the COVID-19 crisis and the culture of social distancing?”

As these three administrators lead our school through this crisis, they are also doing the same thing with their families.

Dr. Lau’s daughter attends Brown University in Rhode Island, though she is currently doing so via Zoom at home in Pittsburgh. Dr. Lau drove to Brown to “extract” his daughter around a month ago.

“It was a really weird feeling,” he said. “I moved her out on a Sunday, and a lot of kids had moved Saturday… Everyone seemed like they were coughing and hacking — colleges are kind of a cesspool anyway… It was kind of sad.”

Dr. Lau’s partner, Sophie, is the Head of Senior School at Shady Side Academy, and their son is in high school, so, as Dr. Lau put it: “We have basically four different layers of virtual school going on.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Mulholland’s three sons, all in their twenties, have left work, law school, and college to return home.

It’s almost like being in a little time warp.”

— Dr. Mulholland

“It’s been really interesting,” Dr. Mulholland said. “Can you imagine that you’ve left the ‘nest,’ you’re off in college doing your own thing, and then suddenly you’re yanked back? It’s almost like being in a little time warp.”

Despite the sudden crowd in her house, Dr. Mulholland continued, “We’re thankful for our health, and we’re thankful to be together.”

Just like our SA seniors, Mr. O’Connor’s sons, both in their last year of college, will not be experiencing a normal graduation in the early summer. Mr. O’Connor’s wife is working hard to sustain her business, Penguin Bookshop in downtown Sewickley, through this crisis. But, most importantly, the family dog is still having a good time.

“Atlas, our dog, continues to find every major muddy patch he can roll in, especially on a hot day, just to cool down and take it easy. Thankfully he enjoys a cold bath with the garden hose when we get home!”

(Fun fact: Dr. Mulholland has two dogs, while the Laus have no pets — “a flaw in our family history,” Dr. Lau chuckled.)

Even in the thick of Virtual School and social isolation, Dr. Mulholland is looking to the future and wondering how this experience will change our community.

“This whole business of staying distanced, not touching each other as much, how much of that carries forward in a society? Like if I go out for a walk, I’m noticing now that people are not even saying ‘hello’ to me… There does seem to be so much fear that my sense is people are actually afraid of saying ‘hello…’ What happens when we get back to normal?” she asked.

However, Dr. Mulholland isn’t certain that we should aim to return to what used to be “normal.”

“In our community, we’ve lived in this world of ‘run as fast as you can, do as much as you can, resume-build as much as you can before you go off to college…’ So we’ve had our kids signed up for soccer and violin and singing lessons and swimming and writing and whatever it was, and now suddenly, everybody’s had to go [to a] complete shutdown,” Dr. Mulholland observed.

“It’s forced families to have dinner together, and be together, and talk together. One of the seventh graders said the other day, ‘This has been the best part for me, I don’t have a busy schedule now, I’m not running off to do something. I’ve actually been playing games with my family, we play cards…’ And she was saying how much she enjoyed that.”

After social isolation ends, Dr. Mulholland wondered, “Does [the busy schedule] just ramp back up as if nothing happened, or do we learn something?”