Settling Into a Hybrid Home

As Sidwell Friends began shifting to the hybrid learning program, de-densifying classrooms was a top priority to make everyone’s return as safe as possible. That meant breaking students into smaller groups, only hosting a few cohorts on campus at a time, and creating other ways for students to remain at a safe distance from one another and their teachers. That’s why 4th graders, instead of heading back to the Lower School campus in Bethesda, found themselves traveling a few miles up Wisconsin Avenue to DC and the Middle School.

After working with the Sidwell Friends Medical Advisory Team and using guidelines from local and national health experts, the School began shifting into a full hybrid learning plan (meaning Middle and Upper School students will also return to campus in small groups soon) on October 26. As the class of ’29 entered the School, the precautions were clear: Desks were shielded in plexiglass, students and teachers sported masks, lunches were individually packed, and everyone on campus had recently been tested for COVID-19. Just that morning—as they will every morning—students’ parents filled out a questionnaire about their student’s health.

On the same campus (but at different times), Upper School students have also returned in a unusual way; athletic cohorts have been meeting for weeks now for optional short, physically distanced workouts, and students now have the option of gathering on campus on Wednesdays for co-curricular activities.

For the 4th graders, coming to campus was a return to at least some kind of normal as students set up their cubbies, organized their desks, and rejoined classmates old and new in a non-virtual world. They’ll do this until Thanksgiving: The School will then return to distance learning after the winter holidays to ensure everyone’s safety during the travel-heavy time. In Edith Zhang ’81’s class, students organized their markers and settled into their desks (and received matching bucket hats emblazoned with Star the Fox). Even with a minor technical glitch—the internet went out briefly—in 4th grade teacher Jamie Tomik’s class, students worked together to create a list of things they could do offline.

Though the classrooms look different, they’re not lifeless. There may be a large bottle of Purell on teacher Teresita Cuesta’s classroom, but there are also more cheerful additions. Cuesta put up her signature banners, similar to Nepalese prayer flags, on the wall. The first flag reads “pax,” Latin for “peace.” The banners have been in every one of her classrooms for the past 20 years.

“A 1st grade parent gave this to me in my first year,” Cuesta said. “Now that student is an adult.”

It wasn’t just the flags that gave Cuesta a sense of normalcy in an abnormal time—the return to in-person learning meant a return to what it was like before March 2020.

“The best part was hearing several conversations at the same time—and the kids could actually understand each other,” Cuesta says. “And there was no need to use the mute button."

The students contributed to the décor as well. They brought in self-portraits they had worked on at home as an exploration of their identities. They also brought in colorful posters of “wish trees,” a project students began after reading Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree, a novel about a tree that has watched over a community for over 200 years and has seen love and magic, as well as ignorance and oppression.

“There are my wishes, and here in the center are the Black Lives Matter principles that we wrote about,” Kabir ’29 says.

The return to campus was particularly special for those students who are new to Sidwell Friends. Prior to Monday, George ’29 had only been to campus for two half-days. “I like it. I don’t like being on the screen the whole time,” he says. “I expect now there will be more things to do, and maybe harder things to do.”

He’s not worried, though. He has someone at home rooting for him.

“I’m excited,” George says. “My dog came with me at dropoff to wish me luck.”

Photos from Hybrid Learning

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