Lincoln Academy teachers sent in these “workstation selfies” to celebrate the first week of virtual learning at LA.

When Lincoln Academy Head of School Jeff Burroughs attended the 2020 NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) Conference during the last week of February, it seemed likely that Maine schools would close at some point to slow the spread of coronavirus. In anticipation, Burroughs assembled a crisis team of LA’s academic, technology, communications, and administrative staff people to form a plan.

“Closing a school is a complex undertaking, and we wanted to make sure we covered our bases; from ensuring campus safety, to making decisions about our residential community, to looking at academic continuity for all of our students,” said Burroughs. “The team we assembled looked at all of these issues and more as we prepared for an uncertain future.”

Each administrative leader looked at the impact of school closure on their particular area, including Special Education, Residential Life, Athletics, Facilities, Communications, and academic departments.

Kelley Duffy, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and Stephanie Cheney, Academic Technology Coordinator, took the lead on academic planning. “As soon as a closure looked likely, we began surveying students about their online access and devices. We also researched best practices from overseas schools that had made the same transition 4-6 weeks earlier,” said Duffy. “We’re lucky that educators are a generous group, as we modeled LA’s plan on other schools’ work. ISANNE (the Independent School Association of Northern New England) and NAIS also provided a lot of resources and discussion forums.”

Once schools around the state made the decision to close, LA was ahead of the curve in having an academic plan in place. “I think we acted quickly because of concerns about protecting our residential population,” Duffy said. “We were very aware of the global situation, and decided to be proactive.” Camden Hills High School and AOS93 also shared resources with LA in the final days before closing.

LA had one advantage going into this closure: the school was already using Canvas, an online Learning Management System employed by secondary schools and colleges throughout the nation. According to Duffy, “teachers and students were already familiar with the process of posting and submitting work online. That helped.”

The transition has not been without challenges, the biggest of which is meeting the needs of students with poor quality or no internet connections at home. “Virtual learning is nearly impossible without internet access,” said Stephanie Cheney, who, along with Duffy and LA Director of Library Services Laura Phelps has been working to help every LA student connect remotely. “Students need adequate devices and connectivity in order to complete any school work right now.”

Spectrum and Tidewater Telecom have both offered free installation and internet for families during this school closure. “We are also anticipating the arrival of new mobile hotspots early next week, which we’ll distribute to families who can’t access these services,” said Phelps.

Another hurdle, according to Duffy, is that “certain subjects are more challenging than others to teach and learn virtually.” Some academic classes like math and social studies are simpler to transition online, while others, like art, woodworking, and wellness, are harder.

Despite the obstacles, Duffy said, “people have been remarkably creative and resilient. It is a work in progress–we’re all learning and adapting together. We want this to be a success for everyone involved. We’ve had some lovely feedback from students and families. Most importantly, so far our school population has stayed safe and healthy.”

“Transitioning to virtual learning, closing our dorms, and preparing meals for delivery to local families–these are just a few of the enormous projects undertaken by LA staff in the last two weeks,” said Burroughs. “As a brand new head of school I am in awe of what happens when you empower skillful people–amazing things are happening at LA, and I am proud of the staff and students for handling this crisis with skill, dedication, empathy, and resolve. Our buildings may be dark and the parking lots empty, but we are anything but closed.”