‘What I Learned Over Summer Break’
Students and educators enter the school year with adaptability, resilience, and cautious optimism.
by Bill Donahue

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Mark A. Devey, head of Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, can relate. He’s never been prouder to work in education, never been more impressed by his colleagues and educators. At the same time, given the trials and tribulations associated with running a school during a pandemic, he cannot recall a more challenging time in his career.
“The emotional drain is a different type than I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “Not being present and doing without the human contact and connection feels different. We have had to adapt and adjust accordingly.”
If nothing else, 2020 has been full of so-called teachable moments. While many public schools and some private schools intend to start the year remotely, others plan to begin the year on campus or employ a hybrid approach that blends in-person and online learning. Their thinking: Educators teach best, and students learn best, in face-to-face situations.  
“The past six months have created a wealth of opportunities to have kids feel empowered and make shifts and changes,” says Devey. “A year from now, I hope we can have a conversation about how we responded to significant loss and change and challenges within our society, and how through it all we became more united, empathetic, and respectful of others, and we continue to bring out the best on what the United States can be.
“Right now,” he continues, “we’re all going through this together.”
The pandemic has pushed educators to “be innovative and creative in ways that we never were before,” according to Gregory J. Geruson, president of Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem. Last year, when the pandemic shuttered schools across the country, Holy Ghost Prep introduced Ghost Online, an academic program that effectively enabled the school to migrate in-person learning online. The evolving program will play a key role this year, too.
“It’s a direct outgrowth of last year’s thinking and learning,” Geruson says. “We’re able to schedule subjects regardless of whether we’re teaching students through Ghost Online, on campus, or using a hybrid approach. If the governor changes his mind or something happens, it gives us the flexibility to shift between those three models.”
Holy Ghost Prep will begin the school year with a hybrid approach, where only half of the student body is on campus at the same time.
“We know in-person education should happen in person,” he says. “The question is: How do you take a model that wants us to be together and engaged while dealing with a pandemic that wants us to be apart and separate? With the hybrid approach, instead of 450 guys being on campus at once, we’ll have 225 guys on campus, spread out, wearing masks and making use of nontraditional spaces.” 
When one half of the student body is on campus, the other half will be working online or learning “asynchronously,” such as reading or writing a reflection essay to interrupt students’ screen time. 
Geruson cites the “breakthrough program,” which Holy Ghost Prep instituted over spring break last year, as another example of pandemic-induced creativity. The program served as a virtual career convention, of sorts, in which students learned directly from the career experiences of prominent alumni. Geruson says the sports-related program was particularly well received; more than 70 students learned all about careers in athletics from alums who work for the likes of the Philadelphia Phillies, the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, and the New York Daily News
Likewise, over the summer, the school hosted approximately 40 virtual college visits. More than 500 students participated. 
“If this has taught us anything, it’s the critical importance of being nimble and flexible and resilient,” Geruson says. “In our case, students know they can lean on each other, the faculty and staff, and engage with our alumni. That makes an enormous difference.” 
As students prepare to head back to campus, Geruson is optimistic. He suggests the majority of students, parents, and faculty feel the same. 
“By and large the feedback has been very positive,” he adds. “Overwhelmingly, parents want students in school. … Our educational experience is a function of our exceptional faculty. There is some anxiety and concern, and that’s natural, but we will work through that.”

‘We Are a Community’
Regina Ryan, I.H.M., has an apt analogy for the past six months: “trying to turn the Titanic in a bathtub.” As principal of Villa Maria Academy High School in Malvern, Sr. Regina and her staff have worked tirelessly to prepare for the coming school year. She has seen her share of early mornings and late nights, but she believes the effort has been worthwhile.
Villa Maria Academy intends to bring the all-female student body back to campus to start the school year, with some modifications. One example: The school has changed its academic schedule to include longer blocks, with fewer classes per day, to limit class changes. The classrooms may look a little different, too.
“Our enrollment is the perfect size to take out all of the 21st century furniture and go back to the old-school furniture, all spaced six feet apart or a few inches shy of it,” Sr. Regina says. “We’ll have acrylic dividers all over the place. We’ll also require students to wear masks even though we’re sitting six feet apart. … We are a community, a culture of care, and everybody has to be cared for.” 
Villa Maria Academy has created a well-defined plan for reopening, but Sr. Regina realizes the plan could change tomorrow based on altered mandates or new information.
“There are lessons we have learned over the past six months that we will probably maintain going forward,” she says. “I think a more blended approach [between in-person and remote learning] is a possibility, where we do more teaching online and let students watch it at night to reinforce learning. As a leader, it makes you look at stretching your horizons so much further.”
Likewise, Perkiomen School, which is an independent, coed boarding and day school for students in grades six through 12, will be teaching in person. Obvious changes to the teaching experience aside, Devey expects the message to students to remain largely the same.  
“Being in the same space, even if we’re socially distanced, even if we have some Plexiglas separators, even if we’re wearing masks, it won’t remove the joy and camaraderie that will come from having common goals,” he says. “We’re focused on learning opportunities, but with safety in mind. We’re all living in a world that has changed. It could be for a couple of years, for all we know, but we have adapted to daily life quite well.”
Perkiomen School students will benefit from the same academic rigor, as well as opportunities to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities. Sports teams may not necessarily be competing against other schools for the time being, but at least students will have the opportunity to play and hone their skills. A theater production may be viewed online rather than staged in front of a live audience, but the show, as they say, will go on. 
“What we’re trying to do is encourage, energize, and inspire these kids, and they do the same for us,” Devey adds. “I want us to be hopeful and have integrity, and be supportive and encouraging, not selfish and overly self-centered in a way that isn’t building up the entirety of society. There’s something bigger than each of us that hopefully we don’t lose sight of.”
This year may be unlike any other, but educators seem well prepared to adapt. In many ways, educators believe the uncertain environment may help to prepare young men and women for the challenges of adulthood.
“No one could have anticipated what’s happened, and it continues to change,” says Geruson. “You’re writing the book as you’re reading it.” 

Virtually Unstoppable
Remote learning is nothing new to Brian Hayden, CEO of The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. This year marks the school’s 20th anniversary, though Hayden certainly didn’t expect the milestone to occur during a pandemic that has spiked interest in online learning. Enrollment at his school is, in a word, up.
“At this time, we have a waiting list of over 1,800 students,” Hayden says. “On August 31st, the first day of school, we typically have 9,500 students. At the beginning of August, we already had 2,000 students over that. We usually don’t hit that mark until February or March.”
The school, which caps enrollment at 11,677, draws students from throughout the state, from varying backgrounds, interests, and family histories. Of the school’s more than 800 full-time employees, approximately 350 are educators.
“With the exception of buses, cafeterias, and interscholastic athletics, we’re like any other comprehensive school,” Hayden says. “We’re a community.”
Hayden believes some students may be better suited to learning in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms, but others may find “a better alternative” in schools such as his. Regardless, online education is here to stay.
“It’s no longer a question or policy concern whether cyber education works,” he says. “I don’t think you’ll find any school in Pennsylvania that will not have a cyber option going forward.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, August 2020.