By Noell Barnidge
Because of the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Benedictine Military School administrators have developed a plan for the 2020-21 school year. BC’s three-option plan is designed to best provide a healthy and safe learning environment, while offering Cadets an experience that is as close to normal as possible.

“We want to provide the best experience possible for the 2020-21 school year because the BC education is and has always been holistic,” BC Principal Jacob Horne said. “What we plan for is the BC student experience that everyone has come to love, which is the reason parents send their young men to us. The Benedictine experience is one unlike any other high school in Savannah.”

As the summer moves on and further guidance is available, BC will refine its three-option plan. The three options are:

  • Traditional schooling – a plan in which everyone comes to campus each school day and follows safety protocols.
  • Blended – a plan to accommodate classroom distancing in which half of BC’s students come to campus three days (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) one week and the other half comes two days (Tuesday, Thursday). They would rotate the following week so Cadets would have the same number of days on campus at the end of every two weeks. This would be similar to a college experience.
  • CARE for THE 400 (Cadets Accessing Remotely for Education) online learning program – a plan in which Cadets would attend classes online from their homes.

BC’s small school size of just 400 students, combined with its mission’s focus on grades 9-12 in an all-male environment provides the school with the unique ability to pivot and adjust in a swift manner. BC’s small average class size of 16, and its large 90-acre campus, allows room for social distancing.

“We’re nimble enough as an organization to adapt to the situation,” said Horne, who has spent the last two weeks, twice each week, reviewing protocols with BC Headmaster Fr. Frank Ziemkiewicz, O.S.B., and the school’s leadership team. “So much of this is a team approach. We’ve got everybody coming together with a common goal and we’re figuring it out. We’re making plans so that on registration day, the first official day of school, we’re able to smoothly operate. We’re seasonally entering summer but we have not taken a break.”

In addition to keeping abreast of government and medical communities’ recommendations, Horne and BC’s leadership team are implementing what other schools abroad are also thinking and doing, part of an international cohort of educators.

“I’m watching and reading as the Korean schools come back, and as other schools in France and some of the western European schools are starting to open,” Horne said. “I’m participating in groups where the educators from across the world are reporting what they are doing and seeing as they return. All of this is important as we’re contingency planning. Ultimately, we’ll make the best of the situation. At the end of the day, it’s about our community and our 400 boys that we have to educate and provide an experience that has been trusted for over 100 years.”

There is an abundance of topics and scenarios to discuss regarding all three options of BC’s plan.

“We’ve spent the last two weeks, twice each week, just going over protocols,” Ziemkiewicz said. “How we want a classroom configured, how we want it sanitized, how we want the students to proceed from A to B, how to maintain the corridors, how to maintain the lockers, how we want to do things in the cafeteria, how we want the food to be serviced, what additional things we might need, how to upgrade facilities in response to this situation.”

BC’s traditional schooling plan is what it hopes to be able to offer when the school year begins in August, depending on the status of COVID-19.

“Our whole philosophy since this outbreak has been what is as close to normal as possible?” Horne said. “How do we best offer a normal experience, which is why we went about moving graduation from the Priory Chapel to the Cathedral. That’s going to continue to be our theme: as close to normal as possible. That’s what we believe is our bread and butter. May 1 doesn’t look like April 1 because so much has improved during the last 30 days. What will June 1, what will July 1, what will August 1 look like? And how much of a change can and will there be? That’s what we’re trying to contingency plan for is all these grays of where we are as a society. We’ve outlined traditional schooling as our No. 1, as our priority. It’s what we want. It’s what the students want. It’s what the parents want. It’s what the teachers want. If that’s not possible, what does blended learning look like?”

BC’s blended plan is the school’s second choice because it would allow Cadets to alternate attending classes on campus and still provides the social component which is such a special part of a Benedictine education.

“Right now, we’re thinking that blended learning is having the student population split in two in order to maintain class sizes that work within the CDC recommendations,” Horne said. “Part of that population comes in three days a week. Part of that population comes in two. We will flip the weeks so that the part of the population that came in twice will come in the next week three times. What we don’t know is what will June 30 look like? What will July 15 look like? What will the CDC be recommending? Right now, they’re recommending students age 2 and older have masks. By July, they may not.”

BC’s CARE for THE 400 online learning plan, which was implemented this spring when the pandemic arrived and resulted in a shelter-in-place mandate, is the school’s third choice.

“Online learning may look substantially different than what it looked like this past semester,” Horne said. “What it looked like this past semester was making the best of an emergency. It was ‘what can we do to maximize the situation that the entire world has never been through and that most educators have never been through?’ We did the best job we could. Our parents, from what we’ve seen from feedback, speaks volumes of how satisfied everybody was.”

If BC needs to return to its CARE for THE 400 online learning program, it will be a new experience for incoming freshmen but sophomores, juniors and seniors have experienced it.

“This fall, we’re going to have over three quarters of our student body returning who are accustomed now to online learning,” Horne said. “So we’re able to tighten the screws a little bit so that this fall’s online learning, there may be higher expectations … this is a growing process. In education we talk about scaffolding for our students. Well, we are going to continue to scaffold online learning for our students and just like learning to ride a bike, practice makes perfection. Everything is a process and if you focus on the process the results will come.

“This past spring, nobody had gone through it, not the educators, not the teachers, not the administration, not the students and parents,” Horne continued. “This fall, parents have been through it. Students have been through it. We know the pitfalls. We know where some communication holes may have been. And so the online learning may look different in the fall, and when I say different I mean a better version of ourselves. The best organizations, like people, are those that reflect and evolve as they move forward.”

Right now, BC’s leadership team is examining everything from school-wide Academic Well meetings to Mass and Commissioning. They’re also reviewing the movements of students between classes, the movements of students to and from lunch, and adding tables in the cafeteria to ensure distancing.

“There’s a lot that we’re looking at, and we have a team here that will figure it out,” Horne said. “We’re proving to our community, our parents, our alums, our students that we’re going to move forward in the best interest of the student. That’s our charge because we’re all here for our Cadets. Our mission is to educate the young men of Savannah and we will adhere to that mission.”

Benedictine Military School distinguishes itself as a school with a soul. Times such as these reveal that.

“Right now, our flexibility is the principle term,” Ziemkiewicz said. “On very short order, we have the ability to go to a different mode. The faculty and administration did an incredible job between the mid-March and the end of May timeframe to respond to that.”

Whether through layoffs, furloughs or work stoppages because of COVID-19, many people have been affected.

“This has, financially, affected a lot of our BC families,” Ziemkiewicz said. “We understand that these times have caused hardships. As a BC community, we are doing everything we can to support our students and their families. With that in mind, the guidance that we were given from our accreditation association, SAIS, was to plan for an increase in financial aid while continuing to maintain a balanced operating budget. Right now, that has pretty much held sway. We are just incredibly grateful to people who stepped up and sacrificed themselves so that we can maintain a student body that is viable."

BC also is examining how it will navigate obstacles in terms of athletics.

“One of the major things that is a question mark right now is how do we deal with athletics?” Ziemkiewicz said. “Athletics is a big part of the high school experience for anybody, and certainly at BC. What will we be able to do? The Georgia High School Association has said we can practice under certain conditions. We fully respect that. What we don’t know at this time is to what extent we will be able to fully integrate the athletics schedule. For example, if you have a game will you have attendance at a game? If you have sports, will you have contact sports? How do you integrate an athletic program in terms of a blended program where you have students attending classes one day and other students attending another? How do you create a team environment out of that? So right now, a lot of question marks. The requirement for being agile is absolutely critical.”

BC is excited about the start of the 2020-21 school year and eager to continue educating the leaders of tomorrow.

“We owe a lot to our parents, to our supporters, for being so understanding about the situation,” Ziemkiewicz said. “They realize this requires some planning, and a lot of changes just don’t take place at the drop of a hat. We’re in a very fortunate position. It’s an incredible team here that is very supportive of one another. The ultimate goal is to get our students into higher education. Everybody, as a team, is focused on how to accommodate the situation and make the best of it.”