As 2021 comes to a close, the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic seems like ages ago. Back then, schools began using all kinds of distance learning techniques in order to keep students on track with their education. Now, looking back, we’ve learned so much about the long-term effects that online learning has on students. 

For this article, we sat down with the leaders of Highland and Verdun’s 2021 Summer Enrichment program to reflect on what they accomplished over the past year as they worked to combat issues that can arise from too much online learning. We also discussed the ways in which their program helped students from our broader community strengthen their academic standing.

Online learning challenges for students 

At the start of the pandemic, schools across the United States were forced to transition to online courses. Some students were afraid of the challenges of learning over online platforms like Zoom®. Some were excited about attending classes from home. Mostly, everyone was asking when this strange new world would finally return to something vaguely normal.

When the class of 2020 graduated and the 2020-21 school year began to draw closer, Highland was determined to start making that transition. The school promised students the possibility of a year of learning that would take place mostly in person, but it certainly wasn’t easy to deliver. In the face of significantly higher school upkeep costs associated with pandemic safety, combined with more restrictions on fundraising than ever before, Highland was caught in a bind. The school had to find a way to keep providing a top-notch education to all its students with fewer resources and increased expenses.

Enter the PATH Foundation’s Community Resilience grant, which was created to help local nonprofits recoup resources lost due to the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, Highland applied for the grant and was awarded $25,000. This money went to enabling the school to function in person. With the grant, Highland bought personal protective equipment for students and faculty, acquired resources to care for mental health and wellness, and updated teaching and learning technology.

Grant from PATH Foundation helped keep students in school

The PATH Foundation helped Highland do something remarkable—they ensured that the school continued to operate in-person at its usual level, providing students with an exceptional college preparatory experience despite the pandemic. Thanks to this grant Highland students and faculty had the privilege of going to school and seeing each other face to (masked) face.

The faculty and staff noticed that being back in person made all the difference. When asked if in-person learning was better for her students, Erica Deane, the Middle School Technology Coordinator, didn’t even have to think about it. “Oh, one hundred and ten percent! It’s just so much more exhausting for kids and teachers to be online.”

Seeking opportunities to help more students

When Highland realized that most public schools in the surrounding area were going to end up online for the entire 2020-21 school year, its leadership knew that they had to do something to help. They’d already seen how much one grant could help their students get back to school and start learning normally again. So, when the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation announced a grant that would help two nonprofits partner together to bring a new program to Fauquier County and the surrounding area, it was a no-brainer to apply. Highland reached out to Verdun Adventure Bound in Culpeper, and the fully funded, tuition-free 2021 Summer Enrichment program was born.

Highland Partnered with Verdun Adventure Bound

After working together, Highland and Verdun ultimately received a $20,000 grant from the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation. The two organizations designed a summer program that would help public school students from the local community close the online vs. in-person gap. The goal? To prepare students both socially and emotionally to move onto the next grade level when in-person school restarted. 

The program ran four days a week for two weeks during July of 2021. Two days each week were spent at Highland with Ms. Deane and her team for academic enrichment—campers got individual instruction to catch them up in math, language arts, STEM, and even the performing arts. For the other half of each week, campers journeyed to Verdun, where Executive Director Sean McElhinney helped them focus on resilience, team-building, and social-emotional health. 

As both of them will tell you, the program didn’t just help set students on course for the new school year. It helped them build skills that will impact their community for years.

“There was a huge disparity between what teachers could do with online learning versus what students described from their perspective,” said Ms. Deane. “They were further behind than we expected. The level of education at different schools was also not equitable—students in the same grade were getting a very different education.” 

The solution? The team at Highland focused on interdisciplinary research and debate skills that the campers could use to be successful not just in the coming school year, but in life. “We tried to teach them how to understand the differences between facts, opinions, and inferences,” Ms. Deane explained. “They learned how to prepare an argument and have empathy for the other side of the debate.” Ms. Deane thought that simply coming together, talking about different points of view, and learning from each other was one of the most important skills the students practiced. “The social-emotional piece was huge.”

Empathy and Connection were important byproducts

Sean McElhinney agreed that helping campers practice empathy and ways to connect with others was a major part of the program’s impact. “The kids definitely seemed like they needed it, especially with the way society is divided these days, geopolitically. It’s so important for us to show them that it’s okay to be together with people that are different from you. I think that is enriching to our community now and in the future.”

Many interested parents have already asked if the camp will be running again, and Ms. Deane and Mr. McElhinney are certainly hoping to work together on another program this summer. “We thought that working together with Highland was a great partnership,” said McElhinney. “We tackled two different challenges kids might be facing. These aren’t unique challenges to CoVID times, but this program has never been done before. Having the social-emotional and academic pieces together in one camp made the whole experience more enriching.”

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