The key ingredient to community regardless of time or space is a group of individuals sharing an experience in their continued formation as human beings. Over the last five hundred days the human species has been experiencing a global pandemic the likes of which has not been seen in over a century. It has impacted all aspects of our society from industry to education. Though the pandemic is a shared experience on a species wide scale, our local responses have been very different. Lee Academy, a 175-year-old independent school with three campuses in three different countries, is no exception to this disruption. Though there were similar responses early on (e.g., pivoting to remote learning on each campus using video conferencing technology, etc.), each of Lee Academy’s different locations responded in a unique manner in the 2020-2021 school year while trying to meet their school’s community needs.
American Lee Academy International School (ALAIS) in Shanghai, China had perhaps the smallest impact on their student community comprised mostly of Chinese students looking for an American style education. Early in the pandemic the Chinese government quickly and with its full authority locked down cities and citizens for an extended period. During that time school was put on hold and attempts at distance education were made using Zoom to help salvage as much of the year as possible. The complete lockdown did present difficulties for hiring international teaching staff, as the lock down prevented foreign nationals from entering China. The nimbleness, creativity, and resourcefulness on the part of the community of educators was astounding, as they found ex-pats to fill the open teaching positions and prepared for the uncertainty of the 2020-2021 school year. Thankfully, the swift lockdown response allowed ALAIS to operate as normally as possible. The extremely low COVID-19 cases in Shanghai allowed students and teachers to continue their school year with the least possible disruption, without the need for masking (except on public transit) and social distancing.
Daegu International School (DIS) in Daegu, South Korea was the second campus to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. On February 18, 2020, Daegu, South Korea experienced one of the largest outbreaks in the early days of the pandemic. This caused DIS to go remote, but thanks to our weekly meetings of the small professional learning community of campus leaders, DIS was able to transition smoothly to a virtual environment. Due to the consistently low infection rate maintained by national policies and protocols [in S Korea], DIS and other schools were able to operate in person. These protocols involved the use of screening aps, multiple temperature and symptom screenings throughout the day, masking and social distancing and plexiglass barriers. Throughout the 2020-2021 school year, DIS has continued to establish connections despite these disruptions, through the establishment of a staff run “sunshine committee” to help keep morale high with small acts of appreciation. When transitioning to periods of remote instruction during outbreaks, students and staff participated in recognition activities to remind each other that regardless of the distance they were a valued part of the DIS community, and they were not alone in navigating these waters. While in-person students worked with younger students to build connections and help mitigate learning loss, and mentoring to normalize the new protocols. These actions helped ensure a sense of normalcy in their day to day operations.
Lee Academy’s original campus, the Moores Campus, located in Lee, Maine (a rural village in the middle of the North Maine woods), went remote on March 13th, 2020. Thanks to a statewide initiative that provides one to one Internet-connective devices to students in the State of Maine, Lee Academy was able to ensure that all of their students had the opportunity to connect remotely for School. During this time, we discovered that because of Maine’s rural nature, many students had devices, but were not able to connect due to insufficient cell phone coverage or lack of high-speed broadband internet. For these vulnerable members of our community we established material drop-off and pick-up protocols to touch base with them and keep them connected to their learning community. In rural communities such as Lee, school tends to be a place where families who are food insecure look for stable meals, and we were able to provide twice weekly food pick-ups for families in need. The Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Education (DOE) established COVID-19 recommendations for in-person instruction for 2020-2021 which included precautions very similar to those in Daegu (masking, social distancing, regular screening, and contact tracing). Lee Academy’s Maine campus’s identity is anchored in place-based outdoor education, and we fully leveraged this aspect of our community to deliver in-person education. We constructed two outdoor classrooms, and collected portable seats and clipboards to utilize as many outdoor, well-ventilated classroom spaces as possible.
Professor Cope, et al. of the Sociology Department at Brigham Young University in their article titled: “Community as Story and the Dynamic Nature of Community: Perceptions, Place, and Narratives about Change” speak on the importance of narrative and place in establishing a sense of community. I believe the dynamic between an individual’s narrative and a community’s narrative can be helpful in synthesizing the experiences of the individual campuses into the larger narrative of Lee Academy’s community. Though each campus experienced and navigated the global pandemic in the context of their own country’s pandemic response, in some ways we acted in sync as a global community. This can be attributed to the general support among school leaders trying to navigate the same problem in very different political and social climates, as well as to regularly scheduled meetings between the Heads of Schools to build some sense of a virtual community, and help each other navigate the pandemic, and learn from each other’s successes and failures. I believe this points to the ultimate direction of Lee Academy’s future. In a World that seems to be becoming more divisive than collaborative, deliberately creating a shared global community could bring more people together than apart. Though each campus has its own unique flavor and flair, it is my hope that students and staff can come together in a shared purpose: opening up doors to the world, sharing lived experiences, and expanding their sense of “place” and community. We hope to achieve this by piloting a program of exchanges between cohorts of students and staff from each location to visit and exchange with the other campuses in the coming year. Perhaps by sharing their pandemic stories and experiences with each other, our students will be able to establish a mutual connection, and will plant the seeds of a global community that can help open doors to the World for the Lee Academy community.
As Cope et al. mention in their article, the connection of one’s individual story to that of the bigger community is a critical dynamic in discovering oneself and one’s role in a larger community. I assert that the same is true for individual communities trying to thread themselves in a bigger collective’s narrative. As is the case of three campuses as part of one larger global organization. The only way that these narratives can evolve, and reconcile themselves with one other is through consistent and regular communication, sharing their stories and listening to others’ perspectives. Through this process, each campus can discover where they fit into the larger narrative. This work is hard, and takes time, but it is some of the most important work we can do today in a society that trends toward the divisive instead of the inclusive. Building community is how we build peace. It is how we break down the “other” and welcome them into the community as a friend and peer. Through this, our own narrative grows and evolves. It is my hope that Lee Academy’s work with young adults in this regard can be a step forward in this journey towards global understanding, tolerance, and community.
Cope, Michael R., Paige N. Park1, Jorden E, Jackson1, Kayci M Muirbrook1, Carol Ward, Scott S. Sanders, and Ralph B. Brown. 2019. “Community as Story and the Dynamic Nature of community: Perceptions, Place, and Narratives About Change.” Social Sciences, 8(2): 70