Interview by Tara Kosowski
Feature image courtesy of The Bryn Mawr School.
A few months in, the COVID-19 pandemic is taking its toll on everyone, even those lucky enough to remain physically healthy and at home. Increasing numbers of students say they feel overwhelmed, and with physical campuses closed, effectively connecting with struggling students and employees has proven challenging. But necessity begets inventions, and the challenge has prompted schools to adapt their wellness programs to meet the moment.
Net Assets asked two schools recently featured in our May/June cover story “Built for Wellness: Facilities that Enhance Wellbeing,” how they have responded during the pandemic. Kim Kryder, director of wellness at Berwick Academy, and Sharon Wolford, assistant head of school for finance and administration at the Bryn Mawr School, discuss strategies for continuing wellness programs remotely.
Net Assets: When your school first made the decision to shift schooling online, what conversations did your leadership team have about wellness?
Sharon Wolford: From the moment we decided to close campus, we knew that our community members’ emotional wellbeing was just as important as their physical safety and health. We discussed how best to support the social-emotional development of our students in a remote capacity. This included, but was not limited to, discussions regarding the delivery of information and resources to families and students; procedures for crisis management; faculty and staff development and crisis support; safety precautions to ensure privacy; and access/availability of our staff. We wanted to ensure our comprehensive school counseling and wellness programming remained as consistent as possible while prioritizing crisis response and the direct support of students and families.
Kim Kryder: Our goal was always to keep students and faculty connected as much as possible and hold on to our community gathering time. The first step in doing so faculty enough breaks to get off their screens and spend time with their families. The plan also needed to be sustainable for the rest of the school year and beyond, if necessary. We gave ourselves permission to make changes on the fly. Giving everyone enough time to prepare was key, and we offered faculty a lot of professional development on how best to transition our wellness programming to a remote learning environment.
Net Assets: What are some examples of wellness activities, tools or lessons the school has rolled out or continued in recent weeks?
Kryder: Because wellness is already an important part of our school community, it was relatively easy to continue some of those practices into the remote school day. For example, Berwick expanded the Clubs, Community Care program, which offers upper school students a chance to check in with the school nurse, school counselor and other faculty members over Zoom for three times a week. Students, along with the faculty or staff member, connect over baking cookies, watching a favorite episode of “The Office,” or playing music together. In the lower school, our school counselor has hosted wellness sessions for each grade, continued social-emotional learning programming and focused on more mental health education. We also moved our weekly division assemblies to Zoom, which have turned into my favorite part of the work week.
Wolford: We have continued to provide individual student support, classroom guidance and small group support for students and parents, as well as faculty consultation and support. For example, we hold parent coffees, student lunch groups and peer education lessons. We have also supported school wide initiatives that enhance wellness and student wellbeing such as our current “house system” activities, yoga classes and meditation sessions, varying fitness activities and self-care opportunities.
We have also supported our student leaders in continuing to engage in peer mentorship and support. Upper school mentors regularly check in with lower and middle school students, for example. Students have organized their own initiatives, such as Bryn Buddies — an optional program in which upper school students Zoom with lower school children to do fun activities like art projects, games and reading. The sessions provide our students ways to connect and engage, as well as a little break for the younger children’s caretakers. That’s a win-win!
Net Assets: How has your school considered faculty and staff when thinking about wellness?
Wolford: There has been a continual message of being patient and kind to ourselves as we all try to navigate a new way of living and working. A regular refrain when a meeting is coming to an end is, “Hope you can get outside now.” We have tried to become more efficient with our meeting time and understand that for many, particularly those who may be caring for children, elderly parents, etc., the workday is a great balancing act. One way that we’ve been able to connect with each other online is through virtual yoga. This activity has always been offered, but since moving online, the faculty member who teaches each yoga class has recorded her classes and sends them out so that everyone can access them at any time during the week.
Kryder: Bryn Mawr’s director of student support services organized group discussion channels for faculty and staff. The goal is to provide a space where we can provide empathy and support each other during this experience. Groups are available for any faculty member who is interested in attending, but we also offer discussion groups for specific populations, such as faculty with small children and faculty living alone. All of our counselors continue to provide individual support to faculty as needed. We’ve also found more casual virtual gatherings really nice, such as a book club or yoga Mondays, just to connect face-to-face for a short time.
Net Assets: What advice do you have for other independent schools seeking to promote physical and mental health while campuses are still closed?
Kryder: Start by creating a resource page and keep encouraging families to check it. Update it weekly with new ideas on how families can be connecting together while focusing on their health.
Wolford: Be creative and find a way — it is as important as ever.
Net Assets: How do you believe this experience will impact your school’s approach to wellness going forward?
"It’s been a rewarding experience to model what we have always taught our students — that nothing will be perfect the first time! We are constantly learning, tinkering and strengthening our distance learning experience."
The Bryn Mawr School
Wolford: For a school that thrives on community, tradition and close relationships, we’re proud of the way we’ve found ways to come together and support each other, even at a distance. It’s also been a rewarding experience to model what we have always taught our students — that nothing will be perfect the first time! We are constantly learning, tinkering and strengthening our distance learning experience.
Kryder: I’m proud of the fact that many community members have found ways to focus on their own wellness while adapting to this new normal. I believe this is in part possible because we were already a community that cared about wellness. In other words, it doesn’t seem strange for us to talk about the importance of wellness right now because we have always had these discussions with our community.
When we eventually return to campus, I think it will feel like a welcome new beginning for everyone, but there may be some adjustments. For instance, I think we will need to focus more on social emotional learning to help students remember how to interact with each other. I also hope this experience will lead teachers to offer more “brain breaks” as well as physical breaks during their hour-long classes.
It will obviously be much harder, should we not be able to start the school year on campus, but my hope is we will approach the beginning of the 2020-21 school year with fresh eyes and optimism like we always start a school year and then meet the students where they are. I think our entire community has grown closer due to this pandemic and I think we will all celebrate being back together again.