From remote learning to safely reopening campus, Morgan Park Academy has adapted and endured during a historic year.
They weren’t expecting a pandemic. But when one arrived, Morgan Park Academy faculty and staff were prepared for the unexpected.
Faced with the unique challenges posed by COVID-19, they drew on deep reserves of skill and knowledge, creativity, flexibility, and dedication, working together to continue providing an exceptional educational experience for MPA students and families in an unprecedented time.
Last March, faculty and staff created a full remote learning experience for 500 students and teachers with a few days’ notice, an emergency provision that eventually was needed to cover the rest of the school year.
Over the summer, they built a plan to safely reopen campus for the fall semester, giving families the option to have their children attend classes in person or remotely from home.
To this point in a historic 2020-2021 school year, Head of School Mercedes Z. Sheppard said, “we’ve made it work.”
“This has been a year that really inspired all of us at Morgan Park Academy to recommit ourselves to the principles that we say are so important in the mission of the school,” Sheppard said.
“Every decision that we’ve made has been about keeping our community safe and maintaining the integrity of the rigorous education that the Academy has delivered for more than a century.”
Lower and Middle School principal Heather Kurut agreed.
“Our teachers had to build the plane while flying it,” Kurut said. “From my dual perspectives as an administrator and an MPA parent, seeing how quickly and how well they’ve done it has been pretty amazing.”
The impact of COVID-19 at Morgan Park Academy, like everywhere, happened slowly and then all at once.
What began at the end of February with adjustments to upcoming school trips scheduled for Global Week in mid-March — first the China trip, then France and Ireland, and soon all travel off campus — escalated with the rapid, worldwide spread of the virus.
Sheppard announced on Thursday, March 12, that the next day would be students’ last day on campus for two weeks, as the school would shift to remote learning for one week before the previously scheduled week off for spring break.
With the shift soon cemented by a statewide closure of all schools, Sheppard asked Kurut, Upper School principal Tom Drahozal, and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jennifer Schmidt to create a plan for remote learning in just a few days’ time.
“Our teachers had to build the plane while flying it. Seeing how quickly and how well they’ve done it has been pretty amazing.”
They had a foundation for remote instruction in myMPA, the internal software platform that teachers, students, and families already used for academic tasks such as posting assignments, reviewing grades, and sending messages.
Building on that, the technology team, led by Assistant Head of School Vincent Hermosilla, outfitted faculty and staff with new tools including Zoom accounts, updated laptops, webcams, microphones, speakers, Bluetooth headsets, and document cameras.
The adjustment was significant as everything moved online, from kindergarten classes to admission events to the school talent show.
Yet through the rest of the spring, as a worldwide emergency stretched on indefinitely, faculty and staff called back to the Academy’s core educational mission.
They knew the goals they wanted to achieve, the most important things they needed to teach their students. They found new ways to achieve those goals, new methods of delivering that knowledge, of fostering connection and community in an uncertain time.
In first grade, teachers Shelia Webster-Gray and Beth Ferguson turned their weekly journaling exercise from a printed handout into a home project that also incorporated an audio recording of the child reading their journal entry aloud.
In English class, Claire Concannon’s seniors turned what would have been a typical classroom discussion into a fully produced virtual talk show, with host Charles Hendon ’21 deftly conducting an in-depth conversation among several classmates that covered all the bases.
Physical education teachers live-streamed workouts for students cooped up at home. Chorus and band turned toward digital music production, with students learning to record and mix their own performances. In theatre, stage productions gave way to a collaborative virtual show with peers from other schools all over Chicagoland, as students worked on film lighting and editing as well as acting for the camera.
Creativity and ingenuity and technology had risen to the occasion.
“We could not have been happier with the seamless transition to remote learning,” said parent Lana Hasan, whose children are in second, fifth, and seventh grades. “Our children continued to be challenged while still receiving outstanding support and guidance. MPA teachers have been there every step of the way.”
“Upper School remote learning has been about maintaining the standards and meeting the goals of an MPA education while changing how you get there,” 10th-grade parent Iris Fullilove said.
“Everything that MPA has instilled in my son rose to the surface. He found his way and figured it out with the support of his teachers.”
After a physically distant commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020, the next task was figuring out how, if possible, Morgan Park Academy could safely welcome teaching and learning back to campus for the 2020-2021 school year.
Every aspect of school life had to be considered. The academic calendar shifted to start the school year early and the daily schedule changed to fit in a full semester by Thanksgiving, avoiding the onset of winter flu season.
The school adopted a campus-wide mask policy and temperature checks, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures, split students into small cohorts by grade levels, and continued to invest in more educational technology, including an upgraded wireless network to handle a whole campus livestreaming at once.
Classes spread out across the 20-acre campus, meeting outside as much as possible and taking over large, well-ventilated spaces such as the dining hall, Mancini Library, Baer Theater, and Arts Center gallery that would not be needed for large community gatherings.
Families from PreK through grade 12 had their choice of learning on campus and learning remotely from home. They have been more likely to choose remote learning for older students; about half of the Upper School has been remote, including a dozen international students in China.
Teachers embraced the challenge of connecting simultaneously with students in both locations, making adjustments throughout the fall semester to keep everyone engaged.
In sixth grade, for instance, Emily Fitch stopped wearing a headset when she discovered that students in the classroom could not hear their peers tuning in virtually.
Instead, she now only uses a microphone, sometimes repeating questions or comments from students in the classroom who sit farther in back for the benefit of the virtual students, who are projected on a smart board for their peers in the classroom.
“It worked surprisingly well,” Hermosilla said. “Teachers came up with ways of really leveraging the technology and making it happen.”
Upper School science teacher Emily Drown saw how important it was to keep students engaged and socially connected when some or all of them were learning remotely.
When they couldn’t all be in a room together, it was far more effective to have students work together in small Zoom “breakout rooms,” instead of only watching a teacher deliver a lecture on screen.
“I think we all felt like first-year teachers at the start,” said Drown, who also is Upper School assistant principal. “It was a steep learning curve. The progress that we’ve made since then — there’s no comparison. We’ve just blown it away.”
As the teaching and learning continue, Sheppard said she is grateful for the efforts of everyone in the MPA community — not only faculty and staff, but students and families — who have helped the school get to this point.
“I can’t express how thankful I am for the support, patience, and community spirit that our families have shown over the past year,” she said. “They have supported our teachers every step of the way — and have really bought into the health and safety protocols both on campus and at home, helping us stay safe and stay open for in-person learning.”
Now, as the road through the pandemic continues with increased vaccine distribution, faculty and administrators are considering what innovations and new opportunities should carry forward into post-pandemic life.
For many technological innovations that had been on the horizon in recent years, the future suddenly is now. At the same time, the value for most students and teachers of learning together on campus, of developing community, of a physical connection and attachment to each other, has never been more apparent.
As it has done throughout its 148 years, Morgan Park Academy will continue to adapt and thrive.
“The landscape of education has forever changed,” Sheppard said.
“What does that look like going forward? To be prepared, we’re planning for it now.”