Randolph-Macon Academy teachers and students have truly embodied the boarding school’s tagline, “The Power of Rise,” throughout the current COVID-19 pandemic. The R-MA administration had been carefully monitoring the situation since the coronavirus had arrived in the U.S., and the faculty had begun preparing for closing the physical campus and moving to online classes. However, the rapid change to the situation in early March caused school officials to make that decision slightly earlier than anticipated, and on March 12th they announced that Friday, March 13th, would be the final day of classes on campus. The teachers were given two work days, March 16th and 17th, to finish completing their lesson plans for online classes, and on Wednesday, March 18th, virtual classes began.
The transition was nearly seamless. R-MA’s decision to invest in 1:1 technology two years ago now provided the necessary tools. The teachers continued on as if they had not just been issued a challenge that has changed the way they conduct their day-to-day classes, and in some cases (such as PE) has caused them to rewrite entire lesson plans. The students continued with a full class day schedule; while teachers might “release” them early to work on assignments, the regular class day has continued, complete with tutorial sessions, which kept the instructional burden on the teachers, rather than placing it on the parents.
“I believe that having a consistent daily structure and online instruction has created some normalcy for both the students and myself,” commented World History teacher Andrew Harriman ‘82. “On the first day of classes, the students were all genuinely happy to see each other. In a world of social distancing at this moment this level of connectivity has been extremely beneficial for them; and I have enjoyed being able to stay connected as well and continue to do what I love; teaching students.”
Helen Babineau of Front Royal, who has a sophomore and a senior at the Academy, commended the R-MA leadership for the speed of their response to the situation and for the program put in place. “As a parent of a senior and a sophomore, I have witnessed numerous classes functioning in 'online' mode,” she said. “To any naysayers or doubters I can testify that my kids are continuing to learn and be challenged at home. If anything they look forward to their classes more than ever, because this is their only time connecting with others outside our family.”
Middle School Principal Tony Ballard also shared some comments that he had received from parents about the online learning experience. “We love that there is still structure in the day, students are still held accountable for reporting to class and getting their work done. It's not one assignment at the beginning of the week and submit at the end of the week. The teachers are there every day and it's monitoring progress,” wrote one parent.
"I have overheard a couple different class discussions and it's great that the teachers are still providing a high level of instruction while having to deal with these circumstances," another parent said in an email.
The teachers have certainly risen to the occasion, keeping in mind that “screen fatigue” can be an issue (yes, even to teenagers!) and that projects and engagement are key. Discussions are particularly important to helping the students stay connected in this time of social distancing.
German teacher Steve Latham commented, “With 1:1 computers, it's just like being in the classroom with a few modifications. I teach my students to become independent learners, which means we can work as a class and then I can have them watch the German news in 100 seconds, then come back and discuss it. Much of what we're doing looks like what my son is doing with college classes.”
R-MA Assistant Athletic Director Brandy Hudson had completed her student teacher internship as a physical education (PE) teacher at a school with no gym, and logically thought that if she had been successful in that venue, she could rise to any challenge. Now, she is a PE teacher with no gym and no students in her physical presence, but she is making it work. “We all meet as a class, discuss a health- or activity-related topic, depending on the course,” she said. “My students are required to send me their workouts through a fitness app that has a date, time and location stamp along with their stats (distance, pace, steps,…). It has worked very well and it really gives the responsibility to the students to complete these active workouts.”
Other teachers have found success in continuing with a modified version of their typical lesson plans. “Right now all of my classes are reading short paperback books in Spanish, with stories about teens having adventures,” explained Julianne Cochran. “The distance learning experience has been very different for students! They are lounging in their homes, very comfortably situated in comfy clothes, with snacks and beverages, and I am reading the books to them as they read along silently with their copy of the book. It feels reminiscent of story time when they were little, and their mom or teacher would read to them while they relaxed and just listened. They ask any questions they have at the end of the reading so as not to interrupt the progress of the story and their understanding of it. It is a pretty cool situation so far.”
The students, knowing that this virus might take the rest of the school year from them, had at first been devastated when they were told the campus was closing, but now they have come together in the virtual world in which they grew up, offering each other support and encouragement. The R-MA drill team produced a video designed to encourage drill team members around the globe, and 26 students gathered virtually for the first online Wednesday night Bible study, “The Beacon.”
“Meeting everyone and sharing what we all have to people that care really makes us feel a little comfort,” JJ Banek-Gabelle said about the Bible study. ”Since everyone is going through the same thing, it is nice that we all can relate to each other about what is going on.”
As the news broke on March 23rd that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was ordering all school campuses to remain closed for the rest of the academic year, the teachers and administration began discussing how to improve the online learning experience for the students. Meanwhile, R-MA President Brig Gen David C. Wesley issued a memo to the R-MA families. “In spite of recent events,” he wrote, “we remain committed to completing the school year in the most effective way possible. An academic year is not actually a pre-set number of hours in the classroom or a number of days the school is in session. In very real ways, it is a measure of the learning each student obtains toward the ultimate goal. For R-MA students, that goal has long been completion of a college degree and success in the life beyond. That goal has not changed in this most unusual of years. We intend to press forward as we have for the past week, offering our students a full schedule of classes online, delivering Mentoring and Chapel and physical training for our students, so they can continue to grow.”
Wesley also addressed the seniors with a promise: “I pledge to you that, to the degree physically possible, we will deliver to you the best graduation ceremony R-MA has ever put on…just as soon as we can!”