Campus is closed! What now?

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Reflections on distance learning at Plymouth Meeting Friends School

By Jessica Lember

We were a week away from the start of Spring Break and every adult in the Plymouth Meeting Friends School community was tracking the news of COVID-19 and its spread across the U.S. Would PMFS be able to remain open until Spring Break? Would students and families be back on campus come April? If campus did have to be closed through April, could we maybe be back by May?

As it turned out, like schools across the country and across the world, PMFS would experience an unprecedented final two and a half months of the school year.  While the pivot to online learning has not been without challenges, the overall success of PMFS’s remote learning program speaks volumes to our teachers’ passion, tenacity, and care. From the youngest to the oldest, every student had daily opportunities to connect with friends and teachers and engage with continued learning. 

Working with Head of School Brenda Crawley and seeking out feedback from parents, teachers figured out what kind of online learning tools, curriculums and schedules would work best for each age group. In PreK, teachers provided families with a suggested daily schedule that would allow their young children to maintain the rhythm of a school day, while keeping in mind that the “work” of PreK is play and that actual screen time needed to be kept to a bare minimum. Each week started with a Zoom check-in for the whole class on Monday morning. Most other days included one “live” time to connect with friends and teachers, through shared snack time or Meeting for Worship or listening to a book read aloud.

 Each day of the week also included an engaging activity from one of our Specials teachers (Art, Science, Music, Spanish, Gym and Library). Kindergartners, who were ready for more time to connect and learn with their teachers via Zoom, had a daily Morning Meeting with their class, followed by some whole group and small group instructional time, interspersed with breaks. Afternoons were a time to play and to try out the activities created by the Specials teachers.

The amount of time spent online and engaged in daily assignments and long-term projects increased at each grade level. At “the other end of campus,” the 6th grade was learning together on Zoom, sometimes as a whole class, sometimes in partnerships or small groups, for multiple hours of the day. Sixth grade teacher Varley shared that the 6th graders really enjoyed their daily partnered math time in Zoom “breakout rooms,” working through pre-algebra problems and ratios and percentages with a classmate.  Varley would make the rounds and check in on math groups as needed. Sixth graders, who dig deep into geography and world cultures in their final year at PMFS, were also finishing up Google Slide presentations they had created about various countries around the world.

Weekly activities and live meetings with each of our Specials teachers rounded out the students’ online school experience. From creating your own paint with pigments found in nature or your pantry to doing yoga following directions in Spanish to doing ten jumping jacks every time you saw a red car during a neighborhood walk, our Specials teachers found ways to engage each age group. They also lent extra support to classes who were working on special projects. Music and Drama teacher John B had longer weekly meetings with the 6th grade as they transformed their original musical, The Island, into a masterfully produced “radio play” (including music, sound effects, and student art) that was ultimately shared as a Facebook Live event.

Aside from the Sixth Grade Musical, other beloved school traditions, like the Arts Fest and Field Day were translated into virtual events.  Long live the many sock balls, laundry basket traps and plastic cup targets of Field Day! Who knew shoe flipping could be a sport? Each week, like other Quaker schools, we also “came together” for Meeting for Worship; a time to sit in silent reflection with our community, and share messages if moved to do so. Our virtual Meeting for Worship brought together students, parents, teachers and staff, School Committee members, and even alumni families and former faculty.

It was, perhaps, the most bittersweet moment of each week, as we gathered as a community, drinking in each other’s faces, but knowing that it would still be some time before we could physically be together again.  Announcements following Meeting for Worship were always an exciting time, as we received updates on baby chicks (#pandemictrend) and waited with bated breath to hear whose birthday was no longer two weeks away, but now only one week away!

As the school year came to a close, and each class prepared to say goodbye for the summer, all eyes turned toward the 6th graders, who would be graduating in a year like no other. How, in a time of social distancing and closed campuses, could a school community that had meant so much in the lives of these students show these students how important they had been to their school community?

Unsurprisingly, PMFS did not disappoint. Stealthily-placed congratulatory yard signs; honking drive-by parades of teachers and staff; homemade strawberry shortcake deliveries; individual portrait sessions on campus by talented photographer and PMFS parent, Jaci Downs; an all-school Zoom celebration of the 6th grade featuring tear-inducing videos made by various classes, as well as by teachers; a hardbound, personalized memory book for each graduate; letters and gifts from younger students; and a beautiful, hand painted and hand lettered diploma for each Sixth grader…each new act of recognition and love only further cemented how special a place Plymouth Meeting Friends School is.

Many of us are thinking about what the 2020-21 school year will bring. It’s already clear that we won’t be returning to “business as usual” just yet, and that maintaining a strong sense of community and connection for our kids and ourselves is paramount. I am grateful that over these last few months, my children had teachers who facilitated their continued learning and engagement with their classmates. 

I am grateful that teachers, parents and administrators could work as a team, as we figured out – in real time – what was working and what needed tweaking during this journey into online learning. I’m grateful for the laughs, empathy, and cheerleading that came from my fellow PMFS parents. We can’t be sure what’s in store for our kids come September, but I know I have a trusted partner in the Plymouth Meeting Friends School community.

Plymouth Meeting Friends School is a Pre-K- 6th grade Quaker school, nestled on 11 wooded acres in the heart of Montgomery County and just 3 miles from Northwest Philadelphia. To learn more, visit www.pmfs1780.org.

Jessica Lember, Ed.M., has been a parent at Plymouth Meeting Friends School since 2012 and a School Committee member since 2019. Up until recently, she had two children at PMFS, and now is the proud parent of one PMFS student and one PMFS alum!  She teaches in the Lower School at Germantown Friends School.

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