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Campus Life

Grier’s Pandemic Year

Rebecca Woolfrey
As the last family departs Grier’s campus, car packed to the brim with a Grier girl’s suitcase of clothing, dog-eared novels, and a tangle of charger cables, we take a moment to reflect on a year unlike any other. 

Schools worldwide adapted to operation during the current Covid-19 pandemic with varying levels of success. As a boarding school “in the middle of nowhere,” Grier afforded certain advantages. Our school offered students the opportunity to return to full-time, in-person learning this fall and had the resources to implement a robust health and safety plan that allowed students relative freedom, comfort, and a bit of normalcy while maximizing safety and preserving academic achievement.

To be a boarding student is a unique experience for Americans. According to The Association of Boarding Schools and the National Center for Education Statistics, only 35,000 of the 56.7 million American students attend boarding schools, and only an estimated 14,000 students are girls.

According to New York Times article “The Boarding-School Boom” by Ronda Kaysen, some boarding schools admissions departments noticed an increase in American student applications during the spring and summer of 2020 as parents realized that school life would not resume like normal by the fall. According to Kaysen, these parents were dissatisfied with the models proposed by their local schools. In their search for alternatives, they discovered boarding schools; the key to a more satisfying academic experience for their children. 

Ensuring Academic Success

From the beginning of the fall semester, Grier students could attend class in-person daily when many schools were limited to alternating days or  online-only instruction. While Grier welcomed all students back to campus, some were limited by travel restrictions and others preferred to remain at home. Recognizing the need for an online component, Grier rapidly implemented a hybrid model. Having the flexibility to switch from in-person to online at short notice proved beneficial as the school faced inclement weather days and periods of quarantine. 

Like many schools, Grier faced the new challenge of modifying instruction to meet the needs of both in-person and online learners. Unlike most schools, Grier accommodated students studying on the opposite sides of the globe. To strike a balance between Grier students in the Eastern US time zone rising before dawn and the Grier students in Eastern Asia going to bed as the sun rose, Grier dramatically modified the daily schedule.  

In its first iteration, students attended four classes in the morning session and two in the evening session, but it quickly became apparent that the majority of those involved preferred to attend all six classes before lunch, leaving the afternoons free for the US students to participate in sports, art, music and other extracurricular activities while the students in Asia got some rest. 

The pandemic did not reduce Grier’s capacity to provide academic support to students. Small classes taught by dedicated faculty members remain the frontline of Grier’s academics. Students receive additional support from a team of educators from the Learning Skills program, College Counseling department, and Student Tutoring Program. Grier’s Testing Coordinator and the College Counselors established on-campus ACT and SAT testing for Grier students. As always, counselors played an important role in helping students experience emotions in healthy ways. This network of support helped students navigate a challenging academic year following a disrupted 2020 spring semester.  

Sound Minds in Sound Bodies

Although not immune to disruptions by Covid-19, boarding at Grier provided a rich and rewarding academic year for many students. Grier leaders adhered to the school’s mission statement and motto. In our mission statement, a goal of Grier School “is to provide a warm, residential, home-like atmosphere where students from many nations and academic backgrounds gain knowledge, creative expression, responsibility, self-esteem, and leadership skills.” The motto, Sana Mens In Corpore Sano, translates to “a sound mind in a sound body.” Put into practice during Covid-19, this meant encouraging self-care, fostering meaningful connections, and providing stimulating academics and a variety of boredom-busting activities.

In place of trips to museums, shopping malls, restaurants, theatres, and theme parks, Grier boarders quickly learned the fun to be had right on campus. Through an array of themed social events at the newly renovated Coffee House, time spent in the great outdoors, intramural sports, and opportunities for self-expression, the students quickly formed strong bonds with each other and with the adults in the Grier Community. 

Clubs such as Grier TV,  Beyond the Bubble, and Sustainable Sisters flourished, opening doors for student leaders to rise to the occasion. Student Council leaders fostered friendly competition, pitting the Green and Gold student body teams against one another in hilarious, fast-paced games. 

Grier’s signature programs of Riding, Dance, Music, and Art served as outlets for many Grier students coping with anxiety and grief. Grier’s performing artists were able to resume the stage for dance showcases, chamber concerts, and a musical review. Attended by small in-person audiences, Grier TV launched its live streaming capability to share the performances with the Grier audiences at large. 

Despite limitations, Grier students thrived by living in the moment and by embracing a variety of activities and forming a close-knit campus community. Through Grier TV’s livestream, families and remote students were a part of the action, whether viewing spring riding competitions at Grier, enjoying concerts, or catching the weekly student-run news broadcast.  

Stronger Together

Every segment of the Grier Community adapted to the changes and challenges of the year with grace and resilience. We supported each other during tough times and celebrated our successes. One of the greatest causes for celebration among the community was the partnerships Grier established with local medical organizations, such as Containment Source Identification (CSI), Juniata College, and Penn Highlands hospital.  By joining forces with Dr. Regina Lamendella, PhD and Dr. D. Holmes Morton, MD, Grier established a certified testing routine for everyone on campus. In doing this, Grier was able to quickly contain and respond to positive cases on campus.  

Beginning in January and February, Grier employees received Covid-19 vaccines from Penn Highlands hospital. When vaccines became available to younger recipients, Grier helped eligible students receive doses from local providers throughout the spring. As vaccines for increasingly younger populations continue to rollout, schools like Grier can exercise cautious optimism that Covid-19 outbreak mitigation will become easier in the coming school years. 

What We Learned

Boarding schools have been meeting specific needs of families and students for centuries. Some of what makes boarding schools so appealing during pre-pandemic times is magnified during times of uncertainty like we have been experiencing since March 2020. 

The role of boarding schools to provide a safe haven for students has a historic precedence. During World War II, European families sought boarding schools in remote areas far from battle zones. North American boarding schools opened their doors to these children, allowing them to grow and learn removed from immediate danger. 

In similar fashion, boarding schools like Grier had the ability to provide some insulation from the pandemic. Through frequent testing, limited travel, and other mitigation measures, Grier focused on preserving the health and well-being of the student body. With these measures in place, the bubble of Grier’s campus gave students many rich and rewarding opportunities to form social connections and to follow their passions. 

Grier Pandemic Graphic 

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Grier School

2522 Grier School Rd. | P.O. Box 308; Birmingham, PA 16686-0308
Phone: 814-684-3000 | Fax: 814-684-2177