New modes of learning and community in a disrupted semester
When the coronavirus pandemic halted normal life in the middle of Branson’s spring semester, it was not immediately clear that we would be closing campus for the remainder of the school year, or that school might look different for quite some time. However, it was clear that to continue putting our community’s health and safety at the forefront, we would need to quickly move to a learning model unlike anything Branson had ever used before.
In February, a team of Branson administrators, staff, and faculty had begun working quietly to create an entirely new online learning program, just in case it might be needed. When on March 16, Marin and five other Bay Area counties announced shelter-in-place orders, students and teachers had less than a week to put this program into action. The effort involved developing a new schedule, making sure all students and teachers had access to and mastery of online learning technology, developing different pedagogical techniques and methods of teaching and learning, adjusting planned curriculum and lesson plans, ensuring educational continuity during the transition and, most importantly, finding new ways to stay connected and hopeful during an unprecedented global disruption. While the new program certainly came with its challenges, we were incredibly impressed with how our students, faculty, and staff taught and learned, cared for one another, and even found new ways of having fun, all from afar.
Classes looked different during distance learning — we moved to 80-minute blocks and all “homework” was completed during class time. Online classes provided new opportunities. For example, guest speakers hailing from places as far as Hong Kong and Italy, or as close as Denver and the Bay Area, joined online music, Italian, history, and Mandarin classes. Teachers ramped up their use of video as a means of giving assignments. In biology classes, juniors recorded videos to show examples of different types of plants in their backyards. Students in dance classes cleared out their living room furniture, donned sneakers to dance in their back yards, and taught choreography to their families and filmed the results. In Marine Biology, seniors created David Attenborough-inspired vignettes of underwater environments. Many teachers also found ways to make the most of the change in learning venue. For example, in History of World War II and Spanish classes, students met from their home kitchens to cook and learn.
Clubs and student activities also continued remotely. From Crazy Hat Day to an online “Scavenger Hunt,” the silly and fun-loving elements of the Branson community didn’t disappear online. In many ways, it was the goofy moments that kept us connected and sane during difficult times. Advisories continued to meet and develop creative virtual activities together — including the addition of pets to meetings. Branson Strength and Conditioning Coach Bruce Pruiett provided daily workout challenges for the students and faculty/staff via email and when spring sports were officially cancelled, the teams continued to meet with their coaches to both discuss at-home workouts and check on and support each other.
While online classes provided the important thread of community and learning, we also learned the importance of being offline in the spring. Students shared their experiences having more time for their art, the outdoors, themselves, and connecting with their families and friends in new ways. For their Capstone Projects, most seniors had to modify or reimagine their original plans, and many focused on activities like cooking, learning a new instrument, hiking, or yoga.
While the Branson community supported each other through the transition, an amazing range of Branson students, staff, faculty, parents, and alumni also stepped up to support the broader Marin and Bay Area community. From developing face shields for local hospitals to delivering meals to seniors and high-risk individuals, Branson’s core values — courage, kindness, honor and purpose — shone through all year.
We are proud of how our community showed its continued commitment to excellent education, our students, their health and well-being, and the greater world, as we grappled with and adapted to immense adversity. We know we will emerge from these challenges stronger, more resilient, and more confident that a Branson education can deliver upon its promise.
(Read about Branson's Roadmap to Reopening on our website.)