North Branch learns lessons from COVID
We definitely saw higher levels of anxiety and depression, ennui. They all struggled.
— Tal Birdsey
RIPTON — North Branch School Co-founder/Director Tal Birdsey has heard some people refer to the COVID-19 pandemic as “the lost year.”
Not so fast.
“I think that’s the wrong philosophical place to start,” Birdsey said during a teaching break last week. “It was a different year in which to learn about who we are and what’s important. To me, it was a year of discovery about what is essential, what matters.”
And it was certainly a year of discovery at NBS, a small private school in Ripton serving 26 children in grades 7-9. North Branch School has earned a reputation for learning outside of the box, a box that schools both public and private have had to chuck for the past 14 months.
But the COVID-19 pandemic launched a frontal assault on something the NBS community holds especially dear: The intimacy of a small group that learns by doing things together. COVID temporarily fractured the group, but bones heal stronger. NBS students are pretty much in agreement that the pandemic has made them tougher and more appreciative of the time they’ve been able to spend together.
The hardest part, according to NBS ninth-grader Isabelle Wyatt, was “not being sure how much of this experience I would lose or would be affected by (the pandemic); not knowing how much time we’d spend online, what that would be like, and how we would get through it.”
Coming out the other end was “proof of the strength of us as a group, of continuing on and being able to make something out of this whole situation,” she said.
NBS officials — including Birdsey and fellow NBS educators Rose McVay and Steve Holmes — made the tough decision to close the school on March 11 last year.
“We felt the evidence was enough to warrant it,” Birdsey recalled. “Our parents were really supportive, and they understood why.”
The students, however, were heartbroken. It flattened them emotionally.
“That was a challenge,” Birdsey said. “One of the aspects of this school is that kids love it. They love ‘it,’ not just certain events and rituals. They love being here.”
Like the public schools, North Branch shifted to remote learning, for four hours each day. This included a morning meeting of the school community and a rotation of classes, including math, science and literature.
North Branch educators tried hard to limit the students’ daily educational commitment to those four hours. With families facing illness, isolation and potential joblessness, teachers didn’t want to add a bunch of homework to the mix.
Birdsey and his colleagues adopted five priorities during the pandemic — tending to everyone’s feelings, making the best out of a difficult situation, keeping a sense of humor and perspective, staying connected to one another, and using school time as productively as possible.
“We definitely saw higher levels of anxiety and depression, ennui, ” he said of the online format. “They all struggled.”
Still, daily Zoom gatherings provided a chance for students to catch up.
“I’ve got to say, those meetings were frigging hilarious,” Birdsey said with what must have been a broad smile under his face mask.
The school maintained an online document called “the meeting log” to which students were required to add comments twice each day. It was a way for students to feel connected through shared thoughts and experiences. If you couldn’t be in the same room, you could at least converse as if you were.
“We tried to keep some facsimile of a conversation going — important things, unimportant things, whatever was happening,” Birdsey said. “For them, the presence of each other is critical — they have to be with each other. ”
Once schools were allowed to resume in-person activities last spring, North Branch teachers brought the classroom outdoors, to the extent weather would allow.
Still, Birdsey was “terrified” that students might be unhappy upon their return to campus.
“I felt I was opening a restaurant that only had peanuts, and that it was going to be awful,” Birdsey recalled with a smile.
But he needn’t have worried. Instead, he found his students “intensely appreciative of school when they returned, and were so glad to be in school.”
NBS adopted on-campus rules to minimize the chances of the coronavirus being caught and spread.
School leaders’ first step was to reconfigure the NBS building to allow for social distancing. While the math classroom retained that same use, science classes moved into Birdsey’s classroom (aka “the big room”), and gatherings of the entire student body moved to the basement. Workers installed what Birdsey referred to as a “noisy and expensive” ventilation system.
The basement quickly became known as “the clubhouse,” its ceiling crisscrossed by a network of old pipes of indeterminate origin, its floor festooned with a mismatched assortment of rugged desks donated by Middlebury College.
Calling the basement “the clubhouse” is actually somewhat of a misnomer.
NBS, noted Birdsey, was established 20 years ago with the goal of delivering “rigorous, flexible, and intimate school scaled to the needs of early adolescents, and which incorporated the outdoor, personal reflection, and a close-knit community,” according to its mission statement.
“The way the school is designed is so it could be small enough so that everyone could be around a table and have one conversation,” Birdsey said. “But (COVID) spread us out in a way that lacks emotional and physical compression. When the group is closer together, the conversation intensifies; the further you spread people out, the more difficult it is to keep a taut dialogue going. That was a challenge — to pull everyone close together, when we had to be spread apart. It was a physical problem that had a psychological outcome.”
So NBS educators tried to compensate by letting students personalize their study spaces. Individual desks are adorned with stuffed animals or action figures. A replica medieval helmet — which a student had fashioned to become his COVID mask (not allowed) — sits on another desk.
“You let them put anything on the wall they want, you junk it up with faerie lights and prayer flags and stuffed dinos, and it becomes theirs,” Birdsey said. “You have a lot of laughs about how crappy it is, and that helps people feel bonded.”
Birdsey credited students’ parents with being great partners before, during and after the remote learning phase. Last fall was good, in that NBS was able to function to a great degree as it usually does. But Birdsey will be very glad when the powers that be decide that face masks can be tossed.
“As a teacher, I get a lot of my information from the students’ facial expressions,” he said. “When they’re laughing (under a mask), you can’t see it, and when they’re crying, you might not know it. It’s another barrier of closeness, along with the distance.”
Birdsey has had to tweak his teaching technique to compensate for his mask’s emotive cloak.
“I had to teach harder and more visually,” he said, as he demonstrated through a standing position, gesturing with his arms. “I was more vehement with my arms and my body.”
The students also had to make adjustments.
“I probably said ‘Could you speak louder?’ 100,000 times,” Birdsey quipped, “and 100,000 times, the child did not speak louder.”
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
During the late summer and early fall of 2020, NBS students found the great outdoors to be a friend, educational partner and somewhat of a refuge from COVID.
But Mother Nature bites back in Vermont — and particularly in a mountain town like Ripton.
“When it got colder and rainy, it was harder,” Birdsey said. “But a lot of them were determined to go outside, no matter what.”
That stopped in January, however, with frigid temperatures and a statewide spike in COVID cases.
“Our community members were coming into contact with COVID,” Birdsey said, “so we went remote for the last two weeks of January.”
In February, NBS went back to two days in school, three days online.
The emphasis while on campus was to have as much fun as possible outdoors — with some educational applications.
“We had to figure out what to do with them in the cold,” Birdsey said. “School work had to come second.”
They held meetings around a fire.
They skied, snowshoed, organized friendly snowball fights, fired a catapult, conducted labs.
And sports. NBS kids conducted their own winter Olympics.
“It was intense,” Birdsey recalled. “It was hardcore, it was cold, it required them to be tough and prepared. It was a great experience.”
NBS returned to school fulltime this past March, when the COVID numbers improved.
“We picked up right where we left off,” Birdsey said.
Each NBS ninth-grader must write an autobiographical story prior to transitioning to the next phase of their education. The stories that the NBS class of 2020 delivered last June were, needless to say, powerful and cathartic, as will be those penned by the 2021 grads. Students got to hear some of the stories during their final days of school last June.
“It took two hours to read some of them,” Birdsey recalled. “All of the stories dealt with the loss of the end of the school year. All were trying to pull diamonds out of the mud, and trying to remember what we were able to do.”
And the consensus was that students were able to accomplish a lot, in spite of the cloistering effects of COVID.
Student Dinari Meyers will end her NBS career next month. She will have a heck of a story to tell future generations. It’ll undoubtedly include the words “resilience” and “fun.”
“I became closer with my class,” she said. “When we moved to an online school, I lost contact with them, so I wasn’t able to get as close as I wanted to. When we came back, I noticed how much closer we got to each other. I’m more confident in myself around them.”
Meyers called the pandemic year “definitely the craziest, but it’s been the best. It was different.”
Student Luke Mayer will also be moving on to high school this fall.
The upheaval of the pandemic year helped Mayer learn to appreciate times spent with people and as a group.
“This year has been one of the best years,” he said. “I know more what to do and also how much I should be appreciating the last year that I have here.”
It’s making him want to make up for lost time.
“I should spend time with everyone in the school, instead of just a few people.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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