Learning in the Time of Coronavirus

In March, the University School of Milwaukee community went from anticipating a relaxing spring break to preparing for self-isolation amid a global pandemic—all in a matter of a few days. Although teachers and students had to dramatically change how they taught and learned, everyone rallied together to implement the school’s USM@HOME distance learning plan. On the following pages, you’ll hear from members of our community who shared their various school-related COVID-19 pandemic experiences.

A collage of every student, teacher, and staff member’s portrait combine to become a picture of the iconic USM tower, signifying that although everyone was apart during USM@Home distance learning, our community was still together.

On Friday, March 13, the day before USM’s spring break, Gregg Bach, assistant head of school, made a peculiar announcement to the entire school over the loudspeaker: “Good afternoon boys and girls,” he said. “Before you leave today, please clear out your lockers and bring everything home with you that you might need after spring break.” Although many in the school community were preparing for at least some changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, it came as a bit of shock when, later that same day, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers mandated the closure of all K–12 schools for (what would become) the remainder of the school year.

COVID-19 is not the first crisis USM has faced and, in fact, it’s not the first pandemic. All three of USM’s predecessor schools—Milwaukee Country Day School, Milwaukee Downer Seminary, and Milwaukee University School—existed during the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918. Our school has persevered through depressions, recessions, wars, mergers, political and social upheaval, and massive cultural shifts.

USM’s mission has always remained the same—to provide an exceptional PK-12 independent school education. But how it delivers on its mission has changed and adapted over the years. One important change occurred in 2012 when the school adapted its 1:1 technology program, which provides students in grades 3 through 12 with their own dedicated personal computing device. It took years of planning to implement the program, which has proven to be an invaluable resource and essential to the success of USM@HOME, the school’s distance learning plan implemented as a result of COVID-19. “Had we not done all that work to implement the 1:1 program back in 2012, we would not have been able to flip the switch to online learning as quickly as we did,” said Bach. “Because faculty are so good on their computers, and because kids had devices and were using many of these platforms already, we were able to jump right in.”

While we don’t yet know with certainty what the future will look like for USM or the broader community, school administrators are working hard throughout the summer to develop a back-to-school plan that will be shared with the school community in the coming weeks. “No matter what happens at the state level, working to make sure all students and employees are safe—including those who are at higher risk of severe illness—that’s our main priority right now,” said Bach. “Even though we have shown that we can make distance learning work, we operate best when we can come together as a community. We will do everything we can to make that happen safely.”

NIKKI LUCYK

As USM’s Director of Academic Technology, Nikki Lucyk placed a key role in developing the school’s distance learning plan, USM@HOME. By studying independent schools abroad, as well as using knowledge gained from our previous school closing days due to snow and cold, she and her team devised a plan that worked for all grade levels while also maintaining students’ safety and privacy.

By early March, my colleagues and I were paying close attention to leading independent schools in Europe and Asia, who were already a month into a virtual learning environment and sharing their best practices. They advised other schools to choose one online platform and mitigate the amount of time students spend in front of a computer screen. Realizing this was not going to be a short-term situation, we had to carefully balance instructional goals with the health of our community. By March 13, we had developed a comprehensive technology learning plan that, we felt, was as simple and clear as possible for students, teachers, and parents.

After careful research, we decided to use Google Meet as our primary tool for virtual classrooms. USM students and teachers were already familiar with Google tools, which are free. But, as we navigated uncharted waters, we knew our students’ safety was the number one concern. Google’s privacy, security, and sheer infrastructure made it an obvious choice at that time for our PK–12 environment. As other programs beef up their security abilities, we will continue to evaluate them for potential use in the future.

In my 25-plus years in education, I’ve never experienced anything like this.

Typically, students don’t get a USM email address or access to school-owned iPads until 3rd grade, but this is clearly not a typical situation, so we distributed iPads to 1st and 2nd grade students on March 13 containing the applications they would use with their teachers. We also created USM-issued Gmail accounts for all prekindergarten through 2nd grade students so that we could verify who was attending our virtual classes.

This situation has been difficult. It challenged us to network globally, and think creatively and critically about effective instruction that would empower all of our students to achieve the high educational outcomes we strive to meet while on campus. In my 25-plus years in education, I’ve never experienced anything like it. However, I know that, through the support of our families and our ubiquitous use of technology prior to the virus’ existence, we have made a tremendous difference in how relatively smooth the transition was to distance learning. That said, striking a balance between prepared videos and synchronous learning is something we’re continuously working to achieve. Whatever the future holds, I know we will be prepared to mitigate any challenges and meet them head on.

CHERYL BAIR

The 5th Grade English teacher and Middle School English Department chair was faced with overhauling her curriculum and learning an entirely new digital delivery method in a matter of a few days.

We were told to bring enough materials home to be able to teach one month virtually. I brought everything home with me, five huge binders, all the books the students were reading, and I started thinking, “How can I make this work?”

None of us had used Google Meet before. So, Amy Norman [6th grade English teacher] and I practiced with each other, and I practiced with her kids. Then the 5th grade team did a practice together. Right now, it’s so easy,
but I was a nervous wreck for that first online class. I realized, though, that the kids are so savvy. If I didn’t know something, we could figure it out. Once I got through that first class, I thought, “Okay, this is going
to be fine.”

One of the first things I learned is if we don’t set a timer in our virtual small groups, we’re not coming back together as a big group. So I created a list of norms and assigned specific students tasks like setting the timer, leading the small group discussion, etc. That worked really well and I was able to help other teachers do the same thing in their classes. I was really proud that I figured that out and was able to help others. Distance learning is not my preference, but I feel like I’ve done a really good job of keeping the integrity of my curriculum. For me, that’s a giant win.

JAYIN LAZZARO ’28

When the Preschool and Lower School added a flexible afternoon time slot to their distance learning schedules in April, numerous students jumped at the chance to host sessions for their classmates, including Lazzaro, who hosted a virtual, 30-minute LEGO club.

I didn’t think school would actually be canceled. I was sort of shocked when they said we’d be doing online learning for the rest of the school year. After a few weeks of distance learning, my teacher [4th Grade Teacher Leandra Zdrojewski] asked me if I had any ideas for a virtual club. I had a bunch of ideas, but my favorite was LEGO club because I really like LEGOS.

At the beginning of each session I would introduce myself, because there were usually new kids every day. I explained what LEGO club was and gave the challenge for the day. Then at the end we’d share what we built, and I made sure everyone had a turn to share.

I was nervous on the first day of the club because I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I didn’t know if people would like the challenges I came up with, and I was nervous that I wouldn’t be doing a good job. But it was actually really fun, not just me leading it, but working with all the kids who joined each day. They would ask questions and they had great ideas on what to build.

Leading the club taught me good leadership skills and how to help kids if they have problems. I liked distance learning, but it will be nice if we can go back to school [in the fall]. I miss my teachers and my friends.

KRISTEN MORGAN

Parent to Charlie Dawn ’32 and Colby Ann ’34 Morgan, Kristen and her husband, Colleston ’03, made the most of their distance learning experience.

Distance learning has provided numerous benefits for me as a parent, as I now have a chance to observe how my children interact and respond to teachers and peers. I’ve been impressed by my kindergartener’s bravery
to lead a call and response, and respond confidently to questions. She could now follow her calendar to log on to all classes on her own and complete her daily lessons.

On the flip side, distance learning with my 3-year-old has been challenging. Her teachers have designed high-quality and engaging lessons, but ultimately, she had a hard time focusing on small screens. Our experience is that early childhood, understandably, has its own set of challenges that we
have yet to overcome.

As a former educator, I am grateful for the ability to supplement provided curriculum with lessons of my own. We built consistent structures and routines in our homeschool—and their USM teachers knew not to call for check-ins during their 11 a.m. outside recess!

We are all diligently working to address our children’s needs—both families and educators alike. I believe we must use this time to identify strategies with maximum impact as we face the realities of what next year might
bring. As I look forward, perhaps the only thing I am certain of is that the USM community will be there alongside me to face the challenges head on together.

MOLLY JANSSEN ’22

A varsity girls’ lacrosse player, this rising junior—like all spring student athletes—missed out on her season, and the chance to help her team bring home a championship after falling one game short last year.

The first day of online learning [March 31] was crazy. I had chemistry as my first class, and the students didn’t know how to use Google Meet that well and we all had our cameras and microphones turned off, so my teacher was basically teaching to a wall. She didn’t know if people were there or not. And I remember, after being online for 60 minutes, I was like, “I have to do this three more times today.” At the end of the day, my head was killing me and I was like, “How am I going to do this for the rest of the year?” But over time, it became more flexible and we all started feeling better about it.

For me, missing lacrosse was the worst part. Knowing this was our year to win state, and having that crushed on us, really sucked. We did team Google Meet sessions, and coach [Samantha] Adey posted workouts on Instagram, but we went from playing lacrosse five days a week for an hour and a half to nothing, and it was hard.

When we’re out there playing it’s so fun because we’re winning and we’re doing it as a team. I missed that. I missed the feeling of winning those huge games, like that conference championship game, and knowing that all of our hard work that we put in together has paid off. It just stinks knowing that could be us right now but we’re stuck at home.

EIBAR ROBLEDO ’20

Distance learning was especially hard on seniors, who missed out on many cherished end-of-the-year traditions. Here, prefect Eibar Robledo ’20 shares his experience.

My senior year was cut short—no senior prom, no senior send-off, delayed commencement. My family dynamic also changed. I now had younger siblings at home who were also adjusting to online learning and needed support. My mindset was always geared towards bringing comfort and satisfaction to me and my siblings.

As a prefect, I spent endless hours on Google Meets and late-night group chats brainstorming projects that would mitigate our lost senior traditions. We created a Class of 2020 Instagram page (@usmseniors2020) to celebrate college acceptances; collaborated with the Alumni Association to give seniors a Class of 2020 hoodie; and jump-started a senior tree project. Yes, we did all this during USM@HOME! COVID-19 had no match on our strong work ethic, determination, and collaboration!

As for life at home, the USM@HOME schedule for the Upper School allowed much time for me to help my siblings with their coursework. We were able to find a system where I had my personal “office hours” for them to ask me any questions they had.

Though the negativity of COVID-19 is immense, I have to say that the quarantine experience allowed me to focus on myself and build on skills that allow for unity through distance. But, would I go through another quarantine like this one again? Absolutely not!

TRACY HUFFMAN

Lower School music teacher Tracy Huffman had to get creative with how she delivered her lesson plans. In the process, she discovered that even online learning has its benefits.

When we found out that school was going to be online, I was thinking more about emotional well being than advancing my curriculum. I felt that there was a grieving process of not being in school and having pretty much every aspect of our lives changing. I think music is something we all turn to in times of need, as well as so many of the other specials courses, like exercise, dance, and art. We turn to creative outlets when we’re facing hard times. So the specials team got together and we thought we could really shine and be creative in how we wove our curriculum into that bigger picture of emotional wellbeing.

For me one of the biggest challenges was that I rely so heavily on singing in my classroom and now I suddenly had to approach it in a completely different way. We did a whole lot more creating using “found” instruments in the house. We also did a lot of listening and describing, which are super important but sometimes take a back seat to the performance aspect. And it’s been really rewarding to see how this virtual environment allows students who are shy about performing to use different tools, for example, recording themselves and then playing the video later, which took the performance pressure off. Even just the aspect of time, that they didn’t have to immediately produce something, gave them time to be thoughtful. So it’s been kind of a blessing because I’ve been forced to think differently, and so have students.

ERIN HEANEY

Teaching chemistry and AP Chemistry to Upper School students in a distance learning model required Heaney to find new and creative ways to show experiments and ensure that her students were engaged and understanding the material. Like several USM teachers, she is also a parent to students who were doing their own online learning in their classes—Aydin ’29 and Ayla ’34—giving her a unique perspective.

In the beginning, distance learning was great for Aydin. He’s a homebody, so he loved the fact that he never had to leave the house. However, when his teacher [3rd Grade Teacher Brita Willis] started introducing more challenging lessons, we went through a struggle. Aydin was used to learning face-to-face, where he could ask a question subtly, without the whole class knowing. But when you’re sitting in a Google Meet, if you unmute and ask a question, everybody knows because everybody hears it. And even though his classmates would not have cared in the slightest, to him it was mortifying to have to show weakness. As a result, we had a lot of emotional struggles over how hard school was online, and how he didn’t like it. This broke my heart, because Aydin has always loved school.

I recognized that if my 3rd grade son struggled to ask questions on Google Meet, some of my high school students might struggle, too.

Luckily, Brita, being the tech-savvy genius that she is, found a Google chat app that allowed the students to send her questions privately and directly. That was a game changer for Aydin. He felt empowered knowing he could contact her at any time during class when he needed her help. School had once again become a place of excitement and pride for him.

As a teacher, I recognized that if my 3rd grade son struggled to ask questions on Google Meet, some of my high school students might struggle, too. I followed Brita’s example and set up one-on-one private Google Meet sessions for me and my students. This made a huge difference in the dynamics of many conversations; students were noticeably more comfortable asking questions. I also made my cell phone number available to my students, so they could easily reach me to set up online sessions during office hours. Allowing them the ability to text me helped me balance my obligations as a teacher and a parent much more effectively. It enabled me to be intentional with the time I spent in either role. I’m grateful that I was able to observe and learn from Aydin’s struggles. In many ways, they helped me to better support the needs of my students in this new distance learning environment.

For the latest information on USM’s fall reopening, visit www.usmk12.org/reopeningplan.

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