Friday, March 13, 2020, 12:35 pm: In the midst of the rapidly-developing concern over the spread of COVID-19, teachers and students at Ursuline Academy in Dedham were informed that the school building would close and all classes would be held via remote learning for two weeks beginning on Monday, March 16. Teachers, students and staff were sent home laden with books, iPads, and the promise of a new chapter of learning in the days ahead.
On Monday, March 16, at 8 a.m., Ursuline teachers and students began operating on their remote learning platform. With a situation that quickly developed nationwide, educators all over the country scrambled to design and deliver the daily experience of “school” in a vastly different way than usual.
Ursuline Academy was fortunate to have had the digital infrastructure in place to adapt quickly to the evolving situation. Students had their own personal devices and had already been enrolled in online class learning spaces, and teachers were familiar with delivering content electronically. The school provided additional support to faculty in the final in-person days of school with one-on-one meetings, a new digital hub to share tools for distance learning, and two 'test' classes delivered online. UA Director of Innovation Greg Mertz explains that this, “combined with an attitude of caring and understanding, helped to ease the bumps of making such a dramatic transition.” With such uncertain conditions, course corrections were anticipated and quickly instituted. After the first two weeks of learning, Ursuline adopted a “split schedule,” in which students have Wednesdays off from formal instruction as time to meet virtually with teachers and consolidate their learning.
Based on the wealth of experience in the school prior to this crisis, Dean of Academics Katherine Ginnetty has every confidence in the faculty and student body to rise to this challenge. “UA's incorporation of the best technology has to offer, whether from our science labs with their counter spaces that facilitate students' sharing design solutions, to the amazing iHub which allows for virtual reality 3D printing, means that students have basic comfort with devices as tools for learning. While the actual experience of the close-knit Ursuline classroom is on hiatus for a time, the support structures and caring community that forms the nexus for learning is very much in practice remotely.”
So far, the feedback from families has been positive. One seventh-grade parent notes that her daughter has been learning new content and that “the staff has easily leveraged the technology students use every day in class to now support students during this extended period of school closure.” Another parent of a senior agrees that “a great deal of learning has been happening, including many lessons for our young people well beyond the usual subjects.”
Students have adjusted as well. Catherine Butera '21, says “the hardest part of remote learning is just not being able to have the personal connection with my teachers and peers, but the teachers have been incredibly accommodating to the situation. Although it may not fully make up for being able to see everyone in person, they create plenty of opportunities to do things like Zoom and Google Meet which helps us stay connected to one another.”
Behind the scenes, outside of continuing the school’s academic rigor, a lot of other adjustments and changes continue to take place to keep a sense of business as usual. Teachers and administrators are making every effort to provide connectedness in new ways. Daily announcements arrive each morning and afternoon to the schoolwide distance learning classroom, and the Student Council meets remotely every week to plan opportunities for their classmates to continue to interact. The spring musical is being rehearsed via video conferencing several afternoons a week. Other clubs continue to meet virtually as well.
Principal Mary-Kate Tracy also acknowledges the school’s “foundation of understanding and compassion for students during a time of great uncertainty for their families and the world.” She credits Ursuline’s tradition of Serviam with encouraging the community to find ways to be of service to others in need at this time. “Our students and faculty have been busy during the last several weeks both learning and serving by creating masks for health care workers, providing support to elderly relatives or sharing food at local food pantries. Even though Ursuline remains at home during this unprecedented time, our young women are the latest generation in a proud 500-year tradition to make a difference in the world during a challenging time.”
Like schools everywhere, however, hard decisions and disappointments have been inevitable. The eighth-grade trip to Philadelphia, scheduled for May, has been postponed until November. An international trip to Europe has been pushed back from June until next year. The start of the spring athletic season was delayed several times, and then called off altogether, crushing the hopes of student-athletes, especially the seniors. SATs were canceled, and juniors eager to go on college tours are in a holding pattern. Seniors making decisions about September are cautious about their plans. And graduation and other special events for seniors will all have a different look this year. For a school with deep and long-standing traditions, students are wistful about the turn of events.
Through it all, the Ursuline community remains positive. There have been ups and downs, but the school is committed to tending both the academic and emotional needs of the faculty and the students. While COVID-19 continues to disrupt lives and routines, it presented the opportunity for Ursuline to employ new teaching techniques and approaches. Ursuline Academy’s intention, says President Kate Levesque, “throughout this remote experience, is to maintain student-centered learning and a supportive educational environment.”
Dean of Students Natalie Mayo thinks it’s working. “I've been incredibly impressed with how well our students have adjusted to this experience. They keep up with their academic work, find time to help those in need, reach out to their friends, and do it all with so much heart and positivity.”