Keystone Academy has entered a new academic year with the majority of pupils and staff now back on campus. On September 1 (Tuesday), students from the Secondary School, Grades 5, 2, 1, and Foundation Year filled classrooms with positive energy and enthusiasm. The remaining children will come back in the following week.
This fresh start has renewed our optimism despite the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic. While the school year is on, Keystone leaders and staff continue reflecting on how to keep our institution “new” amid the changes in the world.
Reopening Under Covid-19
Keystone opened its seventh year in operation, and the 2020-2021 academic year, with the graduation of the Class of 2020, a celebration that Head of School Malcolm McKenzie said was “worth the wait.” The ceremony took place on August 22 at the Keystone Performing Arts Center so attendees could observe physical distancing. The graduation was initially planned for May, and then rescheduled in June, but was delayed anew due to an outbreak in southwest Beijing. That prompted the abrupt end of the previous school year and the postponement of several academic milestones.
The new current seniors began their final year at Keystone by taking their delayed Grade 11 end-of-year exams in mid-August. Sixth graders, meanwhile, joined a three-day orientation that was rescheduled at the end of the month to complete their transition from the Primary School (PS) to the Secondary School (SS).
In the last two weeks of August, Keystone students engaged in online learning classes to acquaint themselves with new routines and schedules, and also with new teachers and classmates, before officially returning to campus in September.
Before those online classes, PS teachers sent their students a “learning package,” or a bag of educational materials such as workbooks, poetry collections, and individual sport items. Teachers organized the purchase of materials and the subsequent delivery of the packages during the summer break. Through this, teachers were able to start the classes with a strong focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of the students.
“We wanted to make sure that our students feel comfortable and excited to come back to school, and that we ignite that enthusiasm for learning again,” Head of Primary School Catherine Copeland explains. “Many parents shared on WeChat the ‘learning package.’ They appreciated it. I think this showed the parents and the kids that we're excited about their return.”
Back on Track
The summer break provided everyone with a much-needed respite from the complicated start of 2020. Keystone leaders, teachers, and staff used the season to review their experiences from the previous semester, assess goals for the new school year, and prepare for more uncertainties in the coming months.
In July, Mr. McKenzie announced Keystone’s guidelines for the different learning and teaching modes in what he described as “an unusual school year.” In distance learning, the campus remains closed but learning continues virtually. In blended learning, students are on campus, but not all teachers are back. In the preferred conventional learning, everyone is back on campus.
Keystone is currently observing the second scenario (blended learning). Director of Innovation and Digital Learning Sandra Chow points up the need for being “nimble” because of the possibility of returning to distance learning. In a recent presentation, Keystone Health Center Director Dr. Eric Meng showed an assessment of recent coronavirus outbreaks in the city, positing that authorities needed at least a month to control the situation. Such events, he said, could prompt the sudden closure of schools and businesses.
“That’s why much of the orientation at the beginning of this school year was related to making sure that everyone understands the three different modes very well,” Ms. Chow says. “We also want to make sure that students, parents, teachers, and administrators feel comfortable and ready [if such a sudden switch happens]. It’s our goal that everyone can easily move from one scenario to the other. That's very important.”
Keystone administrators worked closely with government authorities for the urgent task of bringing faculty members stranded abroad back to Beijing. At the time of publishing, a small number of teachers who have already come back to China are finishing quarantine. All the remaining teachers have been permitted to return and are processing their visas or sourcing flights.
In the meantime, these teachers deliver classes in real-time with a partner to ensure students are engaged in learning activities. These “teacher partners” were hired in the summer on a flexible retainer basis. This is an additional unbudgeted expense that “is worth the cost,” says Jia Lili, Associate Head of School and Dean of Curriculum.
“Teacher partners support regular classes during the blended learning scenario,” Ms. Jia adds. “Our main teachers outside China follow the regular class schedule. Their teacher partners are also involved in planning and understanding the subject requirements.”
Head of High School Diana Martelly says that the school has matched individual classes with teacher partners who have the “required skills and expertise so students are well-served and have someone who can support them in a subject area.”
Alongside curricular planning and workforce arrangements, Keystone administrators worked on the reconstruction of several campus facilities. Director of Building and Facilities Jeremy He says seven classrooms and one laboratory have been reconfigured to accommodate more students. The Innovation and Digital Learning Hub has been created to meet the academic needs of teachers and students. The team also replaced carpets in the SS academic building.
In addition, the Facilities team added a new dishwashing system in the SS dining hall so students and staff could observe physical distancing rules when returning dishware. Student dorms were refurbished, repainted, and disinfected. Other than this, Dean of Students Kelli Sanchez shares that much of the residential experience, including boarding life, remains unchanged. However, Mrs. Sanchez says students cannot do certain activities for weekend programs.
“This just means we have to get a bit more creative. For example, we are not yet able to take some of the service trips that we are used to, so we encourage students to think of ways that they can help while remaining within our community,” she adds.
Rethinking the Meaning of ‘New’
In previous years before the official start of the first semester, new and returning faculty members would participate in training, collaborative workshops, and planning meetings for one week. The difference this year was new Keystone teachers engaged in a variety of thematic presentations, discussions, and visible thinking routines during a one-month online orientation in May. Dean of Faculty Paulina Aguilera says her office considers running a similar course next year, following a warm reception to the May program.
A follow-up on-campus orientation for new teachers and teacher partners (including returning teachers) was held in early August so they could better understand the Keystone mission, vision, and shared values. In the opening session for all faculty members, Ms. Jia Lili asked the audience to rethink “what is new in Keystone.”
“What’s new in our ‘new world school’ and our ‘new model of education’ if Keystone turns 20, 50, or even a hundred years old?”
Mr. McKenzie responded candidly, saying remaining ‘new’ depends on students, parents, and staff who keep on “reinventing and reinterpreting [Keystone].” He also offered a view from a linguistic perspective, explaining that “new world school” could be seen as an educational institution ready for the “new world” that changes all the time, or as a pioneer in the concept of “world school.”
Likewise, Ms. Jia turned to the breadth and depth of the Chinese language for her take. The word xīn (新 “new”), she said, offers five different points: to remain fresh (新鲜 xīnxiān); to take on a new look (焕然一新 huànrán-yīxīn); to supersede the old (新陈代谢 xīnchén-dàixiè); to change rapidly (日新月异 rìxīn-yuèyì); or to create a new culture (推陈出新 tuīchén-chūxīn).
“Being ‘new’ has the advantages of doing all of those things. Be proud of being ‘new’ and helping Keystone remain ‘a new world school’ and ‘a new model of education’ by drawing on the best essence of and tradition in education. Continue sharing your new ideas, and remain creatively critical,” Ms. Jia added.
“We cannot know everything that the next 10 to 11 months will bring,” Mr. McKenzie wrote in his start-of-the-academic-year letter. “For many people, it is all too easy to dwell on difficulty at this moment. Many difficulties surround us, and it is always tempting to focus on the negative. Let’s take a longer-term view and not become caught in the short term.”