Angela and Krister Killinger, parents of Hill School fifth and seventh graders, admittedly had some trepidation about sending their children back into the classroom in early September as the Covid pandemic showed little sign of abating at the end of the summer.
More than two months after the Sept. 10 start of school, Angela said, “I have no concerns now. Hill has done an amazing job keeping everyone safe. The children had some anxiety about going back, but they now go there confidently. Everyone is following the rules, washing hands, wearing masks, social distancing and a lot more.
“It’s been such a great mood enhancer for them. There’s a new life around the dinner table, the chatter of the school day, what they did in class. They’re so engaged in learning again, after so many months in kind of a funk.”
Surely that has to be sweet music to the ears of Hill’s teachers and administrators, many of whom spent a good part of the summer planning for the return of 233 students to their Middleburg campus.
Kara Whitehead, who has taught second grade for 14 years at Hill, was part of the task force led by Head of School Treavor Lord to tackle and try to solve all the issues they might face when students from Junior Kindergarten to eighth grade returned for the fall semester.
“Am I nervous?” she replied in response to a question. “With all of this ongoing support and collaboration, in-depth thought, hard work, and determination to do what’s right, I am a bit, but not terribly. I’ve never heard a Hill teacher say something is too hard. Challenging yes. Too challenging, no. I’m more focused on doing the right thing for our children than I am about the worry of returning to campus every day.
“I really feel that Hill would never ask us to do something that’s not sound or good for everyone. We hear all the time that returning to school in person is what’s best for the children. As teachers, we do what we do because we love children and work to do what’s best for them and their families. We’re also here because we believe in community and a sense of belonging.”
Hunt Lyman, Hill’s Academic Dean, also was a key member of the task force. Ironically, when Hill went to a virtual teaching program to cope with Covid right after spring break last year, he also was instrumental in helping devise the plans to keep students engaged in their schoolwork via Zoom.
The decision to bring students back into the classroom was not made lightly, he said.
“Number one, we’re a relatively small school,” he said. “We also have an expansive campus with a lot of outdoor space. We’ve set up 19 outdoor classrooms where we can have students outside for a good part of the day. And we also have tremendous flexibility with our faculty in terms of curriculum.”
Said Kara Whitehead, “we are fortunate to have this beautiful campus. We all want students to engage in a strong and healthy learning environment. We want our students to be happy and participate in activities that are much the same as before Covid-19, but in new and different ways.”
Different from past years but now standard procedure, there is daily mandatory hand-washing, mask-wearing, and social-distancing. But Hill also has gone way beyond to fulfill CDC, state and county rules on dealing with Covid.
They now have two homerooms for each grade (Kindergarten through 8th grade) instead of the usual one, allowing for fewer students in a room and providing further spacing between desks. Instead of students moving to different classrooms during the day, their teachers come to them.
First thing in the morning, windows and doors are opened to circulate fresh air, and during and at the end of each day, staff ensure all high touch areas are cleaned. Each class has a dedicated bathroom. There is new furniture in the rooms. All sports activities are co-ed. And every student in 3rd to 8th grade has their own Chromebook computer.
Before the start of the school year, all students, teachers, and staff members had to take a Covid test. The School also requires the daily completion of a health screening app for all members of the community.
“They have to enter their temperature,” Kara Whitehead explained. “The app asks if anyone in their family has had an unexplained fever, cough, headache, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, a whole Covid checklist. If there’s a yes answer on any of the questions they get a big no and can’t come to school.”
Not a single student or teacher has contracted Covid since the start of the school year, the most important NO! of them all.
Many parents have echoed the sentiment of gratitude for having their children learning in-person at Hill. As Lynn Holtzman, a parent new to Hill, recently wrote in an email, “I am amazed and so appreciative of how well you have all done with the start of school.
“The feedback we’ve gotten through the zoom meetings, newsletter, class parents and teachers has been great, and the flexibility you’ve shown with tweaking procedures as necessary is kind of mind boggling. We are not used to a school with that kind of level-headed decisiveness. And the boys love school, have made friends and are happy. We are very grateful, so thank you!”
Angela Killinger sums it up: “Hill has just done a great job. We couldn’t be more pleased.”