The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts had an elongated "move-in day" over the course of Friday, Saturday and Sunday to get its students settled back on campus before the start of school on Aug. 17.
"After many days over the past few months of remote work where there have only been a handful of people on campus, it's both surprising at times and delightful to see the faces of our students and colleagues again," ASMSA Director Corey Alderdice said.
"We know that our students are at the heart of what makes ASMSA such a special place to live and learn. There's an old adage questioning if a school is really a school when students aren't around. With campus returning to life, it's good to really feel like a school again," he said.
Alderdice said the move-in day is usually an immersive experience held on a single Saturday, but new students arrived this year over a three-day period with scheduled arrival times divided among the various wings of the building.
"Our staff and returning student leaders traditionally have helped to quickly unload vehicles and move possessions into the building while families complete registration and any outstanding paperwork. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer that level of hands-on support this year," he said.
Alderdice said that the school continues to follow the guidance and expectations set by Gov. Asa Hutchinson as well as the University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees regarding a return to on-campus instruction for the fall semester.
"We typically begin our year before most high schools and colleges in order to provide a robust set of orientation and community-building programs for students entering a new school and learning environment," he said.
"Since we were not able to offer some of those experiences as we normally would in July, the time before the fall semester begins in earnest is even more important for their success in the coming year," Alderdice said.
Ongoing temperature screenings will be an essential component of the school's mitigation efforts, he said, noting with funding provided by the CARES Act, they have invested in thermal camera systems in both the main academic building and the student center.
This technology allows ASMSA to automatically screen both students and employees not only at the beginning of the day but also on an ongoing basis, Alderdice said.
"In addition to screening for students and guests upon arrival, all students have received a COVID-19 test within the last 10 days and have been self-isolating. Both expectations are part of our efforts to ensure a 'clean slate' to the fullest extent possible," he said.
Alderdice said the size of the student center, as well as interest in the residential experience, do not allow ASMSA to offer private rooms for students, but they have set aside a dozen rooms for isolation should they be necessary.
He said the school began the work of setting up classes for social distancing after the school's usual summer maintenance was completed in June.
Identifying physical challenges for classroom spaces also has an impact on the academic advising and sectioning for courses, Alderdice said.
"Fortunately, our historic commitment to small class sizes is a benefit in this case, and we were able to set all classrooms with the recommended 6 feet of space," he said.
"That measure is combined with an expectation that all students and faculty wear masks. Only a few courses have more than 15 students enrolled," Alderdice said.
ASMSA will offer a full online experience for the first time this year, he said. Distance education and digital learning have been components of the school's outreach efforts throughout the state since 1999, but spinning off this element from the residential experience is different.
"As of today, 44 families have chosen this option for the fall semester out of roughly 240 students," Alderdice said.
In total, the school offers eight courses exclusively for online learning and 34 sections of courses across all subjects in the "hy-flex" (hybrid flexible) model, he said.
"Hy-flex allows students to participate either on campus or remotely through Zoom. This flexibility will also be helpful in cases where students or even instructors must continue learning while in isolation," Alderdice said.
ASMSA made a significant investment this summer by compensating more than a dozen faculty members to build out these online experiences intentionally, he said.
There is a considerable difference between the emergency remote learning that took place over the latter half of the spring semester and tailored online learning, Alderdice said.
"We want to ensure these experiences meet the quality and expectations that have been associated with ASMSA's academic opportunities. All courses are being developed this year with the need to shift to remote learning at some point in mind," he said.
The school has been transparent and candid with parents about the challenges, accommodations, and compromises that will be a part of any residential experience this year, he said.
"We made a strong case to families for the online option, but it should come as little surprise that the residential experience and community of learning is much of the reason why students choose ASMSA in the first place," he said.
In developing ASMSA's extensive Dolphin Ready Plan for reopening, the faculty and staff were mindful of how even simple aspects of the program would change this year, Alderdice said.
From this document to multiple live Zoom forums with parents over the past month, the school has taken the time to articulate the efforts and hear parents' feedback, he said.
ASMSA has been forthright that the school's planning for the year ahead assumes scenarios in which the virus is present and could lead to temporary or ongoing campus closures and remote instruction, Alderdice said.
Even with a universal expectation of wearing face coverings, daily screenings, enhanced cleaning, limited opportunities to leave campus and numerous other measures, ASMSA has to plan for the worst-case scenarios, as should all schools, he said.
The Dolphin Ready Plan can be viewed at https://www.asmsa.org/reopening/.
Alderdice said he is incredibly proud of the tone and standard the faculty and staff have set over the past week of planning and professional development, noting, "Learning is a process, and that applies to both a traditional classroom as well as how we're all learning and making adjustments as we ready ourselves for the year ahead."
In speaking to employees at the beginning the year, Alderdice stressed the importance of shared commitment and shared responsibility, noting the challenges of the year ahead would take extraordinary commitment.
"What will be the true test of our success, though, is the daily mindfulness of how each of our choices and actions are part of a shared responsibility for each other's safety, health and well-being," he said.
"A willingness to embrace those commitments are not only how we move forward as a campus but also part of the big picture of how we as a society overcome this pandemic," Alderdice said.