By Janet Briggs, Devon Campbell, and Sarah Cook, Editors-in-Chief
After two and a half weeks of a hybrid model, seventh, ninth and 12th graders will now be coming to campus every day for full in-person classes. Head of School Jess Hill made this announcement on Sept. 2 after consulting with the leadership team, the Board of Trustees and a medical advisory group.
In late July, Harpeth Hall announced the original hybrid plan in which fifth graders would come to school every day for in-person classes, while the rest of the student body would be split into gray and green cohorts and attend class every other day.
The new plan invites seventh, ninth and 12th graders on campus for in-person classes, while sixth, eighth, 10th and 11th graders will continue with the original cohort system. However, those grades continuing with the hybrid system will have more teacher-led instruction on Zoom.
Prior to altering the hybrid model, the academic council researched various schedules that have adapted to the safety requirements necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Although Harpeth Hall did not formally poll students or parents, teachers served as the conduit for their opinions.
“We heard student input from teachers who’ve been doing surveys and gathering information; that trickles up. Students talk to their advisors and teachers, so all that information was part of the information chain that went into the decision,” Ms. Hill said. “Students don’t usually get to decide these decisions, but we absolutely listen to students. Parents also don’t get to decide either, but we absolutely listen to the feedback we’re getting.”
Additionally, the administration considered the plans put forward by other schools in Nashville. “Harpeth Hall does not exist in a vacuum,” Ms. Hill said. “Although we don’t have to do everything exactly like the other independent schools around us, we still have to know the atmosphere around us.”
Private schools in the area have different approaches to moving all students back onto their campuses. Montgomery Bell Academy brought back all 12th graders to campus the week of Aug. 31st, and some schools such as Ensworth High School and Brentwood Academy have had all grades on campus since the beginning of the school year. However, the University School of Nashville continues virtual learning but is bringing kindergarten students back on campus Sept. 9.
Although seventh, ninth, and 12th graders will be returning to school full time, the administration was initially planning to invite grades back in increasing order. “As an educator, I wanted the youngest students to come back first because it is hard for younger students to learn online. However, the sixth and fifth grade share the same floor in the middle school, so it would have been more crowded,” Ms. Hill said.
Ultimately, “We chose the grades that had more students who had never had the Harpeth Hall experience every day, and then the grade that was going to have it for the last time,” Ms. Hill said. However, “If we stay in a model in which we only have this number of students on campus, we’ll probably flip those grades after two weeks and let sixth, eighth, 10th, and 11th graders have a turn.”
The choice on how many students to have on campus was made based on active COVID-19 numbers in Nashville, the surrounding area and the Harpeth Hall community (one student has tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of school). The administration team consulted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Guidelines, the Tennessee Department of Health and their medical advisory team.
Due to the size of many classrooms, the announcement admitted that six-feet of distance will not be possible in all classes at full capacity. Because of that, some teachers are choosing to adapt their classroom spaces to accommodate more students on campus.
“There is a risk. I try to come up with a reasonable solution in which the trade-offs are in favor of having students in school,” Ms. Hill acknowledged. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be opening bars and restaurants. I would be opening schools.”
According to an anonymous survey of the senior class, 59% of respondents say they do not feel safe with the inability to social distance during full in-person classes. “We want to be in school all together but I would never want to do that at too great a risk. I don’t want to make anyone be here if they are not feeling safe,” Ms. Hill said. “If some girls need to go remote, that choice is there. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly available if it helps them feel more secure.”
While some teachers will attempt to configure their classroom seats to maintain six-feet of distance, some faculty who moved to larger spaces may opt to return to their original classrooms if neither space can accommodate six-feet of distance for a full class.
The repeated schedule will continue to allow for mixed-grade classes and teachers teaching multiple grade levels. This schedule is only laid out until Sept. 22, and a new plan will be released on Sept.16.
Upper School math teacher Polly Linden says the faculty were consulted on which schedule to use after Labor Day once the number of students on campus had been chosen.
“We looked at three different possibilities with how to proceed with our schedule for Tuesday and decided to stick with the one we had because it made the most sense for all students: the girls on campus and the girls off campus,” Ms. Linden said.
While she doesn’t think the two days on, two days off schedule is much different from the usual one day on, one day off schedule from years past, Ms. Linden says teachers are troubleshooting how to spend the four straight days in a row of one class which happens once a rotation, but there may be some upsides to it.
“When you have four days on with no days in between , you don’t have time to digest the material as quickly, but at the same time, it gives the teachers more opportunities to check in with students and help them where they need help,” Ms. Linden said.
Students are still given the option to learn online, and any student or teacher in quarantine will participate in distance learning. According to the survey of the senior class, 41% of respondents have considered moving to distance-learning since the beginning of school on Aug.19.
Senior Emory Moore has been virtual since the beginning of school and plans to continue virtual learning with this new format. As a virtual student, she Zooms into her classes on her cohort days and works remotely with her teachers and peers.
“With any new system, there is always an adjustment period. So, at first, it was really complicated,” Moore said.
Her teachers have been mixing her Zoom format from only seeing their screens to webcams in the classroom to the entire class participating in the zoom. Her teachers have been very adaptable and willing to troubleshoot her class experience to make sure she can get the most out of every class.
Ms. Linden is one of her teachers, and she says that it has not been difficult having Moore as a remote student. However, one aspect she says is hard to get with virtual learning is body language from students that indicates their understanding.
“In class, girls nod in agreement or their eyes get really big. Teachers are always assessing how students are doing by their body language and expressions, so that’s what you lose when the person’s online,” Ms. Linden said.
“If you want to go virtual, honestly, just do it. It’s really not that bad. You can always Zoom with your teachers. Your teachers are available and they will always be helpful, and now that they are figuring out what works well and what doesn’t, teachers are willing to fix any problems you might have,” Moore said as advice to students considering going virtual.
As the number of students on campus increases and the ability to socially distance decreases, there is the possibility that the number of COVID-19 cases in the Harpeth Hall community will increase. “If we feel that it is unsafe to have this model, there are multiple ways to address it,” Ms. Hill said.
“If it was concentrated in one grade level, we could ask that grade level to go remote. If it’s concentrated in one division, we could ask that division to go remote. If it’s not at a safe level throughout the school, we would ask the whole school to go remote. That remote period would last for 14 days.”
However, medical experts have offered promising counsel. “Outbreaks have not been happening at independent schools. That has not been a high-risk area across the country, Ms. Hill said. “Before we rolled out this decision, I talked with medical experts such as Dr. Creech, Director, Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program and a Pediatric Infectious Diseases physician, and he said our protocols for contact tracing are as good as any school could do.”