Visitation meets COVID-19 education challenges with LEAP In! plan

Evelyn Waddick ’21


Photo courtesy of the Communications Office.

Social distance by staying six feet apart. Wear a mask that completely covers the mouth and nose when in public. If experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, seek testing and self isolate. Treasure the last few droplets of hand sanitizer at the bottom of the Purell bottle purchased prior to the pandemic; shoppers will now find generic, previously unknown brands lining shelves at the pharmacy.

These are some of the practical lessons 2020 may have taught Visitation students since March 13, the last date that students attended in-person classes before campus closed due to the threat of COVID-19. Following nearly three months of distance learning – both full-time and then through an adjusted half-day schedule – and a summer of isolation, students are now “back to school,” in an untraditional fashion.

As students recuperated from copious screen time this summer, the administration was hard at work examining the lessons of the spring in order to reinstate pre-pandemic levels of academic rigor for the fall. Ultimately, out of such planning the optimistically-named Learning Excellence Action Plan, or “LEAP In!” was born. According to the Visitation website, LEAP In! is designed to give students an education that “provides continuous community learning, teaching, and work experience steeped in Salesian tradition,” marking a crucial step towards uniformity in the virtual classroom that some felt was lacking in the initial transition to online learning during the late third trimester of 2020.

Of Visitation’s action plan, principal Mary Kate Blaine said, “I’m incredibly proud of all of the work that so many members of the faculty and staff put into designing the plan all throughout the summer. Every Visitation teacher, and all teachers around the country and the world are making history right now. We’ve never had a pandemic in a digital age, and so every single educator is learning, growing, and processing a million pieces of information every single day.”

Blaine’s strong praise of campus leadership in responding to the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic are reflected in the work of the Visitation tech team. Their work in establishing Microsoft Teams as the platform of choice for facilitating classes, as well as equipping Veracross, the school’s learning management system, with new features has indeed created a veritable “new normal,” as Blaine said. Whereas students relied on their teachers to send links to class calls in the spring, they are now able to click on their “daily schedule” tabs in Veracross to see a list of their classes and the corresponding links.

While the school day begins at 8:00 a.m. and academics conclude at 1:20 p.m., a revival of clubs in the virtual space means that for some the school day extends to as late as 3:10. This is a sharp contrast to the 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. schedule adopted by the school in the late spring, which required significantly less screen time of students.

The schedule is now fixed where classes once rotated. Of 70 Visitation students who responded to a Wicket poll, 34 were in favor of the new non-rotating schedule, citing reasons such as “[making] virtual learning more consistent,” while 36 expressed a preference for the old rotating schedule, with several respondents noting fatigue in the same class each day and a new appreciation for the previous schedule’s flexibility.

One anonymous respondent said, “I prefer rotating in general, but this makes sense for virtual learning.”

Another unique adjustment to the order of the day is the addition of advisory groups to aid underclassmen in a more personalized manner. Conducted in conjunction with freshman and sophomore counsel, the advisories were established by counselors Susie Manion, who brings 14 years of experience with the advisory system from previous counseling work, and Sarah Thompson.

“I do think that in a non-pandemic world a strong advisory is the hallmark of a very good school, because it gives students an opportunity to get to know other adults and their peers very closely,” said Manion. “It’s really important during these times that students let their teachers know when they’re overwhelmed. And it’s very important to come up with a good routine and stick with it. If we’re going to be productive and successful, we need to come up with a plan for ourselves.”

Another department that can be seen helping students develop these healthy routines is the Health Office, managed by school nurse Heidi Greenhalgh. Greenhalgh recently initiated a second round of the Visitation Step Challenge, the first of which took place this past spring. A competition between student teams encouraging activity and time outdoors, 22 teams will vie for prize-winning places from September 14 until October 12.

Of special interest to the school community, and especially freshmen eager to explore campus, is the return to 35th street as recently announced by the administration. With the LEAP In! plan dividing the student body into three cohorts, (Faith, Vision, and Purpose) when Visitation switches to a hybrid learning model on October 6, only one cohort will be on campus per week. As a member of The Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, (AISGW), Visitation remains in close contact with DC public health officials who assist with decisions such as that of the return to campus.

“They [AISGW] helped to facilitate regular [conversations], during the summer. Almost every week to 10 days, and that level of contact had remained steady,” said Blaine. “We have multiple points of contact in DC public health in terms of epidemiologists who’ve been assigned to different schools … I’d have to give credit to the District for really working hard over the summer to build a robust group of direct supports for schools as they continue to plan and navigate … The work of the fall is to continue those strong relationships with DC public health and to continue to make sure that we have every safety protocol in place for [the] return to campus.”

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