Eastern Mennonite School student Rahel Lema ‘21 and Paul Leaman, Head of School, work together during the EMS solar barnraising on October 10, 2020. See article on page 3. Photo by Andrea Wenger

EMS: With Deep Commitment and Diligence

December 15, 2020
by Andrea Wenger
Director of Advancement for Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, Va.

The outdoor socially-distanced performance of Les Miserable brought much needed healing music to Eastern Mennonite School and the community. At times the director, Joy Anderson, brought out a 10-foot pole to measure distance between characters. The positioning of the cast at the closing scene, pictured above, is a testament to their guideline observations. Photo by Joaquin Sosa.

Reaching the midpoint of any academic year is reason to celebrate. This year, however, brings with it relief, awe, and gratitude at Eastern Mennonite School. Administrators, faculty, and staff launched the year on August 25 amidst pandemic-related unknowns and a slew of new plans, protocol, and procedures for safely welcoming “every student every day.”

The vast majority of the 356 new and returning students chose in-person schooling, and the community quickly established a “new normal” of daily home health screenings, constant mask wearing, and physical distancing.

“With deep commitment by everyone—employees, families and students—we did it,” reflects Paul Leaman with pride and, admittedly, some surprise. The potential for the need to close at any moment was ever present, he noted. “But our size, smaller than area public schools, and everyone’s diligence made a fall of in-person learning possible. For that we are grateful.”

What we learned

While students have progressed appropriately in academics this year, the learning for everyone has been far beyond traditional lessons. Things we have learned include:

Social and emotional health come first. Academics are key, of course, to a successful school. But principals repeatedly emphasized to teachers that students’ social and emotional well being is top priority. Space to process, interact with school counselors, and safely socialize were paramount. Instituting half day Wednesdays allowed for deep cleaning by custodial staff, and gave teachers time to prepare and connect with distance learners.

Adaptation and flexibility are essential. Teachers and students have demonstrated remarkable flexibility with a positive attitude, according to Maria Archer, K-8 principal, and Justin King, high school principal. “Teachers have creatively tackled endless challenges, adopting new learning platforms, and engaging students in class and online,” says King. Students have “gone with the flow,” he says. “We’ve heard little complaining and a lot of gratitude even as students have switched to a four-period block schedule with limited interaction with people outside of those class periods. “It’s been a big culture shift and they’ve done well.”

Outdoor schooling is a plus! Everything from band and choir to lunch and social studies moved outside often this fall. “I’m a big believer in outdoor classrooms,” says Archer. “The benefits are immense, and I hope we’ll continue outdoor learning long after the pandemic is past.”

Service opportunities abound. While traditional club activities were cancelled, the WeServe club and National Honor Society organized activities to keep generosity alive: roadside trash pick up, singing outside Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, fundraising raffles to benefit Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale, and collecting food pantry funds.

Athletics can take new form. Interscholastic Athletic competition came to a halt in spring of 2020, and did not return this fall. The losses were real for student-athletes. However, team building, skill building, and emotional growth also happened during these months. An intramural program (corn hole, disc golf, pickleball, spikeball and volleyball) provided space for competition and connection between students across middle and high school. The weekly program ended with more than 40 students participating in a masked 3v3 outdoor volleyball tournament. Skill building practices and conditioning for fall and winter teams provided additional opportunities for students to connect with teammates.

Music heals. Our century-old tradition of gathering in chapel and singing together stopped in spring 2020. By fall, music teachers had researched alternatives for making music together. Band and orchestra moved outside. Special masks covered wind instruments. Choral groups sang outside exclusively with microphones and standing far apart.

“That this works as well as it does is a tribute to the skill and perseverance of our students,” wrote choral director, Jared Stutzman, to choir parents. “They (and I) have had to relearn entirely how to listen to each other through a sound system, how to modulate and balance voices through a microphone, how to tune to each other… they are making music at a high level and making the best of this opportunity.”

Eastern Mennonite School student Rahel Lema ‘21 and Paul Leaman, Head of School, work together during the EMS solar barnraising on October 10, 2020. See article on page 3. Photo by Andrea Wenger

An outdoor musical production is possible. It took vision, an influx of talent, and a school pulling together to stage Les Misérables School Edition safely in October. Around 200 guests per show enjoyed sitting in family groups in 8X8 foot blocks spaced 10 feet apart across the soccer field for night time performances. Forty students were involved with the show, including 11 students new to EMS this fall. “There is a reason people refer to the ‘healing arts,’” said Joy Anderson, director and visionary. “These students will treasure the friendships and memories made. Their discipline, determination, and talent inspired and brought healing to all of us.”

We can respect each other, even with differences. In addition to COVID, the school navigated a season marked by polarization in broader society. “We aspire to be a school where every student ‘belongs, thrives, and lives God’s call,” says Principal King. “So we tackled the divisive culture head on.” All employees and students took part in several training sessions and chapel presentations on how to disagree respectfully and talk about controversial issues.

The future looks bright. A hopeful highlight this fall was a “solar barnraising” in mid October when 35 volunteers installed 357 solar panels on the upper building. The array will provide one third of the school’s energy needs. “It was encouraging to see students join the effort,” says Leaman. “They are the scientists, community leaders, pastors, teachers and healers who will tackle the challenges we face.” See more at easternmennonite.org/solar.

Read more stories and see photo galleries at easternmennonite.org/news. View virtual chapels (grades 6-12) by searching for “Eastern Mennonite School Chapel” on YouTube.

EMS is accepting applications for the 2021-22 school year for students entering kindergarten or in grades 6-12; applications are being accepted for a wait pool for grades 1-5. See easternmennonite.org/visit to register for admissions “Coffee Chats” this fall and winter, or to schedule a visit.

Gifts to our 2nd Century Annual Fund to support student financial aid are needed and welcome. Go to easternmennonite.org/support or phone 540-236-6024.