Last March, when the coronavirus brought our lives to a standstill and threw our plans for a loop, faculty and staff at Saint Ursula Academy leapt into action. They had to quickly figure out how best to operate during a pandemic and, since there is no playbook for such a thing, the task was not easy.

“We had to be incredibly creative and lean into the inevitable change that was coming,” says Lelia Keefe Kramer, Saint Ursula Academy president. They immediately created the COVID-19 Crisis Management Team, made up of school leadership, and began to discuss what remote learning would look like. They were transparent and intensely communicative with teachers, students and parents because they knew that navigating this new, bizarre, ever-changing world was generating a great deal of angst.

Thankfully, given that the school has a one-to-one laptop program, they were immediately and rather seamlessly able to transition to a distance learning model. School leaders then talked through the “what-if” scenarios, as in “What if we don’t come back in August?”

 They created a hybrid schedule that ensured all 650 students would receive the best education possible, whether they were on or off campus, while also providing them with ample social- emotional support.

“Having all that pre-work done and having honest conversations that were not always easy helped us create the plan that we are living in now that serves the students academically, socially and emotionally,” says Keefe Kramer.

Their hybrid model, which took into account safety, personal well-being and continuation of learning, keeps the academic approach holistic. Students are on campus Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and have two classes each day. Doing so limits the number of transitions, which lessens the chance of transmission of the coronavirus. Wednesday is a distance learning day with all four classes.

Teens thrive on structure and routine, so students at Saint Ursula have appreciated that when decisions are made regarding next steps, there is no waffling or backsliding.

“Disruption to routines can be incredibly difficult for a teen,” says Dr. Mari Thomas, Saint Ursula Academy principal. “They like safe environments, both emotionally and academically, so knowing exactly what the next day looks like gives them peace of mind.”

One thing that has become abundantly clear over the past seven months is that living in a pandemic is extremely overwhelming and energy-zapping.

“We watched our community get deflated,” says Thomas. “By the time we made it to Friday, everyone was exhausted.”

Therefore, they opted to introduce a mid-week distance learning day that would serve to give both students and staff a breather so that they can return to the classroom on Thursday as the best versions of themselves.

“Wednesday is a slightly slower-paced day, though learning still continues,” says Thomas. Students also can come to campus that day to receive extra help if they need it.

The pandemic has prompted both the faculty and students to develop new skill sets. For instance, last spring the faculty learned that most of their students had not fully developed their problem-solving skills because they had relied on tradition-   al in-person teaching methods in which instructors walk them through different situations.

“Without that hand-over-hand support, some of the students stuggled with the new virtual model,” says Thomas. “We needed to create independent problem solvers and push them outside their comfort zones.”

Wednesday’s virtual learning provides that opportunity to navigate their education, access teachers’ office hours and utilize technology tools that allow them to master the content their teachers put in front of them.

“Our girls come out stronger because we’ve created this extra set of self-advocacy skills and independent thinking skills,” says Thomas.

Adds Keefe Kramer, “Another silver lining [to the pandemic] is the number of creative and educational opportunities we have now. For instance, our girls can participate in experiential learning on Wednesdays where they can build upon what they are learning in the classroom.”

Though it’s been a ton of work, the staff is thrilled to see that their hybrid plan is working. The schedule design, the intentional execution of social mitigation practices within every classroom and within athletics, coupled with additional best practices of seating charts, has kept COVID-19 exposure to a minimum. As a result, school attendance is high and absenteeism is low.

“It’s doing exactly what we wanted it to do — mitigate the spread so that we are not forced back into distance learning,” says Thomas. “If we continue to do this well, we could continue in-person learning for a long time.”

Saint Ursula Academy is located at 1339 East McMillan St., Cincinnati, OH 45206. For more information, visit www.saintursula.org