The Prep Community Shows Tenacity During COVID
Despite It All, The Prep Thrived During The Pandemic
It was a year and a half that was unprecedented for most educators. From March 2020 until this past June, a series of pivots and adjustments were needed to get through one of the worst health crises to ever hit our world. COVID-19 and the precautions needed to stay safe was a challenge that no one was ready for, but everyone had to figure out.
When it started, no one could have foreseen that the buildings at 17th and Girard would remain silent for months. Most of the time, spring at the Prep sees energy flowing through the halls like blood through human arteries: end-of-year traditions, proms, graduation, masses were all unable to be held in person. Instead, we held a virtual graduation followed by an abbreviated in-person ceremony in July and several livestream Masses.
For educators, most of whom had never taught virtually, this was uncharted territory. The academic administration did its best to set a path forward but the only thing consistent was change. Two weeks asynchronous became four days synchronous and one day of mixed scheduling. That’s how we got through spring 2020. Fall 2020 brought a new set of challenges.
It was clear that being fully remote wasn’t the best solution. The Prep decided to move to a hybrid schedule, half the students in on Monday and Tuesday (others remote) and then switch for Thursday and Friday. On Wednesdays, everyone was remote and the building was closed for a deep clean.
Through it all, teachers and students had to adjust. Again, this was new for nearly everyone. The Prep community continued to meet, even through numerous quarantines and city mandates to be closed. Teachers held students to high standards and learning continued. Athletics and co-curricular activities continued and great successes were achieved. And through it all, the Prep thrived!
“We Were Building The Airplane While We Were Flying It”
Normally, a school administration can create plans and expect them to be instituted generally as designed. Of course there is room for input and adjustment, but they don’t stray too far from the original design. The last 18 months, however, were different once again .
“So often, we were doing things on the fly,” says Colleen McManus, Director of Academic Data Analytics and part of the Academic Administrative Team. “Conversation was needed for everything because things needed to be done differently. Everyone was open to changing what needed to be changed.”
Lessons learned from the spring influenced decisions made for fall. As the fall moved forward, more was learned. Teachers adapted and changed delivery methods.
“That’s not to say that everything was different,” says Principal Andy Cavacos. “Often, our teachers kept the classical methods but adapted to a virtual component.”
Religious Studies Teacher Michael Gambone instituted Ed Puzzle to better stimulate classroom conversation. Fine Arts Teacher Deb Hilton created art projects that students could do from home, even ceramics. Science teachers created ways for students who were virtual to partner with in person students for labs. Learning continued.
“Teachers were forced to be creative and they stepped up in a major way,” says Dan Ranalli ’00, Assistant Principal for Academics and Faculty Development.
McManus agreed. “The fact that we consistently were able to teach students every day was incredible, especially when everyone was dealing with so much,” she says.
Despite the changing schedules, emphasis on personal growth continued. Advisory periods focused on issues surrounding the Year of Solidarity, working with Anthony Bush, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, and several DEI committees to create programming. In addition, each class was invited to participate in Brotherhood Days, when classes were cancelled to allow students to focus on gathering together.
“We kept an emphasis on academics but didn’t allow ourselves to stray from the core,” says Ranalli. “Those other areas received significant promotion in our schedule.”
In April, following Easter Break, all students were invited to come on campus full time. Though some opted to stay remote, most returned. It was the culmination of all of the hard work.
“April 12 was a time of celebration,” says Cavacos. “We did not hesitate to bring our students back once we were able to safely do so. Courage was needed and as people of faith, we put our trust in God.”
“There Was No Road Map”
In spring 2020, with the virus raging out of control, there was a complete stop to athletic schedules. Spring season was cancelled and most activities were unable to continue. For a Jesuit school that emphasizes students’ growth outside of the classroom, this was not acceptable. No one was going to stop caring for our students.
Sports continued to work out, though remotely. Crew even competed in virtual regattas. Lacrosse and baseball continued conditioning, all hoping to possibly salvage a season. At the very least, it was vital to keep our student-athletes competing, for their own mental health.
“We know that athletics and activities are really important parts of the education of our students and it fuels their passions,” says Josh Rorer, Assistant Principal for Student Affairs. “A baseball player wakes up thinking about baseball. We needed to help them find an outlet for that as best we could and that goal never changed, just the rules we had to follow to allow them to compete. A great deal of creativity was necessary and we were constantly reminded that we had to do our best. There was something to be gained from continuing.”
Throughout the summer, groups met to develop a Return to Play plan, ensuring that our student-athletes and coaches could practice in person safely, even though it was unknown whether there would be actual games. In August, football, soccer, cross country, golf, and crew returned to action. Abbreviated fall schedules were developed and teams competed. For the first time in months, things were semi-normal. “It gave us connectivity at a time when our students felt remote,” says Bryan Ghee, Director of Student Activities.
“The mental health of our young men was paramount,” says Dan DiBernardis, who was hired as Athletic Director in June and had to learn the nuances of the Prep while navigating a global pandemic. “We need to provide that outlet in the safest way possible to give them the chance to compete, for their mental and physical growth but also to help them showcase those talents to coaches at the next level. Everyone came together and our coaches stepped up. People were willing to ask for help and our community supported us in every way.”
One sport that prospered was a new one to the Prep: Mountain Biking. This activity could easily happen while maintaining social distancing and, under the direction of Dino Pinto, flourished. This past summer, it was added to Prep Athletics as an official sport. Soccer found new ways to gather, working out virtually at JaxFit with alumnus Pat Henigan ’05.
Co-curriculars also needed to adapt. Cape and Sword was moving towards their spring show “Damn Yankees” when the pandemic hit. That show was scrapped but the club continued. Under the direction of Tony Braithwaite ’89, Cape and Sword welcomed Broadway actors and others to speak to the students and Braithwaite and other adult staff conducted virtual workshops to stay connected to students.
WSJP broadcasters continued and enhanced their offerings. Instead of coverage of live sporting events, they played classic games and added several shows to their schedule. The Hawkeye published several issues, even remotely, and the Chronicle Yearbook somehow finished their book. Strategy Gaming, perhaps the club best suited to moving online, did an outstanding job, even completing its annual gaming marathon to benefit Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Last fall, the clubs continued to evolve. Mock trial was all virtual but still managed to advance to the City and State Championships. Speech and Debate also moved online for the school year but its success was sustained. Cape and Sword recorded two performances live from the Theatre and streamed into homes.
“Our co-curricular offerings allow our students to have a full Prep experience,” says Ghee. “It allows our young people to understand that hard work can result in success. I was very proud of our moderators and coaches for their ability to be creative and adapt. They are all experts in their own realm and used all of the tools available to make opportunities available for our students.”
Swimming Pivots to Dry Land During COVID
Dan Koenig ’14, a teacher in the science department and Head Coach of the Prep Swim Team, said the continued pandemic interrupted “one of our strongest pre-seasons in recent history.” Last fall, the lingering effects of COVID-19 struck and shut down in-person activities at the Prep right as the swimming team was set to begin their season.
So Koenig and his staff were forced to structure a plan that would enable his team to stay in shape. He credits Assistant Coach Joe Boyle ’09 for this plan, saying, “Coach Boyle compiled a ‘Dryland Workout Bank’ for our swimmers to use as a resource to stay in physical shape.” Prep swimmers also got together on Zoom to complete these dryland workouts, often led by upperclassmen.
While Koenig and his staff were able to give their swimmers physical workouts to remain in season-form, they all knew there was more that was needed for his team to stay focused. “In the spirit of ‘Cura Personalis’, the coaches and I knew we had to do more than just physical workouts,” said Koenig. They believed the swimmers needed an out-of-program source to motivate them.
Enter Tomm Evans, former head swim coach at the University of Scranton. Assistant Coach Pat McKenzie ’02, a former swimmer under Evans at Scranton, contacted his old coach to see if he would assist the Prep Swimming staff in helping their team stay focused, even if a possibility of a season seemed outlandish.
According to Koenig, “Coach Evans had a great conversation with the team, via Zoom, about the importance of ‘grit’ and identifying your sources of motivation.”
When the swim team returned to in-person practice during January, they hit the ground running, or as Koenig likes to say, “we hit the pool swimming”. Each of the decisions Koenig and his staff made during their program shutdown helped his swimmers stay on track, as if they had been practicing together.
St. Joseph's Prep Working On Keeping International Exchange Programs Alive Even During COVID
Knowing the importance of international experiences for students, St. Joseph’s Prep has been organizing trips and exchange programs for half a century. International experiences have been further enhanced over the past decade as the Prep has partnered with several schools around the world to provide exchange experiences for its students, especially to Chile, Spain, and Germany. With travel restrictions in place, those programs now must look a bit different.
For many decades, the Prep has partnered with Collegium Josephinum Bonn (CoJoBo) and has been running exchange opportunities with them for the past eight years. This year, under the direction of Prep German teacher Ines Aßmann, the program has shifted to virtual so that 21 students (11 from the Prep and 10 from CoJoBo) can participate despite the health restrictions. The students voted on a topic for the exchange, “Everyday Life,” and were matched with a student from Germany. The students met in groups of 5 or 6 and the sessions alternated in German and English. At the end of the program, each student will receive a certificate of participation from the Goethe Institute and will be eligible to become U.S. State Department Exchange Alumni.
At the same time, Prep Spanish Teacher Gina Gulli has worked with her counterpart at Colegio Irabia-Izaga in Pamplona, hosting a virtual group sessions via Zoom and students have remained in contact with their partners on their own through email or Whatsapp. The plan is to travel to Spain in June 2022 to complete the exchange that began in October 2019.
Meanwhile, Spanish Teacher Ligia Baland has started a pen pal program for her students with Colegio San Ignacio el Bosque in Chile, a school the Prep has partnered with for exchange programs for more than a decade. They take turns speaking in English and Spanish so they can practice their target language.