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COVID Keepers: Seeing the pandemic as a portal to a better future

By Luke Meyers
Nearly two years after the height of the COVID pandemic, we live in a world reimagined. Some of what seemed like short-term solutions or operational detours at the moment have proved to be catalysts for reframing the educational experience, engaging our community, and ensuring access. 
In April of 2020, during the earliest days of the pandemic, Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy wrote of an unexpected but positive impact COVID-19 might have. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” Roy posited for the London-based Financial Times. “This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

So, nearly two years later, here we stand atop Mount Ida in a world reimagined. While none of us are wistful for the challenges brought on by COVID, we also recognize that Emma Willard School has evolved through this time. Some of what seemed like short-term solutions or operational detours at the moment have proved to be catalysts for reframing the educational experience of our students, engagement with our alumnae community, and ensuring access for the under-served.

These are elements of the pandemic and resulting remote or virtual experience that have proved net positives for Emma Willard. So we’ve dubbed them—only somewhat ruefully—our “COVID Keepers.”

“Live streaming Emma Willard School’s key traditions and celebrations that occur on campus has allowed students with family members from across the country and world to be part of these special moments,” notes Head of School Jenny Rao.

Events like Eventide, Honors Convocation, and even Commencement will each maintain a virtual component for the foreseeable future, thanks to the way it grants ubiquitous access.

“The pandemic has also forever changed how we use our learning management system, MyEmma,” explains Meredith Legg, assistant head of school. “We’ve been able to improve the speed and clarity of our communication to students by centralizing the information in one place.”

Students and parents alike have benefited from the increased use of Zoom and Google Meet, making extra help more widely available outside of the classroom and strengthening the connections between parents and advisors.

And, in the classroom, faculty will maintain access to many of the technological enhancements that made the move to remote learning possible. A whole host of applications were put in place—EdPuzzle, FlipGrid, Padlet, PearDeck, Screencastify, VoiceThread, and more—to ensure teachers could translate their own teaching style into the virtual space. These shifts have the long-term benefit of increased familiarity and fluency with technology, which enriches the learning experience overall.

While the Office of Advancement eagerly expects a return to in-person events for this spring and summer, they also tout the increased engagement and access achieved through virtual programming.

“We will be keeping our virtual events, in addition to our return to in-person,” states Ann Dejnozka, head of advancement. “We’ve seen not only increased participation through virtual means but also been able to engage with alums from around the world thanks to the ease of access.”

Recent examples of alumnae engagement through virtual means include an alumnae panel as part of Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations with students, well-wishes from around the world shared on Lunar New Year, and a webinar presentation of Emma Hart Willard’s groundbreaking graphic mapping of history.

“The reach we’ve been able to achieve is priceless,” affirms Christine Gilmore, head of institutional equity and inclusion. “We were able to gain insight from consultants and colleagues in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) arena just by requesting a virtual meet-up.”

The Office of DEI has held key Zoom meetings with stakeholders like the Alumnae of Color (AOC) Network and brought to Emma Willard (virtually speaking) leading voices on topics of inclusivity and belonging, like Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, co-author (with Anthony Greenwald) of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

This increased reach has also impacted recruiting efforts for future Emma Willard students. In 2020, the Office of Admissions shifted gears to offer its visit experience on Zoom in the absence of in-person events, but quickly realized the benefit of this change would outlive the pandemic.

“What stood out to the team was the access and equity offering such events created for our prospective families,” notes Kristen Mariotti, head of enrollment management. “In the past, these families might not have been able to engage with us on such a personal level.”

Originally printed in the Spring issue of Signature magazine

    • Owl devices remained front and center during Spring Showcase 2022, allowing families to view panel discussions remotely.

    • Special speaker events continue to be held virtually, allowing alumnae and families to join in from around the globe.

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Honoring its founder’s vision, Emma Willard School proudly fosters in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world.
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