Upper school implements bell schedule changes and Zoom guidelines for remote learning


Sally Zhu

The first semester of the 2020-2021 school will utilize a modified two-day rotation block schedule. This is in response to limitations from the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting Governor Gavin Newson to issue a directive to all schools to begin the year exclusively through remote learning.

by Nicholas Wei and Sally Zhu

The upper school has adopted a modified bell schedule for the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year. All instruction will be taking place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the administration to release new Zoom guidelines for remote learning last week, helping students balance screen time and optimize productivity. 

A two-day rotation block schedule has replaced the former four-day rotation, and more frequent designated break periods have been placed in the schedule. The administration’s newly released Zoom etiquette protocol involves designating a prepared workspace, muting microphones when not speaking, closing other unrelated tabs and applications and using Harker-approved virtual backgrounds.

The online teaching format follows Harker’s suspension of all classes and extracurricular events in March, when Santa Clara County and California public health officials limited the size of gatherings to reduce community spread of COVID-19. Until the county is taken off the state’s COVID-19 watchlist, large gatherings will continue to be restricted, and schools may not take steps towards re-opening unless they obtain a waiver. Once the county is off of the state’s watchlist for 14 days, schools may resume in-person instruction and activities consistent with requirements issued by the Public Health Department.

Teachers have been encouraged to employ a 30-20-30 approach, with 30 minutes of lecture followed by 20 minutes of off-screen break time, and another 30 minutes of lecture time so that both students and teachers can take time to recharge and focus. However, administrators understand that this scheme is flexible.

How do I build community and connection among students that I’m meeting for the first time online?

— history teacher Byron Stevens

“If 30 minutes comes and you guys are in the middle of a great discussion, we don’t ever want a teacher to say, ‘Oh, well, I’m sorry, you need to go off screen now,’” upper school Academic Dean Kelly Horan said. “We want to be able to honor that momentum. But at the end of that… there needs to be some broken up time so that we can take a little brain break, recharge, and then come back and be able to focus.” 

In order to create a more interactive, engaging classroom experience, many teachers, including upper school history teacher Byron Stevens, participated in a weeklong “Design Bootcamp” to learn more about implementing courses in remote format. 

“[I was thinking,] how do I build community and connection among students that I’m meeting for the first time online?” Stevens said. “One of my big takeaways from the Design Bootcamp was the need to elevate faces and voices to see your classmates … not just when you’re in a synchronous Zoom call, but outside of class, asynchronously as well.”

Like other teachers, he has explored different websites and tools to keep students connected and engaged. He is currently experimenting with Flipgrid, a website where students and teachers can record and edit short video responses, and Schoology discussion threads with audio and video recording improvements.

Teachers have also taken measures in order to create a fair testing space and to prevent cheating. For example, AP Chemistry teacher Dr. Mala Raghavan will be employing a “second camera setup” that shows both the student’s desk and laptop screen to ensure they are taking the test independently. Furthermore, AP United States History teacher Julie Wheeler is giving tests with more stimulus-based instead of fact-based questions to encourage students to actively think instead of simply referring to their notes. 

I think the ultimate goal is making the classroom and our school environment an inclusive place for all people, and also all learners. If a person feels safe in a classroom, they’re going to take risks… and we only learn really by making mistakes.

— Academic Dean Kelly Horan

While creating the new block schedule, Harker administrators designated an activity period to encourage relaxation and bonding. They worked to balance instructional time with off-screen breaks, keeping in mind that students need enough time to learn the material, but also enough break periods so they can stay focused and make the most of the lecturing time.

“That activity block was really important to factor in some of the school routines. Another consideration is how much office hours [there are], since students need a little bit more individual attention,” Horan said. “I think you’ll notice that the time for Office Hours has actually increased through the week, and we’ve also tried to balance a full week of classes with the next week having a day off in some way.” 

So far, returning high school students have found the new block schedule to be more effective in balancing learning and relaxation time. 

“I think last year was a little stressful, and the reason was that we had a lot of breaks, but the breaks were shorter. And here, we have less breaks but they’re longer,” said Harshil Garg (11). “Also, office hours are longer, with 40 minute periods, so I can get more thorough help from my teachers.” 

These changes have made a big difference from the previous school year, when instructors had to quickly adapt to remote teaching. Shayla He (9) noted that not only have classes become more interactive, but students are more willing to speak up.

“Last year during remote learning, most of my classmates would be off camera and working individually, or you’d be in a breakout room and no one would know what to do,” she said. “This year, people in the breakout rooms are holding discussions, and we’re talking more in class too.” 

While online classes are not a typical start to the school-year, Zoom classes have served to be a welcoming space for incoming freshmen like Shayla.

“I never expected that I would start out high school like this during coronavirus… I’m just looking forward to meeting all [the other students], and we’re very excited about that,” Shayla said.

Ultimately, Harker intends these new guidelines to provide the best possible learning and community environment for all the students in this unique school year. 

“I think the ultimate goal is making the classroom and our school environment an inclusive place for all people, and also all learners. If a person feels safe in a classroom, they’re going to take risks… and we only learn really by making mistakes,” Horan said. “I think a lot of times all of us as learners are afraid to fail in front of our peers. And so we want to create a safe space where everybody feels like it’s okay to give that answer to the math problem, even if they’re not 100% sure that they’re right.