When we welcomed Elementary and Middle School families to campus for opening day this past fall, things looked a little bit different. The warm and welcoming smiles of teachers were hidden behind masks, greetings were given through car windows, and kids arrived with not one but two full bags of outdoor gear. While changes had been made, the overall feeling in the air was the same for everyone- a sense of relief and gratitude for being back to in-person learning. In order to reach this important goal, our teachers and risk management team put in countless hours of careful planning, and they leaned even more into our place-based curriculum.
Our teachers considered all 400 acres of our campus as potential learning spaces, and our facilities team got to work. They erected outdoor classrooms spaces, installed hand sanitizing stations, painted picnic tables to be used as work tables, hung whiteboards outside, and the list goes on. So much behind-the-scenes work went into this school year, and we are incredibly grateful for this community and its willingness to step up and take on such a challenge in order to ensure that our students could safely return to school.
Now, as we turn our focus towards the 2021-22 school year, things are starting to change again. With the availability of vaccines and more knowledge about the pandemic, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. While we are looking forward to getting back to “normal”, something we realized along the way was that some of these new practices that came out of necessity were actually positive additions to our program. I sat down with the graduating seniors before they left for the summer to get their take on the year. Several of these students had been at the school since it was founded back in 2015, and there seemed to be an overarching theme throughout their answers: while the pandemic was hard, being with their classmates and having that shared experience here at Chewonki made it all bearable. “Going from remote to all in person was crazy but in a good way,” said Laila Brady. Her classmate, Lila, echoed this, commenting that “remote learning was difficult because it was so different from how we learn at school”.
All of the seniors reflected on how having dedicated outdoor classrooms was a big game-changer for the school. Maeve Tholen said, “The outdoor classroom spaces were super interesting. Each class had their own space and it felt more separate, but it was also nice to have a place to go to get things done.” Kat Cassidy, Head of Elementary Middle School and 6/7/8 Teacher, seconded this enthusiasm for the outdoor classrooms, stating, “We will definitely keep the designated outdoor teaching spaces this coming year- that was a huge asset that we leaned into this year and will continue to build out. It goes without saying that more time in outdoor classrooms means more time outdoors! This translates not only to academic classes, but also more play, exploration, trips, outdoor art and music, and time together as a community. We’re looking forward to welcoming families back to campus for events, and designing these functions to be fully outdoors, which is exciting!”.
Even our youngest students enjoyed the opportunity to be outside more often, no matter the weather. “The first and second graders never complained about the cold, even when they were outside doing math or trying to put on ice skates without gloves,” said Lorna Fake, Grades 1/2 Teacher. “They were always full of energy and loved all our outdoor adventures, especially rerouting streams, and making elaborate forts and intricate fairy houses. Their favorite place for reading aloud was in the hayloft at the barn. I am going to try to make this a weekly activity next year.”
Despite the pandemic, in-person learning at Chewonki Elementary and Middle School went on, and our teachers are already taking these lessons with them into the coming school year. More time in nature, dedicated outdoor learning spaces, and a deeper exploration of all 400 acres of our campus gave us a profound appreciation for Chewonki Neck and everything that it provided for us in our time of need. While we may not be “back to normal” just yet, we know that our teachers have the experience, dedication, and resources they need to make this another amazing school year.