Massachusetts preparatory school makes major shifts to accommodate its students

December 15, 2020 — by Shreya Rallabandi

Milton Academy’s ACC, where students congregate for lunch and free periods, is filled with socially distanced tables.

One day this fall, Eliza Sadhwani, a sophomore at Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., sat down at one of the many tables in the school’s gym. She had her home-brought lunch open in front of her and proceeded to put in her AirPods as a way to avoid talking to her friends. Ignoring social distancing protocols, they had gathered around each other with their masks off and were chatting as if COVID-19 were not devastating the nation and the world.

Milton Academy is a college preparatory boarding and day school. Parents pay college-level annual prices for their children to attend the school: $53,500 for day students and $63,500 for boarding students. 

Under normal circumstances, Sadhwani would be boarding in Hathaway House, one of the school’s dormitories, but now she has been making the 45-minute commute from her home town of Hingham, Mass., to campus every day on certain weeks. Every other week, she gets a reprieve from the long drive with a week of online classes.

At the start of the school year in early September, all Milton Academy students learned remotely. Milton Academy opened to its day students in mid-October. Although the school temporarily transitioned back to remote learning due to an on-campus COVID-19 case on Nov. 13, the school resumed hybrid learning again the following Monday upon finding the case was isolated.

With two large cohorts of around 180 students each rotating between a week of commuting to campus and a week of online lessons, Milton Academy has imposed guidelines to avoid a breakout. 

Students are required to pass a COVID-19 test every Thursday or Friday prior to coming to campus the following week; they also fill out a form answering questions about experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and having potential exposure, and report if they will be attending in-person classes for their cohort’s in-person week. 

They then complete their usual 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. school day, which includes after-school activities, such as clubs and sports. Though they technically are not allowed to, students make the choice to opt in or out of going to school for the week if they have tests, big assignments or simply do not wish to go to school.

During the school day, students are required to keep their masks on at all times and socially distance in and out of the classroom. Sadhwani noted, however, that many students fail to adhere to this rule.

“Especially during free periods, people are actually really bad at social distancing,” she said. “Some friend groups barely kept on their masks.”

Although Sadhwani has been returning to school regularly, she describes being on campus as surreal since seeing life on campus seems somewhat normal amidst the turbulent times. Despite seeing some of her day student peers again, she said she misses the comfort, joy and homely atmosphere of living in Hathaway House.

“When I returned to the Milton campus, it was really weird because nothing, aside from me not living at school, had really changed,” Sadhwani said. “The biggest difference is that I can’t walk home to Hathaway after eighth period. When I lived at school, school was my entire life, so coming to Milton’s campus just for school and nothing else feels very incomplete.”

Still, Sadhwani has participated in cross country from the start of the school year to the week of Nov. 15, opting to do hers entirely online instead of in-person. 

Though the competitive season was canceled, she and other runners joined a Zoom call before heading out to do their daily run. At the end of the week, the runners filled out a quick Google Form answering questions about how each of their runs went. However, they were not required to submit any substantial proof of completing their run.

“Sometimes, I run, sometimes I don’t,” Sadhwani said. “But I really don’t have to push myself anymore since they barely check. It’s good though, because it lowers my stress levels in such a weird time.”

Teachers try to intervene as much as possible when they see students with their masks off or not socially distancing, and for the most part they have been successful — as of yet, nobody has been removed from campus for violating protocol.

Students spent their free periods in the gym, which was filled with socially distanced tables and mini air purifiers. Students were only allowed to take off their masks for lunch if they were seated in a certain direction — a precaution taken to prevent students facing one another once their masks are off. The school does not provide lunches for safety reasons and are not reimbursing the money which goes into meals.

As a boarding school, Milton Academy faces the additional challenge of accommodating students across the world who live in different time zones. To accommodate these students, the school has substituted some of its normal online class periods with flex periods, where students are assigned asynchronous work. Teachers are understanding and grant lenient extensions to their students, especially those who are learning remotely, Sadhwani said.

After dealing with staying away from their dorms for what is nearing nine months, boarders will be allowed to return to them in the second semester, from early January to early June. Freshmen and seniors will live in the dorm the entire time; sophomores will live there from January to March break, and juniors will live there from March break until graduation. 

Due to the lower number of students in the dorm, everyone will stay in singles to allow for adequate quarantining. Socializing within the dorm will be allowed only in common spaces, but students will be required to wear masks and social distance while doing so and will be unable to enter each others’ rooms. Though the space will seem reformed, Sadhwani is excited to be going back.

Yet, as outlandish as the circumstances are, Sadhwani notes that life is slowly transitioning back into normalcy.

“In general, nobody seems to care about COVID-19 here anymore,” she said. “It’s like normal life, but people wear masks out in public spaces. A lot of my friends still go to parties and hang out as usual.”

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