With students wearing masks, getting temperatures checked, and safely distancing from friends and teachers, the first day of school was in some ways different this year.
Happiness was still in the air, though, evident in the excitement in students' voices, suggesting smiles that remained hidden under brightly colored masks.
“I really am having fun," said Chloe '30, who is new to Norfolk Academy. “I like everything about it."
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across Virginia in the spring and caused many adjustments before the 2020-21 academic year could begin. Norfolk Academy invested heavily to enhance campus in a variety of ways, including installation of thermal temperature scans; increasing nursing staff; re-designing the health clinic; providing an on-campus satellite health clinic and testing facility; increasing bus capacity; providing air handling system upgrades; and installing individual HEPA air-filtration devices in instructional spaces.
The school is providing free testing for faculty, staff, and all students who are choosing to return to campus for in-person instruction; families have the option to choose in-person or distance learning during the school year.
As a result of the testing plan, students are returning to campus in phases, three grades at a time. Students in grades 1-3 returned to campus today, August 31, with all other grade levels in Distance Learning to start the year. Fourth, fifth, and sixth graders will return to campus September 8. Middle School students are scheduled to return September 14; Upper School students September 21.
The school installed HoverCam document cameras in classrooms, state-of-the-art tools that allow students at home to see teachers, hear lessons, and engage in class discussions in real time.
Even with these many changes, the first day brought the continuation of time-honored traditions, albeit with safety alterations in place.
First graders usually start Opening Day in the Lower School Multipurpose Room, where they meet the Headmaster and Lower School Director, and pat a stuffed Bulldog as parents watch. However, state guidance prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people, and an emphasis on sanitizing surfaces ended any thought of a multitude of hands touching the beloved Bulldog.
So the celebration got a new twist. Headmaster Dennis Manning and Lower School Director Michelle Alexander gathered outside the Lower School, accompanied by each first grade teacher, and the Bulldog. One by one, parents pulled cars up to the curb and students hopped out, waving good-bye to parents and receiving an enthusiastic welcome. After photographs for the families, the students were walked into their classrooms and the learning began.
Meanwhile, Upper School students started the first day by “Zooming" into chapel, the opening day assembly that is traditionally held in the Johnson Theater. This year, Mr. Manning welcomed students from his office, observing that the community was starting the 293rd year in the life of the school “as we never have before."
In the face of all of the changes, traditions and rituals can offer comfort and stability, and Mr. Manning provided those in his address. As he has done in prior years, he put a special focus on the senior class, noting that the Class of 2021 will guide younger students through the examples of leadership that they set.
He touched upon a favorite Latin phrase, “tabula rasa." In a typical year, seniors await the headmaster's call-out from the stage, when he spotlights an unsuspecting senior to ask for the definition. This year, Mr. Manning had to provide the definition himself, observing that the “blank slate" of the year ahead is one where they will “etch accomplishments, and those accomplishments will be part of your legacy."
He closed chapel with a reflection on the unique aspects of this moment--not merely the challenges of operating in a pandemic, but also the need for raising awareness about the civil rights and social justice movement unfolding across the nation. “There is so much divisiveness in our society," he said. “We need to be a place that celebrates togetherness."
The opening Middle School chapel also took place on Zoom. Middle School Director Tommy Hudgins reminded students that remaining vigilant about avoiding behaviors that can spread COVID-19 will be crucial.
Mr. Hudgins also spoke about social justice, a topic that has become prominent across our nation following the death of George Floyd in May. Mr. Hudgins highlighted Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid leader and philanthropist who was elected President of South Africa in 1994. He was that country's first black head of state.
“An icon of democracy and social justice," Mr. Hudgins said, adding Mandela could serve as an inspiration for our own country during our current conversations.
Mr. Hudgins then closed chapel with a welcome to students.
“Happy New Year to you," he said.