How Did LWS Weather the Year of COVID?

Filming the annual school Theater Magic production.

A conversation with LWS Board President and middle school teacher Gary McSweeney.

Q: How has Living Wisdom School weathered the COVID pandemic? What has the experience been like for the students and teachers at Living Wisdom School?

Gary: COVID came upon us exactly a year ago. We’d barely finished the first dress rehearsal for our enormous annual school play, when the Palo Alto schools announced they would be closing because of COVID.

Gary McSweeney

So, instead of a huge theater production with five packed performances, we had to shut down after our first dress rehearsal, and it seemed it would be all we would have to show for hundreds of hours of preparation, including designing and sewing costumes, countless hours of rehearsals, classroom discussions, memorizing lines, and much more.

Over spring break our faculty learned about Zoom, and when we came back to school we were a hundred-percent online. And, to be honest, we felt hardly any impact at all, because the transition was remarkably seamless and our families were tremendously supportive, and none of them left.

In early June we had a wonderful End of Year Celebration on Zoom. And then during the summer we decided to apply for a California state waiver so we could reopen in the fall.

The application process was a lot more complicated than we’d expected, with many delays. Meanwhile, parents were asking what would happen in September. Would we reopen? Would we be hybrid? And because of the delays in our application, we could only tell them that we didn’t know.

Just two days before school was scheduled to begin, we still hadn’t heard from the state, so our principal, Helen Purcell, called them and said, “We know you received our application, because you acknowledged it.” And they said, “Oh – we never received it.”

To make a long story short, they put the application on the fast track, and we received permission to open.

The first day of school fell during the very worst of the California wildfires, with an atmospheric inversion that turned the sky an ominous dark orange, and horrendous air quality – it was like a day on an alien planet.

We had permission for student from kindergarten through the first six grades to be on campus, for which we were very grateful. And of course we offered our parents the option of instruction on Zoom. But because of the foul-up with our application, compounded by people’s increasing worries over COVID and the ominous wildfires, we lost several families at the start of the year.

But we rallied, and our faculty did an amazing job. We’re now in Spring 2021, and we’re offering hybrid instruction, with about 90 percent of our students physically present on the campus, and just four of my middle school students staying home.

Fridays are entirely online for the whole school. First thing in the morning, we have our all-school circle on Zoom, in which we do yoga and sing uplifting songs, then the children split into various music, singing, and math classes.

We’ve enjoyed a very good year, despite the challenges. Families have been enrolling for next fall, and a number of the families that left are wanting to bring their children back right now.

To sum up, I would describe the year as miraculous, and I’m confident to report that the school is a very happy place.

Q: At the start of COVID, was there a concern that the school might lose some of its culture, which is such a key part of its success?

Gary: The culture is a huge part of the education we offer the children¸ with our strong emphasis on the quality of their interactions, a safe environment, and the unique learning opportunities offered by the theater program and field trips.

The personal interaction with other children is extremely valuable, even with masks, social distancing, and cohorts.

These new practices did change the dynamic somewhat, but once the kids who’re new to the culture understand it, they absolutely love it, and they want to preserve it, whether they’re physically together or interacting online.

As an example of how the culture is still very much in place, a new boy came into my class this year. He’s been attending in person, and he quickly picked up on the culture of respect and acceptance, and he has adapted beautifully.

It’s been wonderful to have the children in a classroom setting, learning in person, and interacting with each other. For the kids who are at home, I’ll go around every few weeks, and we’ll stay connected that way as well as on Zoom.

Q: In speaking with the principal of the Living Wisdom High School, she observed that in some other schools the kids have been afraid to participate online because they feel they might be put down or mocked, whereas in our high school that hasn’t been a problem at all.

Gary: Because our culture of acceptance and respect is so firmly in place, there really isn’t any of that kind of opportunistic bullying.

We’ve noticed that there are a small percentage of students who actually do better on Zoom – perhaps they’re more comfortable at home, I’m not sure. But despite some technical obstacles, with bandwidth delays and so on, we’ve had a great time this year, and the parents have been amazingly supportive.

More than 90 percent of our students are on campus now, and some of them are online intermittently. For the students who do really well with Zoom, I’ll ask a question and I’ll immediately see a digital thumbs-up indicating that they’re ready with the answer.

Otherwise, I’ve left chat on all year to provide an unbroken connection, because I think the kids at home, especially the middle schoolers, need an outlet where they can communicate with the kids who are here.

They can hear the conversations that are going on in the classroom, and we’ve made some adaptations to the tech, for example by always having a live mic so they can stay in touch with what’s happening.

Q: The all-school Theater Magic play has always been the major event of the year. It involves the children in so many ways, including the academic curriculum, and it gives them priceless guidance for developing confidence and poise. How has COVID affected that process?

Gary: We knew we wouldn’t be able to produce a play where the children would be rehearsing together onstage, so we came up with the idea of creating a film instead. We had last year’s script and costumes, so we decided that we would make a movie, and that it would be filmed entirely outdoors.

Filming continues, rain or shine.

Our Theater Magic director, Rose Atwell, was very knowledgeable in helping us understand how we needed to proceed with making a film. And, also thanks to Rose, the process quickly became clear – we would make the film entirely on campus, where the children could get into costume in small groups, with separation, and come over and perform their scenes, then go back to class, and it would be a hundred-percent safe.

There’s a lot of downtime when you’re making a movie, and because we’re filming within a few steps of the classrooms, the kids can go in for a while, which helps make it a safe environment. There’s a lot of data on how it’s safe to have children in school if you’re carefully following the protocols, and we’ve done a very good job with our safety procedures.

Rose chose a number of locations on the campus where we could film without having modern buildings in the background, or FedEx trucks passing by. Of course, audio was a constant issue, with traffic noise and horns.

There’s been a wonderfully lighthearted feeling throughout, and today was a good example. One of the children had a part in all of the scenes, and she couldn’t come to school today. Another student immediately said, “I can play her part.” So we filmed her in the prologue, and when the other girl arrived, Rose was able to adjust. And through it all the kids were very flexible, very adaptable and good-humored and willing.

And, that’s life, you know, where you show up at work and you find that things aren’t ready, or they’ve changed. I think it’s been a valuable opportunity for the students to learn some important life skills.

“We’re ready for you. Oh, no, we’re not quite ready. Now we’re ready, let’s go.”

“Oh, did you hear the truck drive by in the middle of the scene? Let’s shoot it again.”

Meanwhile, the kids are being themselves, sitting patiently, and when Rose is ready, she’ll say, “Action!” and the kids will pull it together and deliver their lines. Then Rose will say, “Cut!” and they’ll relax and go back to being seven or eight or nine.

In some ways I’m enjoying it more than the normal process of putting on the play. It’s very different, for sure, because the children won’t see the finished product right away, as they would if they were acting on stage. But in the end it will be a polished movie with special effects and an excellent soundtrack.

They love the experience of putting on the play, especially before a live audience. Of course, you can’t touch that experience, but COVID isn’t asking what we want. It’s all about understanding what’s needed, and they’ve adapted beautifully.

I’m sure that if they had their choice they would prefer to do a live performance, because of the way the excitement builds. Today would have been our first full dress rehearsal, and then we’d be exhausted, and on Friday we’d have the second full dress rehearsal with hair and makeup.

There are lots of wonderful traditions and markers along the way, and tomorrow would have been a day to relax before the first morning matinee for school groups, where there would be 100 to 150 people in the audience, mostly children.

Thursday would be another day to relax, and Friday night would be the first big evening performance for a packed house of adults, followed by the huge performance on Saturday night where we would be filming. At the end of it all, there would be a big celebration in the courtyard with parents and relatives and kids enjoying conversation and snacks.

There are lots of wonderful traditions that we’ve developed over the last twenty-eight years. But this year it needed to be a movie, so we can’t enjoy the big build-up as we’re getting near to the end. With a movie, you say, “That’s a wrap!” and then it goes into post-production. And, of course, they’re all asking how long it will take. But it will be a big project to edit the film and make something truly worthwhile.

Gary films while costume designer and LWS board member Asha looks on.

Because of our tradition of very high production values, and because of the wonderful settings and costumes, we felt the footage deserved the utmost care, and, as always, we had lots of adults with very exacting standards working on the production, including Tandava who’s done a marvelous job rehearsing the music with the children on Zoom, and Asha, who’s extremely gifted at designing and sewing the costumes.

So it’s been every bit as much work as a live production, just with different problems. But film is a large part of what the kids will grow up needing to understand, for remote work and YouTube instruction and presentations, and so on.

One of my students is surprisingly good at editing film, and he’s doing a blooper reel, because we’re often laughing so hard on the set – when something strange happens or the kids mess up. And with film you can just shoot it again and do a re-take.

It’s been a valuable experience for the kids. They’re learning how work gets done in adult professional settings, where mistakes are an expected part of the process. They’ve learned to accept that the first take will usually be a throwaway, and the second will be a little better, and seventy percent of the third takes will be keepers. The spirit has been very high, and the students have been all-in with adapting to the changes – I think they’ll will look back on this year as a formative experience.

Naturally, they’ve complained about masks and being isolated from their friends. It wasn’t what any of us wanted, but the kids have grown as they’ve been challenged.

Psychologists say that it’s hugely important for middle schoolers to be able to reach out to their peer group, and we’ve been fortunate to provide them an environment where they can be with their friends and share memorable experiences like making the film.

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