By Marketing and Communications Staff
The 2019-20 school year ended on the highest of high notes: fireworks lit up the campus sky in celebration of our graduating seniors—and in recognition of the hardships thrust at them as they arrived at the precipice of life’s next chapter.
The elation of the moment belied the uncertainties still plaguing the nation and even Westminster. But behind the scenes, faculty and staff were already thinking about how to return to as much of the “normal” Westminster experience as possible in the fall amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Months before committing to a definite in-person return, plans were in motion. No scenario was left unconsidered.
Certainty about in-person learning grew as school leaders coalesced around a strategy prioritizing mask wearing, social distancing, and modifications to our physical environment.
The strategy behind the strategy relied on the entire Westminster community to find strength in togetherness. As President Keith Evans wrote to introduce parents to the 2020-21 school year:
“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our success in creating a safe environment for our whole school will depend on our commitment to those values that have always undergirded our community: selflessness, taking care of one another, and good leadership by everyone who counts themselves a Wildcat.”
Optimism, pride, and uncertainty co-exist every day on our campus and in our community. Wildcats have stepped up to challenge after challenge—together.
“If you look at all the work that gets done here every day, it’s extraordinary,” says Jim Justice, Dean of Academics and Curriculum. “From the teaching to turning the facility around every single day to do it all again. In the midst of a pandemic, we have made a place that’s joyful for children.”
We call our COVID-19 response program “Stronger Together.” And, as we continue to face COVID-19 every day, together is truly where we find our strength.
CREATING THE ROADMAP
As the 2020-21 school year approached, a COVID-19 Support Team of nurses, operations staff, and administrators developed protocols and began putting them into action.
Our protocols were first used in limited Summer Camp sessions, where no community transmission occurred.
Staff stocked up on hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, and hand soap. Some worked amid supply boxes stacked to the ceiling in their Scott Hall offices.
Faculty and staff placed hundreds of signs around campus: floor markers for where to stand in line in Malone Dining Hall, table tents directing maximum occupancy of any given table, arrows showing traffic patterns for stairwells, reminders about mask-wearing in carpool circles, and more.
New furniture arrived. The CDC continued issuing new safety guidelines. Plans were updated again and again. Orientations were held virtually.
There were hundreds—maybe thousands—of tasks to prepare for the arrival of students for the first time in more than five months.
Perhaps none of those tasks was sweeter than hanging a 50-foot “Welcome Back, Wildcats!” banner across our front entrance.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
ARRIVING ON CAMPUS
When the alarm clock rings and it’s time to get ready for school, Wildcats grab their bookbags and a few extras this year: a mask and a backup mask, a personal water bottle, and a few snacks (water fountains have been converted to bottle fillers, and students have fewer opportunities to purchase snacks due to schedule changes and occupancy limits). Arrival times are staggered so every student can be greeted by a faculty member upon arrival to school and receive a temperature check. The Kogniz thermal scanners at carpool drop-offs and key campus locations can scan up to 40 people at once, eliminating the need for individual checks.
A TEST YOU CAN'T STUDY FOR
WEEKLY COVID-19 TESTING
One of the biggest differentiators of Westminster’s COVID-19 response has been weekly testing for our entire on-campus community. Every week, all 2,200 people on campus submit a vial of saliva for “pooled community testing.” Our lab partner tests the samples in batches, allowing a more efficient and cost-effective process than individual testing.
When the virus is detected in a batch, each person included receives a follow-up PCR test, and our COVID Support Team ushers students and families through our response protocols, including quarantine for students who test positive or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. Siblings of close contacts are also asked to quarantine—a move more conservative than what the CDC recommends.
Testing happens every weekday and is almost a 24-hour affair. Importantly, it allows for swift contact tracing, one of the keys to preventing widespread community transmission. “We knew early on that testing was going to be important for providing data, particularly if we wanted students to be able to engage
in activities like athletics and maintain the fullest range of the student experience,” says Jim Justice, Dean of Academics and Curriculum and one of the members of the COVID Support Team.
For many, the availability of weekly testing reduced anxiety around in-person teaching and learning.
“I don't even think about whether or not I have COVID as a result of testing each week. I feel completely reassured with all of the protocols we have in place,” says Upper School visual arts teacher Pamela Martinez.
It also provided data that helped administrators make informed decisions, like choosing to move Upper School exams and exam prep online after seeing case trends after Thanksgiving break.
“Over time, we saw how important testing would become to limiting the disruption of the pandemic, whether by early detection to prevent spread or navigating vulnerable time periods like return to classes after a break,” says President Keith Evans. “Testing is one tool of many but quickly came to be indispensable to us.”
The securing and continued offering of these weekly tests has been a testament to perseverance from all the faculty, staff, and community partners involved in this important piece of our Stronger Together plan.
CLASS IS IN SESSION
Parent surveys were clear: Westminster’s top-notch academic program was the thing families were hoping most to preserve as the COVID-19 pandemic continued. The individual desks filling the classrooms looked different than the collaborative furniture of recent years—but students unearthed discoveries about themselves and the world as generations of Wildcats have done before them.
“I was amazed when we returned at how seamlessly things seemed to run. It was if every little thing had been thought out. Every detail thought through. Each part of the student day re-imagined for learning, engagement and safety. I was wowed,” says Jenny McGlown, mom of first-grader Parker.
Westminster also offered remote learning to all students. Some students chose long-term remote learning, and others have moved in and out as circumstances have changed.
Due to quarantine protocols, nearly every class includes at least one remote learner at any given time. In the Lower School, RemoteCats who signed up at the beginning of the year were grouped into the same class when possible, allowing one team of teachers per grade to concentrate most heavily on the hybrid experience.
In Middle and Upper School, each remote learner, long-term or short-term, is paired with a member of the Student Support team who serves as their learning coordinator. “The role is a bit of a catch-all: some portion learning support, some portion cheerleader, some portion communications guru. My biggest goal is to ensure RemoteCats feel connected and supported during their time learning from home,” Middle School Learning Strategist Cason Given ’05 explains, noting that classroom teachers, administrators, parents, and peers all play an important role in maintaining the virtual learning experience.
When her son Parker temporarily transferred into remote learning, Jenny remembers an initial feeling of dread washing away as teachers and administrators contacted her family and packaged up Parker’s supplies so he could pick right back up from home: “He was able to virtually return to his classroom within 48 hours. The process was like a well-oiled machine, as if the faculty had practiced it like a fire drill, again and again until all was in line and running smoothly. Again, I was wowed.” Daily agendas, frequent communication, and a classroom “buddy student” who helped Parker hear his teachers and partnered up with him for group work all helped remote learning continue smoothly for the remainder of his quarantine.
When schoolwide testing at the end of Christmas Break revealed Parker tested positive for COVID while asymptomatic, the dread didn’t follow when Jenny found out he would learn from home again. “I knew that within 24 hours the teachers would reach out with the next day’s agenda, we would have his school supplies in hand, and his classmates would still be engaged with him,” she reflects.
It hasn’t always been easy to learn from home or have classmates attending school from home. But our students have made the best of it. As Cason says: “Even in the midst of a global pandemic, our students demonstrate flexibility and a desire to learn. Of course, I guess this really shouldn’t be surprising… they are Wildcats, after all.”
HOW DOES THAT WORK?
SETTING UP A HYBRID CLASSROOM
Wildcat faculty have learned a few tricks this year for setting up a hybrid classroom that engages students all around the city just as much as those sitting in the room. Upper School physics teacher Henrik Malmberg offers a few tips:
3 WAYS TO BREAK THE VIRTUAL ICE
Kelly Fitzgerald and Victoria Frangoulis, the main team teaching third grade remote learners, share the icebreakers that have brought the most laughs, most connection, and most engagement for learners tuning in through Zoom.
THINKING INSIDE THE (TO-GO) BOX
FLIK, Westminster's dining partner, distributes more than 2,200 meals a day—an even more extraordinary feat when they must be served and eaten with social distancing!
“Our team starts the day early at 5:30 a.m. when the cooking begins,” says Executive Chef Jake Ihara. “Performing service is an enormous feat requiring a lot of back-of-house and frontline logistics from our team.” Before lunchtime, the team prepares the meal elements, packages them individually, and places them in hot boxes with all the accompaniments: juice boxes, water, cutlery kits, takeaway trays, and condiments.
In Lower and Middle Schools, students eat lunch in classrooms after picking it up from to-go stations set up in Love Hall’s Hamilton Room (the cafeteria and multipurpose room) and the Oglesby Room in Clarkson Hall (another multipurpose room typically used for assemblies).
For Upper Schoolers, the addition of Brewer Cafe in Hawkins Hall couldn’t have come at a more perfect time: students may choose to pick up a sandwich, soup, and chips combo in Brewer Cafe or a takeaway hot meal in Malone Dining Hall. Additional seating in Brewer Cafe, at the outdoor Schoen Dining Plaza, and elsewhere in Campbell and Hawkins Halls makes it easier for all students to eat at a safe distance, as the number of tables and seats per table in Malone Dining Hall have been limited this year.
Every logistical move of the day helps expedite a safe lunch for all Wildcats. Jake shares: “Our team has worked out all the kinks in expediting a modified COVID-19 lunch service that is delicious and nutritious.” When the lunch hour is done, FLIK staff packs leftovers in to-go pans to deliver the food to Gateway Center, an Atlanta nonprofit that supports upwards of 1,000 people experiencing homelessness at any given time.
— CAT MONROE, VARSITY VOLLEYBALL HEAD COACH
MASKED AND MIGHTY
Wildcats were back in action in the fall after an abrupt end to competition in spring 2020. Teams adhered to on-campus safety protocols by practicing with masks, and the volleyball and cross country teams even competed with masks. “In some large invitational meets, we might be the only team wearing masks before and after the race, but arguably it paid off,” Joe Tribble, head coach of the 2020 state championship-winning boys cross country team, says. “Masks and social distancing were a challenge all season at each practice, but maybe it somehow made us tougher.”
Middle School coaches focused on skills clinics rather than interscholastic competition. These clinics mirrored a traditional practice setting and focused on skill development and fundamentals while providing a safe, fun, competitive environment for the nearly 400 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who participated.
During Christmas Break, student-athletes underwent additional rapid COVID testing to return to competition. Additionally, athletics staff modified venues with socially distanced bench areas and clearly marked spectator seating to allow limited viewing of events. For away games, the School doubled its transportation inventory to allow for proper distancing when the Wildcats traveled.
BY THE GALLON
Over the summer, Facilities Services staff installed
34 hands-free water bottle fillers
upgraded sinks with 262 new touch-less faucets
Added 7 outdoor sinks
To keep things clean, students and faculty have (so far) used:
1585 gallons of hand sanitizer
2000 bottles disinfectant
305 gallons of hand soap
Housekeeping staff use 34 disinfecting machines every day and have sprayed 480 gallons (and counting!) of GenEon sanitizing spray
Wildcat temperatures are screened daily using 10 Kogniz thermal scanners and 616 handheld thermometers distributed to faculty and staff
Each week, our community submits 2200 saliva COVID-19 tests.
That means we collect about 2.5 quarts of saliva each week!
HOW OUR LIBRARIES STAYED OPEN
FOCUSING ON CONNECTION
Counselors offer one-on-one meetings to every sixth grader and every ninth grader each year. Even though some of this year’s meetings were held on Zoom, all students in those grades still had the opportunity to meet with counselors!
Parents of remote learners are invited to a weekly online support group to ask questions, share tips, and build community.
To focus on joy, students shared their hopes for 2021 on a bulletin board outside Malone Dining Hall. All who walk by can see uplifting messages without breaking social distancing protocols!
HOW THE PANDEMIC INSPIRED US
Wildcats don’t wait to become leaders. So what do they do when a pandemic hits around the globe? They research. They create. They help. They lead. These are just a few of the ways students rose up during the COVID-19 outbreak:
The eighth grade virtual science fair featured several projects exploring varying aspects of preventing the spread of COVID-19. In “UnMASKing Your Safety,” Iman Merchant, Arnika Alikhani, and Katie Koenning compared the efficacy of popular mask styles. The trio built a testing environment using six different masks, a darkened space created by a cardboard box, a spray bottle, a laser, and a cell phone camera. Arnika, Katie, and Iman represented Westminster at the Atlanta Science and Regional Engineering Fair alongside six other Middle School and two Upper School projects.
Upper School artists studying introductory graphic design each made T-shirts depicting the year 2020 during the fall semester. Their designs incorporated protests against racial injustice and the police violence leading up to those protests, the deaths of significant people, sports and pop culture events, and, of course, COVID-19. As one of the first art projects displayed in the atrium of Hawkins Hall, the T-shirts were the subject of much admiration and many conversations.
How did some Wildcats learn to stay six feet apart? With charcoal! Students got messy using their span of their entire bodies for an art project inspired by the works of Heather Hansen. The shapes they created represent the “personal space” everyone is asked to keep this year!
Every year, the question at the heart of Economics for Entrepreneurs is how students can create and pitch a product that people would buy to solve a need or want in their lives. Eighth grader Anna Wickliffe was one of several students who looked at the frustrations of dealing with COVID-19 when it was time to choose a product to develop. The “Speak Up” mask, with an embedded microphone, is designed to counteract the muffled voices and difficulty hearing that sometimes accompany mask-wearing in school and the workplace.
ANATOMY OF A MASK
One style, one size, one mask doesn’t fit all! Here are some creative ways students and faculty adapted to mask wearing this year, from expressive designs to functional safety.
“Adapting to wearing a mask during practice was challenging, to say the least. But I think knowing we were all having to work through this tough adjustment together as an entire team made it much easier to overcome and even brought us closer together as teammates than anything else.”
— Selle James ’21, Girls Cross Country Team Captain
“The mask project was born out of the idea of how difficult it's been to read the full range of emotion of one's face when masked. Students created several masks that could communicate a range of emotions or personal interest; the masks served as conversation starters.”
—Michael Reese, Upper School Graphic Design Faculty
“For our Upper School 2020 fall musical at Westminster, we decided to try some of every kind of mask-wearing: some students were filmed at home with no masks, some students were acting and lip synching in person on campus with neutral white or black masks, some students were acting and lip synching in person on campus wearing clear masks.”
— Kate Morgens ’91, Director of Theatre Arts
“For A Seussified Christmas Carol, we made the masks enhance the costumes with facial expressions and fake fur! As they say, the show must go on! And we are so thankful it did!”
— Jennifer Finlayson, Middle School Theatre Faculty
“When Westminster said ‘we must keep making music,’ it was clear that we would do whatever it took to make sure our students were safely playing and singing. The COVID-19 protocols, which included outside rehearsal tents, instrument bell covers, and new seating configurations (and generally good weather all fall!) were implemented and worked beautifully!”
— Scott Stewart, Upper School Instrumental Music Faculty
In the Lower School, students decorated the halls with projects about their identities and personalities—and the masks depicted help them express their interests and ideas!
DEBATE GONE DIGITAL
Outside of class time, Upper School and Middle School clubs and academic teams also had to find safe ways to meet. For large groups like Middle School debate, that meant meeting outdoors or in large multi-purpose spaces like the Oglesby Room in Clarkson Hall (where lunch is served to Middle Schoolers this year).
Inter-school competitions through the Atlanta Urban Debate League were all held digitally, which meant an additional crucial change: all debates were held one-on-one instead of in the usual two-on-two format.
“The idea of debating without a partner definitely threw me off at first; having to read all the speeches alone and not having a second opinion on a rebuttal took some getting used to. Eventually, I grew because of the experience, and it forced me to face some of my weaknesses to become an overall better debater,” Elana Gardner ’25 says. Since many debaters miss working with a partner, the team’s advisors have found opportunities for students to debate outside of the league in the traditional partner format.
While the team members had some doubts about whether debate would be a fun activity this year, those who tried it say they still enjoyed the critical thinking and competition at the heart of debate.
“It was still debate, and just debating other people is very fun. I thought it would be super boring to debate virtually, but the only real difference is that you don't have hallways to get lost in like you usually do,” Alex Guido ’25 says.
And the fall season ended on a sweet note for the team: debater Tenzin Patel ’26 placed second in the Atlanta Urban Debate League’s Argumentative Speech Bowl.
SERVING OUR CITY AND BEYOND
The Glenn Institute and PAWS helped families stay connected to opportunities to serve while staying COVID-safe. Students continued raising money for people and causes all around the world! COVID-safe fundraisers ranged from virtual concerts to socially distanced donut sales to Chick-fil-A cookies delivered to classrooms by advisors!
AFTER THE BELL RINGS
CLEANING THE SLATE