At 8:14 on Match 11, 2020 the entire Ursuline Community received an email. It read “We have been informed this morning that a member of our extended school community is presumed positive for COVID-19. Out of an abundance of caution, Ursuline Academy will be closed today, and the school will undergo a thorough cleaning. We will provide you with an update on school closing as soon as information becomes available.”
Isabelle Bruty was on her way to get her driver’s license. Cady Lambert was on her way to school for extra time requirement. Chloe Flabiano read the email and was excited for the day off. All blissfully ignorant to how fast that first case would spread.
Three hours before this email was sent Dr. Shurley was on the phone with Mrs. Kane. Both had been informed that there was a potential exposure in the community. They were facing the realities that they had both feared, Covid-19 had invaded the Ursuline Community.
“Mrs. Kane and I got on the phone at 6 am. Whenever Mrs. Kane and I are going to make a decision, we look at all the information, we talk to all the other people who are in our positions across Dallas” Dr. Shurley said, “But that morning the decision was already made for us because no-one would want to come to school if Covid-19 was potentially here.”
Ursuline students were soon informed that the Thursday and Friday before Spring Break would be E-Day protocols. While schools across the country struggled to adjust to this new online world; Ursuline was a step ahead due to weather damage in previous months.
In June of 2019, a microburst or as most refer to it as, the “rain bomb”, engulfed Dallas. Ursuline summer school was in session during this time and campus was knocked out of power for about a week.
“What we learned from that is that we did not have a way to get all the classes back and running” Dr. Shurley said, “We were unhappy with the fact that we felt we had so few options to keep that program going”.
The storm was a warning that Ursuline needed to find alternate ways to teach which did not rely on the physical campus. Administration took this as a starting point to create a plan to continue teaching without a campus to teach from.
“We moved a bunch of our technology to cloud, we started really focusing in on teams and one-note,” Dr. Shurley said.
Four months later a tornado came through Dallas and although Ursuline was mostly left unscathed many of its faculty, staff and students had power or significant house damage.
The surrounding streets of Ursuline were blocked off and there was no way to get on campus. Once again in person learning was not an option, but administration had learned their lesson. An E-Day protocol was set in place and teachers and students first experienced online learning. For a week Ursuline remained online and tried out this new method of learning as a trial period.
“We had two wakes up calls that told us we had to be ready to be more flexible,” Dr. Shurley said.
In January and February of 2020, news about the Covid-19 virus began popping up in school reports and newsletters, Dr. Shurley could not miss it. The main message that she was receiving was that people were going to travel for spring break and this virus was going to spread.
The Monday before spring break there was a professional learning time set up for faculty. As the virus became more prominent in the US, the administration decided to be proactive and change that time to focus on teaching faculty the best practices for remote learning.
“I remember standing in front of the teachers saying we had two experiences where this was not good, but we have learned a lot from them; and so, because we learned from the June storm we were prepared for the tornado and because we paid attention to what happened in October” Dr. Shurley recalled, “we are going to be ok if we have to be online for a week or two surrounding spring break.”
Protocols were set into place the very same day. Teachers and students were instructed to bring everything home every night. Teachers were also instructed to make sure that their students could log into teams and work the system.
And on March 11th what everyone had feared happened. As students prepared for a day like any other Mrs. Kane and Dr. Shurley were on the phone discussing a plan. Soon an email was sent out instructing students not to come to school.
E-Day protocol was set in place and students were instructed to follow this protocol for the two days before spring break. Every student and teacher knew how to work teams and Ursuline was able to host online classes faster than many surrounding schools.
Nearly two weeks later Dallas was ordered to shelter in place. School was online indefinitely, and students watched as their high school years floated by through a computer screen.
Ursuline hosted a drive through event with teachers six feet apart waving signs and clapping as the Class of 2020 left without traditions such as re-purposing up their skirts, walking down with their moms in the fashion show or screaming the prayer one last time at the end of the day before they sprinted to their cars.
The Class of 2020 will be infamous for the way they left Ursuline but no class even the class of 2020 leaves the halls of Ursuline without taking their final curtsy. Although social distancing was in place and each girl only received two tickets. The Class of 2020 graduated Ursuline in their white dresses only a month later than previous classes.
Although it was not in the traditional way Ursuline had to say goodbye to the Class of 2020 and get ready for the next year. Summer school was completely online, and many wondered if attending school in person would ever be an option.
That school administration was faced with that same question, how were they going to be able to teach in what was now coined as “the new normal”.
“We spent a lot of time this summer doing protocol adjustments and planning” Dr. Shurley, “there was a lot of time talking to medical experts and fellow educators our own team here to try to think about what we would need to do to the building in the building to make it as ready as possible for students.”
The building was transformed in order to adjust to new protocols. Desks were spread out and there was a “hub” in every classroom so that online learners could feel more involved. Ursuline also invested in a new air filtration system, and created new signage instructing better ways to social distance.
The first two weeks were online, “we knew that teachers were a little nervous, students are a little nervous, so we decided to start online.” Dr. Shurley said.
The two-weeks online gave students and staff a chance to adjusted to how school might be. Teachers were able to meet students beyond just their eyes and forehead.
But soon the students and staff adjusted to hybrid. Half the students came back in person while the other half were online. Then the two groups would switch, allowing every student the opportunity to be on campus. The schedule was adjusted multiple times after receiving feedback from students and staff on how each week went.
But when attempting tutorials, class meeting and advisory time there was a breakdown of clear communication with so many students in different settings. The administration brainstormed a way to fit all the community time into one day, now referred to as Community Wednesday.
“We had good feedback from flex Fridays in the spring of last year, but we realized that it’s hard to keep student’s attention when that flex day is on the first day of the week or the last day of the week, so we moved the flex day in the middle.” Dr. Shurley said, “It gave balance to the week; you had an A day a B day community day then A day B day. A day right in the middle of the week for our facilities to do a really good deep clean with minimal people in the building.”
As the community got used to this new schedule administration was looking toward the future of getting the community back to campus 100%.
And on October 26th the entire Ursuline community came back to campus. By utilizing contact tracing through QR codes and seating charts, Ursuline has remained 100% on campus. If students are quarantined or opt to stay home, they are involved in classroom conversations through the hub.
Nearly a year ago many questioned if learning in person would ever become a reality again. But now a year later Ursuline has provided multiple ways of learning for each student.
“We learned that we could do things that we thought was impossible.” Dr. Shurley said.