The little school that could

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A little private school in Merrickville is chugging along and offering their full course load online so no student falls behind due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Merrick Preparatory School (MPS) closed its physical doors on March 17, after the province of Ontario declared a State of Emergency due to the global pandemic. This meant making sure all their students were able to either travel home to their respective countries safely, or find local family or homestays where they could self-isolate. MPS Principal, Kevin Farrell, said that making sure their students had a safe, supportive place to go was their top priority.

As soon as the state of emergency was declared, Kevin and the rest of the staff at MPS mobilized to create an online platform to allow their students to continue their studies virtually. Within a week, they were able to use the online technology that they were already using for assignments and tests and add to it to create a virtual synchronous learning environment.

Running in-person virtual classes is no small feat for a school that has students from 17 different countries, across 8 times zones. Kevin says the teachers have been extremely hard working and dedicated, with many teaching classes starting at 6 am so that the timing works for students across the globe. Many are also holding office hours on Sundays, to make sure all students have access to support when it is convenient for them. “I’m blown away by our staff,” Kevin says. “This really shows their dedication to our students.”

One of the teachers bought a caterpillar for each Grade 9 student, and is having them virtually document the metamorphosis into butterflies over the next few weeks. Not only is this giving students an example of nature at work in real time, but the teacher is also hoping to release the butterflies as part of the Grade 12 graduation as a gift from the Grade 9’s to the graduating class. “There are so many things like this happening at our school,” Kevin says. “It will be a beautiful moment.”

Grade 11 student, Khaled Beyk from Syria, loves the virtual environment that MPS has created. “I am really happy with MPS’s online learning platform and the support I get from teachers,” he says. “It is far better than traditional online experiences.”

Supporting students not only means helping them keep up with schoolwork, but also holding social events like Spirit Week, house cup challenges, and even a virtual students against teachers soccer game.

They will also be holding an online graduation on June 19, which all
students will attend to support their graduating classmates, and teachers will be handing out awards. There will even be the usual valedictorian address. “We want to maintain a strong sense of community and bonding,” Kevin says.

This is extremely important for a small international boarding school where students have created very strong friendships. Despite the school’s best efforts, many who are graduating will miss out on the quintessential high school experiences of Prom, in-person graduation, and the signing of year books. Kevin is encouraged by the students’ willingness to try new things and to connect online, even though they are now thousands of kilometres away from their friends and classmates. “These kids are like brothers and sisters,” he says. “It is pretty precious when you can virtually pop into a class and see the joy on their faces.”

Kevin believes that making sure MPS students are academically prepared for next year is also a top priority. Exams are being run as usual, and students are still being held to a high academic standard, while taking into consideration the constraints of their new reality. “We’re not going to paint all students with one brush,” he says. “We will act with academic integrity in the best interest of each student, without compromise”

MPS students will be continuing with their studies online at least until the end of the school year. Kevin is hoping that he will be able to bring the students back to Merrickville in September, but they will have to work with both Canadian and international regulations to make sure it is safe to do so. It is likely they will either be continuing with their virtual classes, or adopting a hybrid model, so that they can support both students that are able to return to Merrickville and those who are still unable to leave their countries.

Kevin says the mental and physical health of their students and teachers remains their top priority. He is meeting with staff every day to make sure they have resources they need to look after themselves and support students. “It’s going really well,” he says. “We’re the little school that could.”

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