‘We’ll get through this’: Branson institutes distance learning


By Shun Graves

The Branson School, like high schools across the nation, has had to adjust its instruction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school’s distance-learning plan was the result of input from members of the Student Experience Committee, and online learning started on Wednesday, March 18.

With the novel coronavirus raging globally, the school’s foremost consideration was, said Director of Studies Rich Parsons, “maintaining the well-being and mental health of our students.”

As a member of the SEC, Parsons has led Branson’s distance learning as the pandemic has threatened to cut the school’s educational and social links. Throughout his leadership, what he’s noticed most has been “that people have brought their good-will, positive spirit and best effort to everything they are doing,” he said.

Over a month has passed since the school announced the transition to online learning, now extended to the end of the school year, on March 12 to stem the virus’s spread. 

That day, a Thursday, began as any school day would, but ended in trepidation. News spread that afternoon that athletics had been canceled.

By the end of the day, an email signed by Head of School Chris Mazzola said, “We have made the decision to close Branson’s campus and transition to our online learning plan, effective Wednesday, March 18.”

The next week, the Bay Area effectively shut down as public health officials ordered residents to shelter-in-place.

Branson students, including many who had hastily downloaded the Zoom videoconferencing software the previous week, had been thrust into the unknown: Attending school from the anxious comfort of home.

Over a four-day weekend, the Student Experience Committee had devised an intricate plan regarding how to conduct distance learning.

“We are excited to put our plan into action,” Mazzola wrote. “This is new territory for most of us, so undoubtedly there will be unforeseen challenges and bugs to work through.”

The plan put in place a modified schedule with longer classes that included built-in homework time and the continuation of advisory meetings, but without school assemblies or, initially, Human Development courses.

           A finalized grading policy for the fourth quarter, however, was not included in the initial Branson Distance Learning Plan. After deliberation by the Student Experience Committee, the plan, released in early April, retains letter grades, but focuses evaluation of student work upon completion, demonstration of comprehension and perceptiveness of student reflections.

           Besides grading, however, the SEC has become the ultimate decision-maker for coronavirus-mitigating school policies. The group, which included department heads and was facilitated by four people: Parsons; Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion JuanCarlos Arauz; Dean of Student Life Meredith Herrera; and Director of Teaching and Learning Jeff Symonds.

“We use an iterative process in our decision-making, so once the initial components of the distance learning plan were agreed upon, people were given an opportunity to share what was decided with their teams, collect input, and refine their thinking,” Parsons said about the SEC’s decision-making process. “We would then come back together and develop our next iteration, and repeat that process until we felt confident that we had arrived at a finalized plan.”

Many Branson administrators shared similar sentiments about a virus which has spread fear and anxiety.

Janeal Fordham, Director of Community Engagement, said, “To answer these big questions that the pandemic lays bare, we must cultivate empathy, integrity and an intense curiosity.”

The situation has caused concerns from students regarding classes for next year, but it is also “definitely teaching us to be flexible and resilient, and I believe it is also asking us all to make a positive contribution to our communities,” Parsons said.