One recent afternoon, Hill School Academic Dean and eighth grade teacher Hunt Lyman sat in front of his computer with a guitar and started strumming and singing a song—”The Bare Necessities”—for a group of children from Junior Kindergarten to third grade.
None of them were in the school building; all were at home watching on their own computer screens necessitated by the current Covid-19 pandemic. It was 3 p.m., when many of those children normally would have been on campus at what Hill calls “Late Gates,” its popular after-school program.
One of their regular teachers, Dorsey deButts, also appeared on their screens, playing puppeteer with a bunch of Teddy Bears she had “dancing” to Lyman’s music.
“All of us were connected on Zoom,” Lyman said. “The children were singing and dancing at home, and everyone was having a wonderful time. It was just great to see.”
This was hardly a one-off production either, because Hill, with its dedicated faculty and staff, created a structured, on-line curriculum for its 224 students virtually overnight. They call the program “Hill at Home” and it includes live individual class instruction beginning at 9 a.m. each school day for all students from Junior Kindergarten through 8th grade, with supplemental programming available in the afternoon.
Public and independent schools across the state of Virginia were ordered closed for the rest of the academic year early in March because of Covid-19. The Hill faculty and staff then spent what should have been the school’s regular two-week spring break surveying parents, blue-skying ideas, and then coming up with the final program that was put in place following the scheduled break.
The survey was taken to determine if families had computers, not to mention dependable internet service, to access the virtual school day. Those who did not have computers available were lent Chromebooks to fill that gap. In addition to Chromebooks, string instruments were sent home with Hill’s third and fourth graders so that learning could continue, as well as all the materials students would need to start the online program on Monday, March 30th.
Lyman said. “We believe in face-to-face education that educates the whole child. We certainly would rather see our students in person. However our teachers have embraced this form of learning, and it’s been extraordinary.”
The program varies from lower school (Junior Kindergarten – 3rd grade) to the upper school (4th -8th grade). And attendance in every grade has been virtually 100 percent every day, Lyman said.
A first-grader’s program, for example, includes a daily 15-minute homeroom from 9 to 9:15 a.m. They have language arts daily from 9:15 to 9:45, and math daily from 10:40 to 11:10 a.m. The other three periods are a mix of science, Spanish, music, art, physical education, a virtual library visit as well as four classes a week that are the teacher’s choice. There’s even a built-in 20-minute snack break.
Eighth graders have a wide variety of classes including math, science, history, English, Spanish, and Latin, with additional classes each week in art, music and sports. Teachers in the upper school also are available for individual conferences and help with assignments from 1 to 2 p.m. every day. The students take tests, and there’s still homework.
The supplemental afternoon programs, entitled Supplement HILL, are available either at set hours or any time, depending on the subject. Among many lower school choices are recorded story sessions that include teachers reading children’s books or recorded sing-along songs.
Other possibilities available to every student include a class in “mouth sounds and magic tricks.” It’s described as “a break that is silly and fun. Learn to make mouth sounds and do simple magic tricks.”
Hill’s Grounds Supervisor Bob Dornin has a session called “What’s Blooming at Hill” and takes students on a virtual tour of plants and trees all around the campus.
Science teacher Susan McCaskey leads a “Fun Science” session that includes “accessible and fun science activities and videos.” Fifth grade teacher John Daum offers a Travel Club that includes virtually traveling the world and is open to students of all ages, and their parents.
A Drama Club has participants listening to old-time radio shows. There’s a Play-Reading Club, a Debate Club, and a Forensics Club. A unique Pop-Up Performance session asks students to “try your hand at a recorded performance or singing, playing an instrument, presenting a monologue, a skit with siblings or other family members, a short movie or almost anything else you want to share with the Hill community.”
“Our primary job as a school right now is to support families by keeping students connected and engaged while advancing learning by providing structure, routine, and interesting learning experiences,” Lyman said. “We are looking forward to when our Community – students, parents, faculty and staff – can gather again in person.”
Indeed, at the very least, they’ll all have received the “bare necessities,” and so much more, from Hill at Home.