This story originally appeared in the spring/summer 2020 issue of Harker Magazine.
“We need 100% compliance on this one,” Debra Nott wrote to lower school teachers in late January, imploring them to place hand sanitizer in their classrooms. Harker’s health services director had been receiving emails from concerned families regarding the new coronavirus that had just begun spreading in U.S. cities. “The coronavirus is like a big wave,” she cautioned. “We either ride ahead of it, choosing our path, or it will tumble us around out of control.”
Harker administration had started tracking the spread of the coronavirus earlier that month, and with news that COVID-19 was spreading, talks of what to do in the event of a closure were becoming more common. “When the talk of possible school closure came up, I had no idea of how we were going to continue with our classes,” said middle school math chair Vandana Kadam. “I also did not think it would happen so soon after the initial [faculty] discussions on the closures.”
In February a protocol was put in place for the school to close if a member of the community tested positive for COVID-19. It was enacted on March 12, when it was learned that a parent of a non-teaching staff member had tested positive. Days later, with COVID-19 cases rapidly increasing in California, Santa Clara County issued a shelter-in-place order to begin March 17. Students, faculty and staff began readying themselves for a shift to remote learning. “As we had been preparing for the transition both emotionally and logistically, I found that my feelings were a mix of disappointment that we could not continue in our in-person mode, but confidence in our ability to optimize the experience for ourselves and our students,” said Brian Yager, head of school.
School was originally scheduled to reopen in April, but as the situation surrounding the pandemic developed, the question became how to effectively continue classes for the remainder of the year. Cases were increasing exponentially across the world, and shelter-in-place orders were being extended as the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus in the U.S. – and concerns – grew.
“When I realized I would not be able to go to school for a while, I was devastated that I would not be able to see my friends, the campus and Harker staff,” said Elie Ahluwalia, grade 6.
Reports that schools may shut down for much longer than originally anticipated worried fourth grader Aarya Vaidya, but she was heartened by how the community adapted. “What surprised me the most was how everyone dealt with it, how everyone was ready and how the Harker community helped everyone,” she said.
With a long history of delivering assignments and homework online, the transition to fully remote learning was relatively smooth. As closure loomed, teachers were briefed on how to conduct classes online via Zoom, a video conferencing platform that saw a massive surge in popularity. “The basic instruction about online teaching that was given just before school closed helped us get started,” Kadam said. After that, we were able to contact the [Learning, Innovation and Design] team and the administration for any clarifications.”
Preparation for the transition also became a community effort. “A friend and I started a document to compile Zoom links and other advice before the school closure in case we needed to transition to remote learning,” said eighth grader Kabir Ramzan. “The Harker community responded with overwhelming support, and when the school declared that we would be transitioning to remote learning, hundreds of students added links, answered questions and suggested what people could do when they were bored.”
Teachers quickly became savvy with Zoom sessions as the new default classroom, and though these online meetings were no replacement for in-person instruction, the limitations didn’t prevent teachers from turning their virtual classrooms into dynamic spaces. Working from home allowed lower school science teacher Shital Ashar to give a lesson on seed anatomy by making a salad from her kitchen, an activity her students happily also performed. Upper school dance teacher Rachelle Haun’s students enthusiastically recorded themselves dancing at home with stuffed animals or while doing chores. Preschool teacher Amanda Crook snail-mailed her students a likeness of herself she made using the website Bitmoji. She later received photos and videos of the parachutes and amusement park rides students had made for the miniature version of their teacher.
“I am so touched and impressed how quickly teachers and the entire school regrouped and ensured that our kids continue to receive top quality education,” said Alina Gicqueau, mother of Benjamin, grade 11, and Paulina, grade 9. “I am so grateful for our teachers’ and administration’s dedication and exemplary professionalism and helping us with maintaining normalcy and regular cadence of our children’s lives.”
For their part, students also adapted well to the remote learning environment, organizing all manner of community events, which often leveraged the Zoom platform in clever ways. “With the help of so many dedicated leaders, my friends, and the administration, we’ve been able to pull off virtual elections, talent shows, movie nights, a mask drive, a check-in newspaper, Zoom background contests, a virtual road trip and so much more,” said senior Avi Gulati, who served as upper school Associated Student Body president during the 2019-20 school year.Seizing on the internet trend of people posting the backgrounds they used in Zoom meetings, the upper school held its own Zoom background contest. Students even devised a way to move the twice-a-year Quadchella music festival to Zoom, playing recorded student performances for attendees. The remote format also had unexpected benefits, allowing for a greater diversity of talents to be showcased, including cooking and clothing design.
“While being in quarantine has its limitations, it also forces us to think outside of the box with regards to having fun,” said Rani Sheth, grade 12. “I’ve had Netflix parties, danced to a Zumba video, and FaceTimed while doing workouts with my friends. It’s nowhere close to the norm, but looking back on it 10 years from now, those are memories that I will cherish.“
Ahluwalia and her friends even devised a way of meeting in-person, organizingwhat she called “trunk playdates,” during which they meet at a friend’s house and converse with one another from their parents’ cars. And in the lower school, beloved events such as the talent show and art show shifted online
To Yager, the community’s response was impressive but far from shocking. “Nothing surprised me,” he said. “I knew feature that the adults and students were ready and prepared to optimize the transition, and that we would approach the change with a determined attitude and professional approach befitting the Harker community.”
Leaning In, Reaching Out
The community was spurred to action outside of school as well, as service efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up dramatically. There was a massive outpouring of support for medical workers, as families sent large caches of medical supplies to local hospitals and also produced homemade masks and 3D-printed face shields. Harker parent Virag Saksena (Riva, grade 12, and Anya, grade 8) even went so far as to convert his single-malt whisky distillery into a producer of hand sanitizer, which required getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration, itself a difficult task.
Initiatives also were kicked off to help those affected by the pandemic. Recognizing the risk of displacement faced by many South Bay families, the upper school’s Associated Student Body and Student Council organized a schoolwide donation drive that won praise from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and raised more than $11,000. Larissa Tyagi, grade 12, organized a blood drive to offset the American Red Cross’ massive blood shortage. The Student Council also joined the Medical Club and Key Club to deliver 640 homemade masks to the local homeless population through LifeMoves, a Bay Area-based organization that offers shelter, food and other services to people facing homelessness. (For more stories on those contributing to the relief effort, visit Harker News and search “outreach.”)
There remained, however, a sense of loss due to the cancellation of many yearly activities, including the particularly busy spring performing arts lineup and the end-of-year activities the senior class had been anticipating for years.
“When school closed, my initial reaction was disappointment that I wouldn’t beable to partake in so many activities – trips, get-togethers, ceremonies,” said Sheth. “As a second-semester senior, I was looking forward to spending time with my friends and relishing my last bit of time at the upper school campus.”
The Class of 2020 sadly did not get to experience its graduation exercises, but staples such as baccalaureate and the Senior Showcase went on, with videos created from submissions participants created at home, and launched for viewing at the time the events would have taken place. A heartfelt video, “Lights On for 2020,” was produced to help provide a fitting send-off to a class that thrived under the most extraordinary of circumstances. Other divisions also moved their traditions online, such as the middle school’s Student LID Vision Day, during which students gave talks on homemade inventions, performed music and showed off a virtual rendition of the middle school campus made in Minecraft. Lower school traditions such as the grade 5 promotion ceremony were compiled from individual recordings and released online, as was the grades 4 and 5 talent show.
“COVID-19 tried to stop so many students from celebrating and commemorating aspects of the high school experience, but in the end, it couldn’t,” said Gulati.
“We have a community of individuals whose primary goals are to make sure our students’ need and desire for shortand long-term intellectual growth and general well-being do not go unmet,” said Jennifer Gargano, assistant head of school for academic affairs. “I knew we would rise to the occasion to achieve these goals.”
As the coronavirus situation evolves, Yager has remained similarly confidentabout the community’s ability to adapt. “While the uncertainty of what we will be required and allowed to do as a school in the coming year makes it difficult to predict just how school will be modified next year, one thing is certain,” he said. “The Harker community of staff, students and parents will meet the challenge and exceed expectations.”