Schooling in a Socially Distant World

There's an intellectual cacophony inside the walls of 151 Commonwealth Avenue these days. 

With every classroom door open to help circulate air—supplemented by the HVAC system and/or HEPA filters and/or open windows—the voices of remote students and teachers, amplified by new sound systems, carry through the halls in a charming if garbled blend of academic observations: 

The key here is between those two words
Moves from low solute to high solute 
On the right we see the original text
Représentées par le pronom
Molecules cross membranes
The surface area is the same
Turning into a real rhythmic pattern
What about the rate of condensation?

It's a strangely inspiring music, an audible reminder that there is still joy in learning—and being—together, even if six feet apart.

Commonwealth School opened the 2020–2021 academic year in a hybrid format, with a mix of in-person and remote students in any given class. About one-third of all students are fully remote, with the rest split into two groups that come into the building on alternating weeks. Keep reading to learn more about what this socially distant learning looks and sounds and feels like...

Related: Explore how our admissions process has evolved too!

Safety First

As they must, a slew of safety protocols now dictate movement and behavior at school. Chief among them are wearing masks and maintaining at least six feet of distance at all times. Students quickly fell into other required routines, sanitizing hands, sanitizing workstation, etc. 

With circulating fresh air a prerogative, windows remain open (at least a crack) at all times too. Coats in the classroom became common, though members of the old guard have also been quick to remind students how Charles Merrill took pride in waiting to turn the heat on.

These measures are supplemented by weekly COVID testing; daily health screenings; and always, always the reminders. To wash hands. To follow the one-way traffic in the halls. To maintain six feet of distance. For the latter, faculty and staff monitors need only extend their arms, posturing like great blue herons. But the gesture works, as students immediately step back.

The year began with silent indoor lunch periods—no talking while unmasked—with monitors checking to ensure compliance (one of several Orwelian concepts at play). But after seeing those joyless scenes, it didn't take long for the school to pivot, having most students eat lunch outside on nice (read: not raining) days. Throughout the fall, circles of friends spread along the Commonwealth Mall, each student about ten feet apart. The shift brought back some unstructured socializing. And smiles. 

"I'm just grateful for the chance to be back in the building, even if it is in a strange and limited capacity," says Miles Kodama '22. "I was really starting to miss 151 Commonwealth, and I think it's good for my general energy level to get up and go somewhere in the morning." 

The Hybrid Classroom

With a few notable exceptions (like Chorus, given the complications of singing), most 2020–2021 classes have been offered as planned via a hybrid/concurrent learning model, with a blend of in-person and remote students attending classes simultaneously. That blending is made possible, in part, through Virtual Commonwealth (powered by the now ubiquitous Zoom) and new audio-visual equipment in every classroom. 

"The alternating schedule works really well; it gives you a sort of break from each of the modes of going to school. I like getting to see people when I'm in-person, and everything gets to feel a little like it was," says Eliza Fried '23. "Remote school has been working well, and everyone has sort of gotten into the rhythm of it, and figured out how to make it work. I'm grateful that I get to go in at least some of the time, and that I'm able to still learn when I'm at home." 

Technology has enabled meaningful work, despite sporadic difficulties with equipment—with hundreds of classes happening over Zoom each week, it's little wonder. In-person learning seems effective, remote learning seems effective—it's the cross-over situations (i.e., a remote teacher with in-person students or vice versa) that prove the most trying. But students and faculty have risen to the challenge.

"It's every teacher taking a lesson plan they've perfected over the last five, ten, twenty years of teaching a class and completely up-ending it, figuring out 'how do we do that when half the kids are on a Zoom call?'" says Jo Doyle '23. "I think it's a testament to how awesome our teachers are, how much they genuinely care about their classes, in all of the work that they've put in."

Still, remote learning complications aside, discussion-based classes have unfolded largely as they would under normal circumstances. Science labs and performing and visual arts classes, however, are another story. 

Doyle acknowledges, "It's been really weird." Last year, they spent every free period in the ceramics or photography studio. Now, because students' free periods are restricted to enable better contact tracing, should the need arise, Doyle's studio time is relegated to ceramics class periods only, and even then, it's only the weeks they're studying in person. Otherwise, they bring home a slab of clay.

"Learning from home isn't terribly different from learning in the classroom," says Kodama. "What I miss most when I'm remote is being able to chat with people during random times like lunch and recess, and I make up for that in part during my in-person weeks."

A Closer Look At...

The most tactile Commonwealth activities—arts, athletics, labs—have been the most challenging to modify for a socially distant world. But creative teachers and adaptable students have managed to navigate these strange circumstances. Just a few examples:

Labs: Just Add Water

Pipettes, metric ruler, steel wool, rubber gloves: just a sampling of the items tucked into students’ take-home lab kits. Now, many of their experiments unfold both in the biology and chemistry labs at school and in their kitchens. In some cases, teachers share fully virtual simulations of labs; in others, they prepare video demonstrations of procedures and provide students with authentic data for analysis and evaluation. 

Drawing and Painting: Creating Independently

As a hybrid course, Drawing and Painting is structured much like a “flipped classroom,” in which students watch lectures and demonstrations at home, while their individual work happens with a teacher present. All students received a sketch notebook they can create in on their own time. 

Orchestra: Practice Makes Perfect

Only the strings section of the Orchestra meets in person, with brass and woodwind players practicing at home for pre-recorded performances stitched together by an independent video editor. 

Athletics: Skills and Drills

Basketball is confined to “skills and drills,” yoga classes happen remotely, even cross-country “meets” are virtual, as schools maintain their cohorting by running independently and then reporting results to each other. Fencing, with its built-in masking and social distancing, has been a relative constant. (Moe Fencing Club may have new safety protocols, but the coaching of the beloved Elif Sachs remains the same.)

Student Support

Dean of Students Josh Eagle has taken to reminding the community—as the bustle of the school year and the minutiae of day-to-day learning make it surprisingly easy to forget—that we are still in the midst of a pandemic. 

Routines that allow for the typical high cognitive function remain disrupted, even though students, faculty, and staff have adapted admirably. Eagle and School Counselor Eben Lasker have been systematically checking in with each student, prioritizing those who are fully remote, to get a read on their social-emotional health. "Check ins" during one-on-one advisor meetings and class meetings are common too. 

In the spring of 2020, when the school (and state) first went into lockdown, students and faculty had the benefit of nearly a year of connecting inside the classroom and out, including during the fall 2019 Hancock trip. The 2020 entering class, of course, had no such foundation, with the fully remote students particularly isolated.

So, how do you create bonding opportunities in a pandemic?

Finding Time

Students and staff alike seem to realize their good fortune at being able to learn in person with relative ease and assurances of safety. 

"It's also obviously been much harder to be social, in particular interaction with students not in your cohort can be difficult," says Ben O'Donnell '23. "A lot of students now have improved ways of interacting socially online within groups of friends, but what's impossible to replace are the chance interactions of being in the room together."

Divided into Group A and Group B, which alternate in-person and remote learning on a weekly basis, students typically only see the other members of their cohort. To break down those silos and foster connection, students have created Discord chat channels, hosted movie nights, and joined an epic trivia night (masterminded by math teacher and alumna Anna Moss '06). 

Student organizations, open to all students and meeting virtually every week, have also helped bridge the gap. The familiar calls every day at recess—"Debate Team, 4:30, Pérez classroom," "Helicon editors, reminder that your edits are due Monday," "Gender-Sexuality Alliance will be meeting in Mr. Wolff's classroom"—are a reminder that these groups continue to flourish. 

"Overall, I think it's going pretty well," says Olivia Wang '24. "You have a lot of fun either way. And also, there's pros and cons to being there and not being there [in person]. For example, you get Heather's amazing food, and you get to talk with other classmates more." 

On September 25, the date of the planned departure for the fall Hancock weekend, the school held Hancock-in-the-City, with a morning full of virtual events (including games, social spaces, and lectures on everything from Zen to hip hop). The afternoon featured two blocks of in-person events, open to all students, including those who are usually fully remote: a city scavenger hunt for ninth and tenth graders, and some "lightly structured activities" for eleventh and twelfth graders. 

A giddy, pine-scented weekend at Camp Winona it was not, but Hancock-in-the-City seemed to achieve its goal: bring Commonwealth students together. And it was clear they were grateful for those stolen hours.  

Learn more about Virtual Commonwealth.