Distance Learning the Bay Way

When news of the possible impact of COVID-19 surfaced in January, Bay’s Educational Leadership Team (ELT) wasted no time in planning to put an actionable program in place. Early thinking and collaboration allowed the school to confidently transition to distance learning in mid-March while ensuring the continuity of Bay’s progressive educational program and helping to protect the health and safety of the community.

Innovation, agility, mindfulness

Innovation has been a part of Bay’s DNA since its inception and this helped support a swift and smooth transition from the classroom to the Zoom room. With mindfulness and agility, staffulty pivoted quickly to help pack and mail science kits, textbooks, and art supplies while technology updates were integrated, and internet service plans were adjusted. 

Twice a year in January and May, Bay’s engaging three-week Immersive Term gives staffulty and students practice in stepping away from regular campus life to dive deep into a topic of study and pursue ambitious learning projects throughout the community. Students may be adroit with stepping out of the classroom for ambitious projects, but that’s where similarities during this pandemic end. Learning from home to stay safe is profoundly different from engaging with politicians and activists at City Hall to understand voting and representation schemes in the Mathematics of Democracy immersive.

A responsive and mindful approach

We had the chance to talk with Bay’s Dean of Academics and Innovation Nettie Kelly to learn how Bay navigated this unprecedented shift. 

Dean of Academics and Innovation Nettie Kelly talks about the Bay Educational Leadership Team’s approach to distance learning.

At the core of the Bay experience is our community,” said Nettie. “Nobody here ‘opted in’ for a new model of distance learning. It was simply a new reality and a challenge that we had to embrace — and quickly. Our number one priority in building Bay’s program was to deliver our educational experience while being responsive and agile in meeting the emerging needs of students, teachers, and the whole community.” 

In the second week of March, Bay’s block schedule moved from the classroom to the Zoom room with slightly shortened class times. Teachers and students worked in both synchronous and asynchronous learning formats, but it didn’t take long for the first signs of screen fatigue and overwhelm to begin appearing.  

How are you really doing?

In a normal Bay school day, teachers can easily pick up when a student is comprehending a lesson, falling behind, or feeling overwhelmed. Teacher responsiveness is a natural reaction to observation, and adjustments and accommodations are made immediately to enhance learning and wellbeing.

In our new shelter-in-place world, social interaction is transformed in profound ways making it difficult for teachers to really know how students are doing on a day-to-day basis. Subtleties are lost through the glare and glance of a screen. Is a student concentrating, checked out, or just frozen by bad WiFi? Is a student attending class from a quiet space, or a noisy living room? To overcome this challenge and better understand how students were really doing, Bay leaned in close seeking feedback from students, teachers, and parents through surveys and Zoom meetings.

Bay has took a holistic approach to program design which includes examining and identifying the wide array of behaviors people exhibit in response to pandemic stress.

An early Bay survey revealed that 70% of student respondents reported significantly higher levels of stress compared to prior years. Anxiety, stress, and trauma impact everyone’s ability to learn, but the clues that signify stress and overwhelm can be surprising. Emotions and sadness about COVID-19 might emerge as big reactions to small things, numbing out, and resistance to the “new order.”  From the very beginning, Bay was committed to supporting overall student wellness and skill and knowledge building equally.  

We took a holistic approach to program design,” Nettie explained. “Part of that was examining and identifying the wide array of behaviors students and staffulty were exhibiting in response to pandemic stress. With input from the community, we were able to re-design the original structure of our program to better support students and teachers.” 

Bay’s mindful approach to program design sets the stage for a positive, growth-oriented response to the challenge of COVID-19.

Adapting learning to a pandemic

Bay implemented two variations of its distance learning class schedule before settling into the current format just before Spring Break. Careful thought was given to reducing required screen time, eliminating high stakes testing, and preserving time for non-academic connection. The school also responded to the new levels of responsibility teachers, students, and families were facing at home.  

Bay parent Ninive Calegari appreciates the school’s thoughtful approach and commented, “As two working parents, we have been really grateful to Bay for the online experiences provided. I have seen our daughter engaged during class, collaborating on a humanities project with other classmates, and dressing for a mock interview in Spanish. It’s all still meaningful work and we are very appreciative to the faculty for keeping it rich and engaging.” 

As a long-time educator, Ninive was particularly interested in Bay’s approach to assessment and community building. “I am impressed with the savvy way Bay decided to do grading…and I think the community touches — warm parent meetings, gorgeous leis for the spring athletes, the sweet movie about new pets — are truly helpful and uplifting.”

A mindful approach to scheduling

Bay’s schedule is a tangible expression of school values and it establishes how students spend time with their teachers and one another.

The teacher-student relationship is a core component of Bay’s educational philosophy and community,” Nettie explained. “Creating more time for tutorials and student-teacher interaction was a top priority as we evolved the schedule. Feedback also revealed that students were craving more connections with their peers. We achieved this by dedicating Mondays to teacher meetings and student life activities, and by designing 90-minute blocks comprised of two distinct segments that allow time for peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher interaction. We also added longer tutorial blocks into the weekly schedule.” 

From Tuesday to Thursday, students attend three 90-minute classes with additional blocks reserved for tutorials and advisory meetings. Extended blocks provide enough time for synchronous learning and homework, which means less time in front of a screen in the evenings. Classes typically meet via Zoom for the duration of the block unless special projects are underway. The first hour is dedicated to direct instruction, small group breakout discussions, and active homework. The last 30-minutes are reserved for student-teacher meetings, and to provide adequate time for students of all learning styles to complete work. 

Byron and I feel that Bay has provided a carefully balanced online educational experience during this unprecedented and life-changing pandemic,” said Liz Ranieri, parent of a Bay senior. “Though the seniors were at first disappointed with the news that classes would be extended through the end of May, the decision to institute a 4-day school week with limited screen time has been key to its success. In fact, the slower-paced school week — with focused, independent work — has provided time for students to connect with their peers, teachers, and extra-curricular Zooming!” 

Developing and evolving the Bay Distance Learning program has been a collaborative and responsive process from the beginning. We are all looking forward to the time when the threat of COVID-19 is behind us and campus reopens. Until then, The Bay School will continue to do what it does best – inspire, innovate, and collaborate with staffulty, students, and parents to continue to enrich its program.