By Jessica Tomer
"My middle-school experience was a little weird," says Milana Zivanovic ’25. She "stopped going into the school building altogether" during the spring of her seventh-grade year. "For a couple of weeks, maybe even a month, we didn't have any school while they had to figure out what they were going to do." The last month "wasn't real school," she says, as the community struggled to make sense of Zoom classes and Google Hangouts. "Then I spent the entirety of eighth grade on Zoom."
It "wasn't too bad," Milana insists. She enjoyed some of the independent work and the ability to take breaks ("I mean, I could drink tea whenever I wanted"). But compared to "normal" schooling, there was no contest. "Being in person is so much better than being online, both for learning and also just for social things like talking with friends and meeting new people," she says. "It feels more like having real classes, as opposed to just sitting on Zoom listening to a lecture."
Milana joins a generation of students who spent much of middle school either fully remote or in a hybrid learning environment. They haven't known "normal" since 2019, the intervening formative school years dominated by the pandemic. At Commonwealth, many of those students had never set foot inside the building before orientation in September of 2021.
Commonwealth teachers and staff knew all that time behind screens, isolated at home, contending with glitchy Internet and Zoom classrooms (if they had them at all) would affect incoming students. As the 2021–2022 academic year got underway, though students were as curious and academically exuberant as ever—and giddy to be together in person—it became more clear: we need to make up for that lost time. The question was how.
What We're Doing
How do we help our students recoup at this point in the pandemic? What is the cumulative impact of these last two years on academics and on the socio-emotional development of students? And what does long-term academic, social, and emotional recovery look like for our students?
So reads the mission statement that has guided faculty and staff from the beginning of the year, formulated by Commonwealth's Student Life team: Joshua Eagle, Psy.D., Dean of Students; Eben Lasker, Psy.D., School Counselor; Rebecca Jackman, Assistant Head of School; Lisa Palmero McGrath, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Don Conolly, Coordinator of Academic Support. As Josh likes to say, Student Life is everything outside academics (though academic support features heavily in their work), and this team has spent the past two years helping students and their families navigate myriad outside-academics challenges, thinking about how to best support them as individuals and systemically.
"It's almost as if the pandemic accelerated and amplified some things that there were already signs of in our student body before, whether it was relationships to devices or amount they were reading and how they sustained attention," says Rebecca. "A lot of kids didn't necessarily have the habits they might have had [pre-pandemic], like how to take the subway, those kinds of things that you start to develop during middle school." The struggle to attend to tasks—among adults as well as children—post-pandemic has been profound, Josh adds.
Before the pandemic, advisors would regularly check in with students about time management, sleep habits, workload, commuting, social dynamics, digital literacy, and more. Post-pandemic, students needed more than a few gentle reminders about these things. So a repurposed free class period became Commonwealth's new Process Skills Course for ninth graders, a weekly tutorial covering a wide range of topics: how to develop a midyear-exam study plan, how to use a library—with real, physical books—how to manage time by making it "visible," amongst other topics. "The Process Skills class is giving us extra support in the areas that we should have learned in eighth grade, but couldn't," says Anya Ratanchandani ’25.
Designed to be nimble enough to fill in the gaps teachers observed in the classroom while responding to students' unique, evolving needs, the course also delved into more esoteric aspects of adolescence. "They go beyond just saying, 'Well, you need to just not procrastinate,'" Milana says. Rather, the course turned common admonitions ("get more sleep!" "plan ahead!") into actionable advice through practical tool kits and real-world examples. Both Milana and her classmate Sarah McPeek ’25 liked the rotation of teachers and the variety of material covered. "That way, we're not just focusing on one subject; we get to hear about time management and how to email teachers and set up meetings," Sarah says. "I think it's good that we're getting to know how to do a lot of these different things."
For Will Washko ’25, the class on "making time visible" helped him harness the power of his planner. It didn't hurt that his advisor, history teacher Audrey Budding, taught the lesson and could easily follow up during their weekly meetings: "Did you use the planner? Did you use the planner?" he parrots, not unkindly. "I had not really been using it as much as I should have been!" None of the concepts are foreign to students, though some topics, like how to prep for midyear exams, seemed particularly useful, as Sarah notes: "I think most of the grade, including me, had never really taken a big exam except for maybe the SSAT, so that was really helpful."
Existing school initiatives undergird these efforts as well: the faculty advisor remains the first line of defense for students and families. (A new advisor training program has also bolstered teachers' skills.) The role of advisor-as-advocate is particularly on display during quarterly grading meetings, where all teachers and staff reflect on every single student's progress. More in-depth conversations can and do happen outside these meetings, but the goal is to ensure every teacher has a real sense of how each student is faring inside as well as outside of school. The annual IMPACT training, where students learn basic self-defense and personal safety strategies, has taken on new relevance with students who have spent significant time confined to their houses. And Commonwealth is in its third year of having student class representatives, who liaise with the Student Life team to provide "another way for students to share how they're doing and what they're doing," says Josh.
"The Student Life team has had much more contact with the ninth grade than in any year past," Eben says. Their work started long before orientation, with Rebecca and Josh meeting with every new family over the summer of 2021, further investing in the school-family partnership that has always been crucial. Even a twenty-minute meeting can pay dividends, Rebecca says, and those meetings "changed and facilitated our relationships with those parents and their knowledge of us and what we do."
Why We're Doing It
"Eighth grade had its big ups and downs with COVID and risk factors," says Will. "We were masked, even outside sometimes." Still, he knows he was "incredibly lucky to be in person for almost all of the eighth grade." It meant more "social experience," even though he and his fellow students were "sequestered in these six-foot bubbles within classrooms."
From the beginning of the pandemic, the goal has been to rebuild Commonwealth's sense of community, the foundation of support that allows students (and teachers) to push themselves in and out of the classroom. After a largely hybrid 2020–2021 school year, the school moved as quickly and safely as possible toward relative normalcy, getting kids out of their homes, off of their screens, and fully in person for the spring of 2021. The following academic year was the closest to "normal" yet, with a return to (some) in-person events, (limited) recess gatherings, and (mostly) all-together assemblies, thanks, in part, to school-wide routine COVID testing and an enviable 98% vaccination rate among students, faculty, and staff.
Research stemming from the earliest days of the pandemic revealed learning loss and declining mental health in students at all ages and grade levels the world over, with the starkest disparities along class and income lines. In their observations about K-12 students in U.S. public schools from mid-March 2020 to mid-April 2021, the federal Office for Civil Rights noted that "nearly all students have experienced some challenges to their mental health and well-being during the pandemic and many have lost access to school-based services and supports, with early research showing disparities based on race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identity, and other factors.'' According to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll, "about half of teens age 14–18 said the pandemic had a negative impact on their academics. A third said it had no impact, and about one in six said it had a positive impact." Notably, the poll also revealed that "nearly a quarter of teens of color said the pandemic had a positive impact on their academics—compared with 14 percent of white teens."
Among the CDC's most troubling evidence: suspected suicide attempts among adolescents increased 31 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, with a more pointed increase—51 percent—amongst girls aged 12–17. School psychologists have seen a sharp increase in demand and in referrals to outside providers. This decline in child and adolescent mental health prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children's Hospital Association to declare a national emergency in October 2021.
"The feelings of fatigue, anxiety, depression, hopelessness: I think we're all kind of swimming in it at low levels," says School Counselor Eben Lasker. "Collectively, everybody went through this really scary, awful thing." Only now are we beginning to register the loss, he says. Though "there is just stuff we won't get back, collectively, culturally," he adds, we can support our students and each other.
"One of the academic things that I felt was lost [during hybrid learning] was the inspiration," says Don Conolly, a member of Commonwealth's history and language departments since 2001. "It's very hard to teach a kid research paper skills if they're not excited about the subject and they don't have someone in front of the room modeling, being a history geek." All of these recovery efforts exist on a continuum, he says, the goal of which is to move beyond catching up to fostering the holistic and intellectual "life of the mind" core to the Commonwealth experience.
The uptick in "academic intensity" at Commonwealth struck Sarah, though she says she arrived feeling relatively prepared. "It's been a hard step, but I've had the support I need to do it," she says. "The community has been really good so far, especially with reaching out to teachers when you need help."
How We're Preparing for the Future
So, are these interventions working? "Process Skills was crucial for some students who hadn't taken an exam [or] just didn't know how to set up a schedule," Josh says. "I know a few students who use the materials and were really thankful that they were given that model." For Anya, the course helped ease the Commonwealth workload, which is "definitely heavier than middle school, but the teachers are far more accessible and they genuinely care about how each student is doing and what people are having a hard time with." Will hopes the Process Skills course continues so students like him, who wanted more (and more challenging) work over the pandemic, can burnish foundational skills, like knowing when and how to ask for help. ("Don't be afraid to ask," Will urges younger students. "Just asking [for help] is probably one of the most important life skills, best to learn early on.")
Still, like so many facets of the pandemic, the long-term effects of the Process Skills course and other efforts remain to be seen. "It's planting seeds," Josh says, and the Student Life team is working on redefining the arc of wellness across all four years at Commonwealth, so students graduate prepared for post-pandemic college and beyond. "With everything that's happened, we've had to ask ourselves, what does it mean to achieve? What does it mean to succeed?" Lisa says. "Even our strongest students, they're doing really, really well grade-wise, but how are they holding it together as they prepare for the next chapter of their life?"
Right now, Lisa and the Student Life team thinking about what ninth-grade classes—City of Boston, Word: A History of Discourse, and Health and Community—will look like during the 2022–2023 academic year. "How do we help them to create a social connection with one another? To be successful academically? To exist in the wider world around us?" Rebecca asks. "There are these concentric circles we're trying to develop for them in that set of classes." They hope to iterate on the Process Skills Course, too, weaving its tutorials into the Commonwealth curriculum in years to come. And prepare for the future they must. Over the next decade (at least), virtually no student will enroll without having had their education disrupted by the pandemic to some extent. But Commonwealth will be ready.
Learn More About Student Support at Commonwealth
Jessica Tomer is the Director of Communications at Commonwealth. This article was published in the Summer 2022 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.