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Community and Classes Continue Strong, Despite Campus Closure

We explore a few of the ways Steward’s faculty, staff, and students have adapted to remote continuous learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When a national state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic went into effect on March 13, our community was confronted with more questions than answers. Suddenly the prospect of not seeing our fellow Spartans face-to-face for months sunk in, entire athletic seasons were canceled, and major arts and academics events like Graduation were postponed indefinitely.

Head of School Dan Frank addressed the community in a letter the following day. “I am proud and grateful to be working with such a dedicated and talented faculty and staff, on behalf of students, parents, alumni, and friends who care for the school and each other so deeply. This community is strong, and together we will get through this,” he wrote. “In the meantime, particularly as we work remotely from one another, let us be intentional about kindness, patience, and love. That is the mortar to our bricks.”

What followed was a series of curriculum and programmatic pivots to ensure The Steward School continued operating at its highest levels, both in the “classroom” and beyond. Within a matter of days, Steward had transformed into a fully online learning institution, an initiative we are calling “remote continuous learning.” The objective of continuous learning, as explained by Director of the Upper School Adam Seldis, is for student learning to continue so that when campus reopens, “we can come back seamlessly in a more advanced position. It’s going to be the same, but different.”

Below is a collection of “same, but different” projects, assignments, and events at Steward that evolved from the rapidly changing pandemic facing us today in alignment with our school’s larger strategic plan.

Steward for Learning

Moving our classrooms online was an opportunity for innovation, fitting with our strategic plan priority of modern teaching and learning. Thankfully we are blessed with a dedicated faculty and staff who have embraced the challenge.

Mike Mailey’s Middle School science students, whom he describes as “budding electrical engineers,” have been going on light scavenger hunts in and around the home. For students, that means pirating old Christmas lights to create parallel and compound circuits, as well as identifying examples of refraction, reflection, and magnification in household items like cups of water, mirrors, and reading glasses.

“The most beautiful of the items in our scavenger hunt is searching for spectra, or rainbows,” Mr. Mailey explained. “We have been challenged to both create and find spectra, culminating with our Earth Day rainbow hunt, as Earth is the only object in our solar system where rainbows can occur (except maybe Titan if conditions are perfect).”

The entire fifth grade class is working with Heidi Bailey to create primary sources for future researchers. The activities span academic writing (“Research the history of toilet paper.”) to artistic expressions ("Write a concrete poem to describe something that helps you to stay calm and relaxed during this time.”). Ann Robbins’ eighth-grade English students are also journaling their daily routines during social isolation.

“You (/we) are living through an unprecedented moment in history—right now! Because these days are historic, it is critical that we not let these events pass without capturing how they affect you, your family, your school, and your community,” states the eighth-grade class’ website.
Inspired by a National Geographic assignment to “capture a world paused by coronavirus,” John Alley’s photography class has been busy capturing the world around them. Their online photojournalism project “A World Paused” is a collection of one-off photographs intended to encapsulate daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accompanying each photograph is a cutline that contextualizes or comments upon the scene depicted.

The photo submissions home in on a variety of subjects, from pet portraits to emptied grocery store aisles. A return to the natural world features prominently in the collection. “While the world may be halted, the Earth is ever moving,” wrote Caroline Ray ’21.

Steward for the Individual

Steward for the Individual prioritizes the wellness of each of our community members, providing space and skills for people to care for themselves so that they are both emotionally and physically ready to learn. As a guidepost, it has directed many of our decisions to protect the well-being of our community members during the past several months.
 
Across Steward’s three divisions, Wednesdays are now reserved for students and faculty to center themselves in the midst of deadlines and due dates. The school day officially ends at 11:45 a.m., with the remaining time open for club opportunities, catching up on work, or spending time away from screens. If social media is any indicator, lots of Spartans are spending the time outdoors!
 
Social isolation has left a mark on everyone, and we know there’s no substitute for interacting with teachers and classmates in person. In Laura Akesson’s Biomedical Design seminar, students used a bit of systems and design thinking to alleviate a pain point common to all: loneliness. Juniors Grace Fass, Drew Thompson, and Hailey Wharram responded with the creation of Steward Commons, an online portal designed and run by Upper School students.

“It’s meant to restore what the students miss about Steward,” Mrs. Akesson said. “We wanted to mimic walking through the hallways, seeing each other at lunch, and meeting for assembly.”
The collaborative website, which underwent multiple rounds of prototyping, is “a centralized platform to help students stay organized and connected during this time of social distancing,” explained Drew Thompson in a video posted to the website. Upper School students can use Steward Commons to log attendance, submit work via Google Classroom, post text and video announcements, hold virtual club meetings, and participate in interactive “lunch tables” hosted by different students throughout the week, among other activities.

Steward for All

Steward’s commitment to nurturing diversity of all kinds continues to make progress and influence programming at Steward.

Eliza McGehee’s honors world religions classes held a Virtual Interfaith Panel in May, inviting several religious experts to Steward’s virtual classroom. Working with Rashad Lowery, Steward’s coordinator of campus life and community stewardship, Ms. McGehee said the panels touched on topics the class explored this semester such as “how different faith traditions have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, resilience, religious conflict and violence, overcoming prejudice and stereotypes, as well as hope, peace, and dialogue.”

The panel’s three sessions included representatives from both Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Jainism, all of whom are active faith leaders in the Richmond area. Each session was driven by questions from students, which covered a wide range of interests. In response to a question about whether virtual attendance was being maintained during social distancing, many of the panelists noted that attendance had not only been steady—it had actually gone up!

“The panels were an engaging and meaningful way for my students to connect what they were learning in class to the real situations and experiences of local Richmond faith communities,” Mr. McGehee said. “It was also wonderful to see how each panelist found ways to connect their experiences to the other faiths represented in the panel, particularly by focusing on the importance of community, compassion, and helping others during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Steward School is maintaining its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all forms, one of which is socio-economic diversity. The financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been widespread, and its reverberations will be felt for some time. We hope to alleviate some of the economic hardships by creating the Spartan Resilience Fund.

The Spartan Resilience Fund is a way to support the increased need for tuition assistance to families facing unforeseen hardships resulting from the pandemic. This immediate response fund is designed to meet new and evolving needs for Steward families, and focuses specifically on tuition affordability.
“We may not be together physically right now,” said Assistant Director of Development Kate Boyles, “but the Spartan Resilience Fund is a way to make sure we will be together when campus reopens—all of us.”

Steward for Community

Our ideas of what constitutes “community” have had to undergo some changes in the wake of social distancing. However, the Spartan community has continued to rise to the challenge of making time to be together even though we are apart.

Shannon Elsea’s sixth-grade English class curated a collection of their favorite storybooks, which they later read to Lower School students who were unable to visit the library as usual. In a separate “service initiative,” the class used an authentic writing assignment to send letters to a local nursing home that accepts sterilized mail.

“One student sent a comic that his buddy keeps on his nightstand,” Mrs. Elsea said. “Students’ pictures are even hanging around the facility to greet residents and staff to bring them some sunshine.”

In the Upper School, Mr. Lowery has been coordinating similar efforts with The Virginia Home, a residential community for people with irreversible physical disabilities. After sharing a link to Steward’s Virtual Talent Night for their residents, he has also invited students to send encouraging messages to residents via snail mail.

Additionally, the Upper School students have been looking out for their young friends at Carver Elementary School and other Richmond Public Schools. Due to the closure of schools, students have been missing their daily story time. Our Upper Schoolers have responded by recording themselves reading their favorite story books to send to listen and read along to as part of their own online learning.

On Wednesday, May 20, Steward will host a food drive in support of UP RVA from 1-5 p.m. in the Lower School parking lot. UP RVA provides services that advocate, support and empower students from limited economic resources who are enrolled in Richmond-area independent schools, including Steward.

Steward for Life

Being a Spartan is a lifelong commitment, and we hope to always serve as a second home to anyone who walks through our doors.

On March 28, Spartan alumni and their parents received an email from Steward’s Alumni Engagement Team. The team—composed of Director of Development Shawn Morrison, Alumni Engagement Coordinator Robin (Oliff) Doane, and Development Associate Jenn Downey—knew our alumni community needed to feel connected during this time.

“Practicing social distancing doesn’t mean that we cannot show the same care towards others as we have in the past,” the team wrote in their email. “Hopefully, you will take this opportunity to talk over the phone and message through social media in order to show the support we appreciate and expect from Steward Spartans.”

The Alumni Engagement team invited alumni to show their support for students, faculty, and staff on social media using the #SpartanResilience hashtag. What followed was an outpouring of heartfelt notes and videos from Steward graduates, many of which you can see on our Spartan Resilience page. We have loved seeing our entire Spartan community rally around this cause and experiencing the many different ways our alumni express their admiration of Steward.

“Thank you again for everything that you’ve given me, every way you’ve shaped me into the person I am today, and every tool I’ve received in order to mold my own future,” wrote Class of 2016 alumnus Dan Kovach. “Stay strong, Steward."
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