Purnell's Head of School, Anne M. Glass. Ed.M., reflects on how the school kept its focus on academic rigor and student wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic -- and what she looks forward to in the new year and beyond.
As you reflect on 2020 and the impact of the pandemic on learning, what comes to mind?
The notion that it truly takes a village was ever-present this year. Given the challenges we faced with COVID-19, our response had to be a collaborative effort, tapping into expertise from a variety of areas not typically associated with running a school. We also needed campus-wide coordination and buy-in across the entire Purnell family to be successful, whether we were remote or returning in person with proper preventive measures in place.
For me, this meant reinventing school life while holding a community together, while never abandoning our school's mission. The pandemic taught me that serving as head of school is not solely an operations job. We also take on a pastoral role in order to maintain the sense of community as well as to protect the school's identify, culture and brand. With all of the changes that we were asking of our staff and of our families, it was critical to establish a shared purpose: returning to campus safely.
I firmly believe that we would not have been as successful as we were in preventing COVID infections and making sure that the quality of our academic program and student life was as high as it was if we did not take the time to engage our constituent groups early and often. After successfully pivoting to remote learning in the spring, while sustaining our student life activities
and then spending the summer in isolation, people were craving community. Once we were able to go back to campus in the fall, we all valued more than ever the benefits of in-person learning.
What motivated you to keep going?
The commitment to holding the community together was always foremost for me. Hosting our Purnell Zoom get togethers was a really big part of that. It became not only as a means for transmitting information, but also for keeping in touch and making sure that even though we couldn't be together physically, we could see each other and share news.
The other motivation was the reality that there was no other choice. We had to problem-solve while still maintaining the quality of our programs. I continue to maintain that I saw this as an incredible opportunity, as I knew that we could effectively move to a remote or hybrid model because our teachers know our students so well. I also realized – through communication and technology – we could put a very small school on the same playing field as larger schools when it comes to reaching broader audiences.
Our families know I follow three rules when it comes to making decisions: be mission-consistent, data-driven and community-centered. I saw that there were ways to reinvent ourselves that were consistent with our overall mission, and that was exciting! Preparing to reopen campus extended beyond facilities installing acrylic dividers in the dining hall. In addition to training for our faculty, we created a task force to take a deep dive into the principles of teaching and learning to explore how we could use new tools to get stronger outcomes.
My team also kept me motivated. It's important to recognize and honor how much our teachers gave of themselves and the larger role they played in supporting students not only as advisors and educators, but really as a social-emotional support system. At Purnell, our faculty do so much more than teach. They are the support system away from home for our girls. They are teachers, advisors, and mentors.
Anything that surprised you about yourself, your staff or the students?
I am super impressed – but not surprised – that nearly every single student and every single staff member did what we asked of them in order to stay safe. They rose to the occasion of teaching with a mask on and the girls quickly adapted to a new dorm routine where they have an assigned sink and an assigned shower time with a time limit. They followed the protocols and continued to excel academically. Again, our faculty are a huge part of that.
Any silver linings from this year?
What makes Purnell distinctive under normal circumstances provided advantages to us.
Our commitment to Learning and Wellness™ enabled us to immediately understand and address the instructional and social-emotional needs our students faced because of the pandemic. We have always approached each student from a holistic perspective. So, we knew that we would have to do a more active reach-out to students when they were remote but also in person when we returned this fall. Our programming and philosophy turned out to be an important differentiator for us. I hear from peers at other schools that they had to catch up on their understanding of academic attentiveness and social-emotional challenges and adapt in order to ensure their students were ready to learn.
Another silver lining is that size worked in our favor. Our operations were already right sized, so we didn't have to lay anyone off. Purnell's small community and 83-acres of farmland allowed us to physically distance with relative ease. We gave each girl a single dorm room and reconfigured classroom spaces in order to maintain our instructional delivery. Because of our small class sizes, we could continue to teach the way we do and differentiate instruction for each student.
What was your proudest moment this year?
The positive feedback from parents stands out. When the problem is so unique and unprecedented, it means the world to get the feedback from your parents that they appreciate what you are doing for their daughters and that they value your commitment to transparency and clear communication. I feel proud for both being empathetic and transparent in the decisions that we were making, but also for firmly holding the line on certain rules. For example, we could not have any visitors, including parents, inside any of the campus buildings. That was a tough one to hold, but it was among the reasons were able to keep Purnell COVID-19 free.
It also meant a lot to us to bring a recently graduated student, who couldn't attend college because of the pandemic, back to school as a as a staff member and provide an opportunity and a home for her. Her return epitomizes what it means to be part of the Purnell community.
What do you think you will take with you into 2021?
I am grateful for the opportunity to refocus our attention on pedagogical research and diverse learning needs. We redoubled our commitment to differentiated and innovative, multimodal instruction. At Purnell, we have always known that students' social and emotional needs are a necessary precursor to academic learning. That premise has always been a part of what we do. Students have to be in a good place mentally and emotionally to be available to learn, and that has been the primary challenge for all students at every school.
Another thing I will take into 2021 is an even deeper understanding is that wellness is not just about taking care of yourself. It's about being in a position to offer your empathy, your help, your listening ear to your friends. Wellness, self-care and self-compassion, are the glue that holds the community together. It's not just an individual's experience; it's about community.
What excites you about the coming year?
This, to me, this is the most ideal time to write a new strategic plan for moving forward – the post-pandemic playbook. I'm proud of the fact that we stayed true to our value proposition, and that our Learning and Wellness™ approach enabled us to persevere. We put so much effort into best practices in instruction, both in-person and remote, providing individualized attention opportunities for learning and enrichments. Importantly, we learned to recognize the value and the importance of placed-based education. I cannot imagine a more perfect place to engage in learning with peers than on Purnell's expansive and beautiful campus.
For all schools that think remote learning is the future for everyone – I disagree. I think that we can take tools that have helped us to triumphantly reach into 2021. Our experience being together in person as part of a boarding community has given all of us the gift of understanding
that every single person shares responsibility for making school a safe and welcoming place -- where a student's education extends beyond 3:00 pm on a weekday. It's those principles that have been affirming and excite me to carry on the work. We are on the right track and I feel very optimistic for Purnell in 2021 and beyond. Here's to a wonderful new year!