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When school was in session for in-person learning last winter, you could always find a student curled up in a comfy chair in Terry Williams’s office. But all of that changed when the pandemic hit and students retreated to their homes, only to connect with teachers and friends online through Google Meet sessions. “There is a real sense of loss associated with the pandemic,” commented Williams, who is a school counselor at Ridgefield Academy (RA) and Landmark Preschool. “We have not only lost lives and jobs but we have also lost normalcy, our sense of connection with one another, and our ability to share rituals and milestones. We quickly recognized that students missed the connection with others and needed additional support. I began setting up daily emotional check-in meetings for individuals or groups to enable students to talk about what they were experiencing. We can’t ignore what is happening around us and we wanted to give students creative ways to have an outlet as well as stay connected. Many found it helpful to talk about their fear of the unknown or how to deal with so much uncertainty.” Parents also began to seek Williams’s advice as they simultaneously juggled remote working, remote schooling, and parenting for the first time in their lives.

Through the help of the school’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Williams and other RA and Landmark Preschool faculty spent the summer engaging in online professional development workshops and webinars to learn how to best identify and support students who are stressed and challenged by the pandemic and its isolating side effects. Through early identification and outreach to students, faculty members and administrators will proactively address student needs during the upcoming school year. “It is our job as educators to help prepare children for the challenges that they are encountering and will encounter later in life,” comments Head of Middle and Upper School Clinton Howarth. “Our role is to help them develop resilience, confidence, and the tools needed to work through not only challenging academic work, but life’s challenges.” Known as Social Emotional Learning or SEL, this important aspect of the school’s curriculum includes teaching students the skills of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

With Ridgefield Academy and Landmark Preschool back to 5-day, in-person learning this fall, students can count on Williams and members of the faculty and staff to support them with the re-acclimation to a different type of school year. “A strong and supportive school culture is an important feature of an RA and Landmark education” explains Head of Preschool and Lower School Alison O’Callaghan. “Our school has intentionally created an environment where faculty members are advisors to older students, older students mentor younger students, 8th grade students have a Kindergarten “buddy” for the year, and everyone is known and valued in our community. This intentional connectedness creates a safe learning environment where children can feel supported and take risks. We are committed to continuing to create this type of inclusive and supportive environment despite our need for social distancing and as some of our students continue to join us remotely from home through our parallel remote learning platform.”

The pandemic has required some creative thinking on the part of school personnel in order to continue to build the close-knit community for which the school is known. This year, there will be a focus on expanding the teaching of nonverbal communication skills and the importance of connection and relationship building in a time when so many feel isolated, scared, or both. Students will engage in mindfulness activities and learn ways to express and manage stress. Additional individual and group support will be offered to students throughout the year. Authentic student-teacher relationships developed across our campus remain at the core of this important work, supporting students’ academic growth and their developing sense of self-confidence.

While nationally there is so much focus on lost academic time due to the remote learning that took place last spring, parents can feel confident that Ridgefield Academy and Landmark Preschool will continue to place importance on educating the whole child. “We believe that education is not only about being academically ready for the next step, but having the social-emotional skills and resilience to live your best life,” comments Williams. “Your child's social and emotional wellbeing will be supported in tandem with their academic growth here."