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Looking Back and Moving Forward: A Year in Review
Hannah Arndt

In March 2020, Branson sent notice to students and parents that school would shut down for two weeks due to the rapid spread of Covid-19. At the time, we hoped to be back on campus by March 30. Since then, “school” as we know it at Branson has gone through more iterations than one ever thought possible in a year and a half. While so much change, fear, and uncertainty in our lives created challenges we never would have anticipated, the pandemic also allowed us to see more clearly the importance of our mission and core values in leading us through difficult times.

After closing our campus in March, Branson’s administrators and faculty spent almost every waking moment of the next seven months preparing for a return to in-person learning, keeping the health and safety of our school community in mind with every detail of preparation. And throughout the months of rethinking every aspect of how Branson operates – from the schedule to lunches, transportation, classroom content and structure, and beyond – Branson teachers kept students learning and connected through Zoom, beginning the 2020-21 school year online five days a week.

Branson was the first school in Marin to welcome every grade level back to campus four days a week on October 19, 2020. By then, Branson’s campus had been transformed. Blue tents had popped up all over campus for outdoor learning, with camp chairs giving outdoor classrooms a summer-camp-like feel. Handwashing stations and new health & safety signage also proliferated the grounds. Classrooms were reconfigured to keep students and teachers physically distant. But despite these changes, students still returned to Branson’s campus with their same curiosity, energy, desire to learn, and an even greater appreciation for being with their peers.

Throughout the pandemic, Branson teachers and administrators worked together to create a learning experience that was ambitious and matched our commitment to providing students with a purposeful, fulfilling, and quality education. We searched for new technologies and instructional methods that would improve the student experience. Our collective commitment to always doing it better made it possible to change the schedule, adopt new technologies, and find very creative solutions to the challenges of teaching hybrid/ in-person outdoors or indoors. We leveraged our many strengths (people, small size, independence, location, traditions) to advance a set of strategic goals that might otherwise be deprioritized or postponed during a period of crisis.

While much of our academic program was enormously impacted, so too were our Arts and Athletics programs. While Athletics teams did their best to stay connected on Zoom and coaches offered fitness training online, there was community-wide exaltation when specific sports teams (those deemed safe under the California colored tier system) began practicing together in January of 2021. By March 2021, we sent out our first Weekly Games schedule, and competitions were back on! Albeit mask-wearing and following other safety protocols, students were overjoyed to return to the fields and the gyms, and they did so with the Branson Bulls spirit. Eventually, the Branson athletics department ran XX teams simultaneously. While we hope to never cram that many sports into six weeks ever again, we wanted to ensure that all of our students could continue their athletic training and growth. 

Our arts program also had to overcome incredible obstacles. Our arts faculty did a phenomenal job of nurturing creativity under the new circumstances, but it was difficult to create the same energy of a performance or studio experience online. When we first returned in person, there were still immense obstacles – our vocalists were not allowed to sing on campus, wind instrumentalists could not practice, and our actors put together a play with both students who were on campus and remote. In May 2021, the Arts department pulled off another beautiful Festival of the Arts at Branson (FAB) – our very first in-person campus-wide event. Students gathered with their entire class for the first time in the year to watch pre-recorded performances in May 2021, a historic moment in a year absent of in-person community events.

At a cool but sunny graduation ceremony on a Tuesday morning in June, Branson Head of School Chris Mazzola presented the Head of School Award – historically given to an individual – to the entire Class of 2021, “for their resiliency, leadership, and perseverance during Covid-19.” She spoke to a crowd of over 200, including the graduates, their parents, and siblings, their teachers and mentors, who, though masked and separated by pods, were all together for the first time on campus in 15 months. Despite the most turbulent year possibly any of us can ever remember, it was a moment of pride, reflection, and community. Branson – its students, faculty and staff, administrators, parents, and alumni – stuck together through it all. As we continue to process and at times grieve this last year, we know that our collective experience and the lessons we learned will ultimately leave us as a stronger community in the end.