Maddy Gillner ’22 NEWS Reporter
As every student at Mercersburg Academy knows, the first six weeks of this year’s winter term will occur online. Fewer, however, know the amount of work that happens behind the scenes to ensure that our winter term is the best it can be in such unusual times. From the difficult decision to go online, to the new schedule itself, an endless amount of work was done in order to create an effective Virtual ’Burg experience. The decision to go online, though disappointing to students and faculty alike, was a necessary one.
Head of School Katie Titus stated that high positivity rates, full hospitals, long waits test results, and confining Pennsylvania winters all influenced the decision to go virtual. Quite simply, there were too many uncertainties and risks to safely let students back onto campus as planned in January. “Being virtual for six weeks provides us with the best sense of control during a time when it has felt like a lot has been out of our control,” said Titus.
Thankfully, Mercersburg has been well-prepared for such a pivot. Last spring, the decision to go online happened suddenly, leaving all scrambling to adjust. And while that schedule fulfilled its purpose, the schedule adopted this year is more conducive to online learning.
One new aspect of the online schedule for the winter is the creation of flexible class meeting times (early and late classes meeting for each rotation) coupled with asynchronous time. For Academic Dean Jen Smith ’97, this has two main purposes: to give virtual students all around the world the ability to go to live class and to allocate time for a variety of work. Last spring, many students in Asia had to stay up until two in the morning or later in order to be in class. This year, every student can attend class at a relatively convenient and accessible time.
Asynchronous time also allows students to have more flexibility in their schedules, since they are sitting for only two (or perhaps three) hours of synchronous class per day. What’s more, some classwork is better when completed independently instead of on a Google Meet. Smith said she took inspiration from courses designed to be online; many of them used asynchronous time for independent work.
Of course, there are some drawbacks to the new schedule. Depending on the class, only one or two students opt for the early meeting. That’s not ideal for students or teachers, since classes are designed for around ten people. However, Smith strongly believes that it is better and more effective than last spring’s schedule.
As much as the school might try, there’s no way to completely recreate the feeling of community that’s synonymous with Mercersburg if we’re all online. However, Titus is excited about some of the ways we’ve been able to connect this term, such as the daily newsletter email which includes the traditional quotation of the day and virtual “birthday claps.” She also hopes that classes, virtual PGAs, and online SAC events can “create community and connection” while we’re away from campus.
Always the optimist, Titus feels that “We can build the Mercersburg community, returning even stronger in the spring.” Until then, though, she wants students to think about how they can build community, especially for new students, asking, “What do YOU think we can do during this time to be the Mercersburg community that we know we are and to help our new students feel that same connection to it?”