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COVID-19 Health & Safety Measures

During the 2021–2022 school year, we plan to keep Rowland Hall open and welcome all students to campus. We'll have technology to support students who may still need to quarantine, but we won't be offering a distance-learning plan.

We know that students thrive when an excellent academic program is matched by vibrant co-curricular life, and we'll deliver both to the best of our ability within each learning model while adapting to community COVID-19 risk levels.

Four principles guide this framework: 

  1. Keep our mission and values at the forefront of our thinking
  2. Connect students and teachers in a learning program that is engaging, relevant, and in person, if possible
  3. Create learning models that flex with health and safety guidelines 
  4. Prioritize the health and safety of our community 

We'll continue to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Utah Department of Health. We're closely monitoring the Utah COVID-19 Transmission Index—as well as school-specific guidance from the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Utah COVID-19 School Manual, and Mass General’s School and Community Resource Library—and are prepared to pivot as needed.

Physical Campus, Health & Safety Guidelines, and Return-to-Work Procedures

Strategies have been discussed and developed in the following areas. These policies may be amended if health and safety concerns change.

Who to Contact

The Rowland Hall Student Experience During COVID-19

Explore Stories in Fine Print Magazine

Student Samantha Lehman at the Utah state capitol.

At the beginning of June, rising Rowland Hall senior Samantha Lehman began an internship for the Utah House of Representatives majority staff. She spent two weeks sitting in on appropriations and caucus meetings, communicating important information through social media, and researching everything from local procedures for foreign diplomats visiting Utah to water and transportation policy (did you know that 32,933,228,764 miles were driven on Utah roads in 2019? Neither did Samantha!).

While working at the capitol, Samantha was approached by Harry Hansen, communications manager and podcast host, who asked to interview her for the Utah House of Representatives Podcast about her experience attending high school during a pandemic. She said yes, and when Harry asked if there was anything specific she wanted to talk about, Samantha immediately answered, “Mental health.” Below, Samantha, a Rowland Hall mental health educator and this year’s student body president, reflects on why she chose to focus that discussion on the toll the pandemic is taking on students' mental well-being.

Mental Health and the Pandemic: A High Schooler’s Perspective

By Samantha Lehman, Class of 2022

The movies don’t lie when they say that high school is tough.

I, and many other students, found it hard to stay motivated and to care about things we were previously interested in. I felt alone, helpless, burned out, and like I was a failure for not being more engaged. It was as if Earth’s gravity had suddenly increased: everything looked the same, but it was harder to lift myself up.

Homework, studying, and the epic highs and lows of extracurriculars are enormously stressful, so a balance between friends and work can help make school manageable. However, the pandemic meant students were isolated in their rooms, unable to be around their friends, making school feel more strenuous and boring. Additionally, in-person class is hard to replicate on Zoom. There’s just not the same energy, and focusing is near impossible when a) you have been staring at a screen for hours at a time, and b) the world of the internet is at your fingertips (I’ll be fully transparent here: I definitely watched The Office instead of paying attention in class more than a couple of times). As the year went on, many students found it harder and harder to keep up with work and make themselves pay attention to what they were supposed to be learning, even if they were able to be in person at school some of the time. I, and many other students, found it hard to stay motivated and to care about things we were previously interested in. I felt alone, helpless, burned out, and like I was a failure for not being more engaged. It was as if Earth’s gravity had suddenly increased: everything looked the same, but it was harder to lift myself up.

Another problem with school during a pandemic is repetitive thoughts. When you’re stuck at home all day in front of a computer with nothing but your brain to keep you company, repetitive thoughts become a real problem. My brain kept telling me, “You should be doing better at school,” or, “You’re a horrible student and don’t deserve to be here,” and, “You’re a failure.” After hearing those things again and again, I started to believe them. Unfortunately, many of my classmates had this experience as well, and they struggled with school and their mental health as a result.

For some students, having their routine dramatically switched up by the pandemic was a huge challenge. For others, they enjoyed being online for school, perhaps because they are uncomfortable in many social situations, so going back in person towards the end of the year was a hard adjustment. Maybe a student lost a relative or a friend during or to the pandemic and didn’t get the community support they needed. Regardless of the reason, the pandemic impacted every student’s mental health in some way, and that may have long-lasting effects, even if this school year looks a little more normal.

I think it’s important to realize that mental health is not a reason a person isn’t strong. You can be strong and still struggle with your mental health.

I think it’s important to realize that struggling with mental health is not a reason a person isn’t strong. You can be strong and still struggle with your mental health. Take Simone Biles, for example. She has 31 Olympic and World Championship medals and pulled out of the Olympic team competition to prioritize her mental health. That’s strength if I’ve ever seen it. A person also doesn’t have to be diagnosed with something like anxiety, OCD, or depression to need to take time to prioritize their mental health. Brains are weird and life is hard.

As we continue to navigate the pandemic, the advice I’d give to parents and guardians is to remember it’s important to realize that kids need time to recharge and get their heads on straight to succeed. It’s OK for kids to feel tired and want to take breaks from work, and caregivers should encourage them to prioritize their mental health as well as support their kids in times of struggle. My parents support me by reminding me that they are there for me and by never judging or criticizing me for struggling with mental health.

Additionally, as students, we need to remember to support each other. There is never a bad time to tell a friend that they are doing great and that you are there for them. As a community, we need to continue to uplift each other and give each other the space to put mental health first.

Student Voices

Members of the Rowland Hall 2020–2021 debate team, 3A State Champions.

Despite its pandemic-related challenges, 2020–2021 was a banner year for the Rowland Hall debate team, which embraced the sport's virtual format to excel in both individual and team events—including the state tournament, where they won the title of 3A Speech & Debate Champions for the first time in the school’s history.

“It's been a historically challenging year for all schools, but we turned it into a historically successful one,” said coach Mike Shackelford.

Rowland Hall competed virtually in more than 40 local and national events in 2020–2021—more than double the events in a non-pandemic year—including the Utah Debate Coaches Association tournament, the most prestigious local regular-season tournament, in November, where the team won the sweepstakes award for the top school, and the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) state tournament in March, where the team won the championship title.

Debating at the state tournament was a great opportunity to bond as a team after a year of separation, and winning the championship wouldn't have been possible without the dedication from each member.—Emery Bahna, class of 2022

Earning the state trophy is an especially impressive feat for Rowland Hall, a small school that plays up one classification level and has, in previous years, been unable to assemble a large enough team to be in the running for the state title, due to tournament timing, travel, and other event-related challenges. Team size matters at state because while all students compete for individual titles, their performances also count toward a school’s overall score: students who place in the top 25% of an event earn their schools five points (a “Superior” rating), and points descend until the bottom 25%, which earns no points. While Rowland Hall has long won individual championships, its previous rosters of 12 to 15 students meant the team had to take zeros in categories they didn't enter. Thanks to this year’s virtual format, however, which made it easier to participate, they could finally set their sights on the championship.
“The whole team came together to conduct research, participate in practice debates, and share information about our opponents,” said junior Emery Bahna, who, with junior Mahit Dagar, took first place in the UHSAA Public Forum event. “Debating at the state tournament was a great opportunity to bond as a team after a year of separation, and winning the championship wouldn't have been possible without the dedication from each member.”
Mike agreed, noting that he views that dedication as the students’ way to balance a year in which they were unable to enjoy normal aspects of debate, like socials, bus rides, and even being in the same room during final rounds to root for each other. “There was a real commitment to achieve something collectively,” he said.
This they did, together earning a final tournament score of 122 points. Second-place school Providence Hall, the 2020 state champion, finished with 74 points.
“We nearly lapped the field,” said Mike. “The state championship reflected our collective desire and commitment to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Winning state was a product of 25 students rallying for a cause, and each doing their part.”

Rowland Hall 2020–2021 debate team, 2021 Utah 3A State Champions.

Below are the top individual championship performances at the UHSAA tournament, which contributed to the state title:

  • Seniors Sophie Dau and Maddy Frech took first place in Policy, an event in which teams advocate for or against a policy change resolution, for their proposal for criminal justice reform. Three other teams—seniors Auden Bown and Ty Lunde, sophomores Zachary Klein and Micah Sheinberg, and sophomores Ruchi Agarwal and Layla Hijjawi—went undefeated in Policy, giving them a co-championship.
  • Sophomore Ane Hernandez took first place in the Impromptu Speaking event, which requires debaters to prepare and deliver five-minute speeches on random topics, with only one to two minutes of preparation. Sophomores Anna Hull and Maile Fukushima were also finalists in this event, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively.
  • Junior Samantha Lehman finished in first place in National Extemporaneous Speaking, an event in which debaters are given a domestic affairs question and have 30 minutes to research, write, and deliver seven-minute speeches.
  • Juniors Emery Bahna and Mahit Dagar took first place in Public Forum, an event that includes short speeches interspersed with three-minute crossfire sections, on the topic of the pros and cons of the Space Force; this dynamic duo also qualified to the national Tournament of Champions and will compete at the National Speech & Debate Tournament in June. Senior Hattie Wall and junior Julia Graham, as well as juniors Ella Houden and Kit Stevens, closed out the top three spots, giving them a co-championship. Juniors Casey Maloy and Lizzie Carlin finished fifth.  
  • Sophomore Maddie Carlin took second place in Student Congress, a competition in which students lead and participate in a simulation where they debate different pieces of national legislation.
  • Freshman Zac Bahna took third place in Foreign Extemporaneous Speaking, an event in which debaters are given a foreign affairs question and have 30 minutes to research, write, and deliver seven-minute speeches.
  • Freshman Marina Peng took fifth place in Lincoln-Douglas, a solo debate event in which she spoke on the ethical necessity of universal child care.

Congratulations, debaters, on an impressive year!

Update October 29, 2021: This month, debate coach Mike Shakelford received a letter from J. Scott Wunn, executive director of the National Speech & Debate Association, notifying him that Rowland Hall earned the 2020–2021 Leading Chapter Award in the Great Salt Lake (UT) District. Out of 3,000 member schools nationwide, Rowland Hall is one of only 108 to receive this award.

"This coveted honor, based on student participation throughout the school year, is the highest recognition your school can receive from the National Speech & Debate Association. Only the top school in accumulated members and degrees per district earns this designation each year, and each school must wait at least five years before being eligible again," the letter read. "Your award reflects 725 members and degrees over 10 years. In that time, several hundred students have been taught communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration skills through speech and debate. The Leading Chapter Award serves as an indication of your relentless dedication to these students and to speech and debate education. Your efforts truly embody our mission to empower youth."

For Coach Mike and his students, this award is indeed the cherry on top of a fantastic season—as well as a powerful example of why our debate program has been recognized as one of the strongest in the Intermountain West.

"This is a special award because it reflects sustained excellence, longevity, and collective effort," said Mike. "Unlike many individual tournament achievements, this award recognizes the contributions of every single debater at Rowland Hall over the last five years. Every practice speech, every article researched, every creative argument idea; it all adds up!"


Rowland Hall Head of School Mick Gee chats with Lower School students at the 2021 science share.

There are unofficial rules a new head of school is expected to follow when arriving on campus: Listen. Focus on relationships. Learn the culture. And don’t make too many decisions while doing the first three. 

Of course, rules change if your first year happens to occur within a global pandemic.

This has been a year full of decisions. I've tried to get the balance right of making calls when they need to be made and listening when I need to listen.—Head of School Mick Gee

“This has been a year full of decisions,” said Mick Gee, who is completing his first year as Rowland Hall’s head of school this June. “I've tried to get the balance right of making calls when they need to be made and listening when I need to listen. That's been a bit of a dance.”

In fact, Mick’s input on Rowland Hall’s COVID-19-related decisions started before he officially did. Though his role was scheduled to begin on July 1, 2020, Mick began closely collaborating with former Head of School Alan Sparrow in March 2020, not long after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

“Every time there was a decision that the school was making that Alan felt would have impact beyond his tenure, he would run it by me,” said Mick. “He was open and enthusiastic about me being involved in conversations, because I was going to inherit the decisions that were made.”

Because of this, Mick was often doing double duty at Rowland Hall and Allendale Columbia, the Rochester, New York, independent school he previously led, and it became rapidly clear as the weeks passed that the pandemic would continue to be the focus of his first year at Rowland Hall. By the time he arrived in Utah in summer 2020—joining his wife, Amy, and daughter, Madeleine ’21, who had moved to Salt Lake City ahead of him—Mick had a good grasp of how Alan had been guiding the Rowland Hall community and was able to jump right into discussions about the probability of offering in-person learning in the fall. Much of those weeks, Mick remembered, were spent wading through a constant stream of new information about the virus.

“There was a new article coming out every week: kids can catch COVID, kids can transmit it; kids can't catch it, kids don't transmit it as much,” said Mick. “We had somehow to pick our way through that.”

Head of School Mick Gee chats with a student at the 2021 Lower School Science Share.

Mick chats with a student at the Lower School Science Share on May 7. A former physics and chemistry teacher, Mick relied on scientific data when making decisions for this school year, with a focus on student well-being.

It was a time marked by fear, and though the Rowland Hall community was hopeful that classes could be safely held in person, people understandably wondered if that was too risky. Faced with a flood of questions and opinions, and knowing that no decision the school made could be risk-free, Mick, a former physics and chemistry teacher, put his trust in science. Alongside his administrative team and a cadre of medical experts from the Rowland Hall community, he led the charge of weighing the many risks—from probability of spread to the harm distance learning was doing to students’ mental health—through the lens of the most recent sound scientific data, and with an eye toward what was best for students. He accepted that there was no way to make every person happy.

“It's a compromise. I can't remember a decision where everybody felt good. There's always risk and there's always uncertainty,” Mick said. “If we just made decisions based on what's best for COVID protection, we would have closed the school for a year. But we knew that was not going to be the best thing for the mental health of kids. It was not going to be the best way to support families.”

And while Mick understood and trusted in the science behind these decisions, he acknowledged that it was a challenge to ask people to make major changes to their school days—like filling out daily health screenings, wearing masks, and staying home with even mild symptoms—before he had a chance to get to know them.

“I didn't really have a relationship with people, and I’m asking them to do things that are far from normal,” Mick remembered. “I hadn’t had a chance to deposit anything in the goodwill bank, and I was making withdrawals.”

But the Rowland Hall community was willing to extend that credit to Mick, agreeing to adhere to the school’s health and safety guidelines to ensure that students could be on campus in some capacity. From the Upper School athletes who wore masks while competing to the families who chose to forgo holiday travel, Mick knows that every person in the Rowland Hall community played a role in the school’s ability to remain open all year.

We can plan the best possible protocols, but if the students didn't buy in, if the parents and community didn't buy in, then it really wouldn't matter. How we've responded as a school to create an environment where kids have been able to go to school every single day is pretty remarkable.—Mick Gee

“Every single person stepped up,” he said. “It's hard, but everybody fell in with the philosophy and made it possible.”

Mick knows how easily the year could have gone in another direction. He’s heard firsthand from administrators who struggled with families’ willingness to take precautions outside of school, leading to community spread and necessitating continued distance learning, with some schools unable to open until as late as April 2021. He remembered fully understanding these struggles while on a call with 100 other heads of school, where he realized that only 12 of the attendees were sitting in offices on campus.

“We can plan the best possible protocols, but if the students didn't buy in, if the parents and community didn't buy in, then it really wouldn't matter,” he said. “How we've responded as a school to create an environment where kids have been able to go to school every single day is pretty remarkable.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Mick is especially grateful for Rowland Hall’s choices, and the community’s actions, as each passing week seems to confirm how critically important in-person learning is to student well-being. By early April, Rowland Hall was fortunate to be able to end its hybrid-learning model, opening full in-person learning to all interested students (while continuing to support those who have chosen to finish the year learning remotely). And though things are still far from normal, this decision—alongside increasing vaccinations, which most faculty and staff, and some students over the age of 16, have received—has helped make a difference in students’ mental health. It’s also allowed for the careful reintroduction of certain spring events, which has benefited adults including Mick, who’s been able to safely increase his in-person interactions with students. During this year’s Battle of the Classes, for instance, Mick, a lifelong athlete, joined faculty and staff in a kickball match against seniors, then enjoyed a pick-up game of cricket with a group of middle schoolers. He said letting kids get to know him in these casual settings makes a difference.

Mick Gee playing kickball with students during Battle of the Classes 2021.

Mick enjoys a game of kickball against seniors on April 20. Rowland Hall has been able to carefully reintroduce activities this spring, benefitting students as well as faculty and staff.

“Being out there is probably worth 10 Zoom meetings,” said Mick. “You see students in the hall and you just played sports against them—it's different in the way they see you. It's a game changer, really.”

Moments like these are, of course, what Mick pictured during his first year at Rowland Hall, but he doesn’t let the pandemic demands that took their place bother him. Rather, he’s tapped into his lighthearted personality to find joy in the everyday and to keep this year’s challenges in perspective. “I never really take myself too seriously,” he said. “I think you can do all of this stuff—make all these hard calls—but you have to have fun doing it. That seems a silly thing to say in a year where so many people have suffered, but there has to be levity and joy in the work, and a sense of humor.”

Mick’s also using this year’s experiences to help him make decisions around the future of Rowland Hall, emphasizing the importance of understanding how schools’ decisions truly affect students—a skill that he believes schools have had to sharpen this year and one that shouldn’t be abandoned in favor of the education status quo.

“‘What's the best thing to do for kids? How is this decision going to impact students?’ That's the criteria for making decisions,” said Mick. “I think every school in the country will tell you, ‘Of course, we do that all the time,’ and they do not. That is one thing I think that we can do more of, and we've learned this year.”

I think it's a misconception to think everything was better before COVID. This year has taught many schools, including ours, that you can change quickly, and pivot, and make decisions that are extremely impactful.—Mick Gee

In addition, Mick wants to continue to encourage the ingenuity teachers showed throughout the pandemic. He noted that many have found ways of presenting a variety of subjects, from math and English to arts and PE, in ways that better serve how today’s students learn.

“I think it's a misconception to think everything was better before COVID,” said Mick. “This year has taught many schools, including ours, that you can change quickly, and pivot, and make decisions that are extremely impactful. And knowing that we can get through that and be successful where, frankly, not every school has succeeded, builds a bit of confidence.”

That confidence seems to be reflected in the larger Rowland Hall community, as evidenced by re-enrollment figures. Mick views families’ enthusiasm to sign on for another year as an indication that, though not everyone may have agreed with all of the decisions made this year, they believe in Rowland Hall’s capability to support students and families through crises, while still delivering a top academic program.

“Our re-enrollment has gone really well—that's a sign that people are reacting to what they've seen and experienced this year,” said Mick. “So that feels really good.”

But even with ongoing community buy-in, Mick won’t be taking it easy. He’ll be spending much of next year revisiting his pre-pandemic to-do list, especially when it comes to building relationships with students, families, faculty, and staff. “There's lots of people who don't really know me,” he said. “That's going to continue to be a work in progress.”

And even though he’s had to shift some of his year-one priorities to year two, Mick is excited about what lies ahead: he sees the 2021–2022 school year as a second chance to experience what traditionally makes up a head of school’s first year.

“I feel like I almost get a second lease of life because I get to do my first year all over,” he said. “I feel super lucky to be here and to be part of all we've done this year—and we're not done. I'm always like, ‘What's next?’ And, luckily, there's always plenty next.”


A Rowland Hall middle schooler on the Lincoln Street Campus in Salt Lake City, Utah.

What a year it’s been.

March 11, 2021, marked one year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and many people around the globe used the occasion to reflect on how their lives had changed over the previous 12 months.

In Rowland Hall’s Middle School, eighth-grade English teacher Chelsea Vasquez viewed the anniversary as an opportunity to help students process their COVID-19 experiences within the context of other cultural and historical factors featured in the choice novels they’re currently reading in their coming-of-age English unit.

Reading enables us to make sense of our own lived experiences.—Chelsea Vasquez, eighth-grade English teacher

“One of the ideas I'm trying to convey is the universality of themes—the fact that the things characters experience in books happen in the real world,” said Chelsea. This universality of themes extends to non-fiction texts, too, and Chelsea pointed out that guiding students toward making text-to-self and text-to-world connections within a variety of reading materials can be a valuable way to help them understand events happening to and around them.

“Reading enables us to make sense of our own lived experiences,” she explained.

As a way to practice this skill, Chelsea had students read “Coming of Age: Teens on a Year That Changed Everything,” a New York Times article published the week of the pandemic anniversary that showcased teens’ reflections on life during COVID-19. “They could see examples of things other students, some their age, had created, and then consider how these artifacts mirrored or differed from their own experiences,” Chelsea said.

After they read the article, the eighth graders reflected on a list of questions generated by The New York Timeslearning network and wrote responses. Those responses—insightful, thoughtful, and poignant—offer a valuable and touching glimpse into the pandemic experiences of some of our Rowland Hall students. With their permission, we have shared a sampling of excerpts from those reflections below. (Text has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Reflections on What the Collection Says about Coming of Age during a Pandemic

"This collection shows that everyone struggled during quarantine. It got worse before it got better. It also showed that everyone had different ways of coping. Contributor Sunnina Chen talked about how she felt like she was suffocating, but realized she was the one pulling the ‘Saran Wrap’ tighter over her head. I relate to this because, as quarantine went on, I felt like every decision I made made it harder for me to be happy and stay motivated. I, like Sunnina, realized that I was causing my own sadness and decided to let go of everything that wasn’t making me happy. With that, things started looking up again. It got better after it got worse."
—Kavitha K.

"Because we are coming of age during difficult times, we have learned to be more resilient and resourceful. We have been separated from many of those who make us happy, and that has taught us to find happiness around us and within us. I can 100% relate to feeling isolated and lonely, which has shaped me to be a (hopefully) more gracious and kind person.”
—Rebecca M.

Reflections on the Themes, Words, Images, and Ideas That Spoke to Them

"The idea that seems to cover almost every entry was loneliness. The type of loneliness felt in the pandemic was not ordinary. It required learning how to not be lonely when you don’t have social interaction. Learning how to be friends with yourself. From my perspective, when you can do that, you are never lonely, even in a pandemic. I think being friends with yourself is coming-of-age at its finest (and I think this applies to every generation, as we are constantly evolving humans).”
—Adara S.

"Two themes especially stood out to me. The first was participating in change. Whether it was fighting for racial justice or LGBTQ+ rights, many submissions showed teenagers working to change their communities for the better. The second was hardship and isolation. Many pieces illustrated self-doubt, depression, anxiety, and pure boredom. While it is true that people of all ages experienced these feelings, I think it hit teenagers especially hard. Social interaction, movement, and change are things that many teenagers cherish and—to some extent—need. The pandemic has deprived many teenagers of these things.”
—Aiden G.

Reflections on What’s Missing from the Collection

"The collection didn't address sibling bonding during COVID. I got to play with my brother more than I've done since we were toddlers. Though this started with simply having nothing else to do, I soon realized it's nice to talk to a sibling. A lot of brothers and sisters did. This collection also missed how grandparents suddenly became so important. I didn't see my paternal grandma until around summertime, as she lives in a memory care center and those were locked down."
—Sophia L.

"I feel that the collection seems to miss how masks affected us socially. Personally, I had such a difficult time with masks—facial expressions are the key to my socialization. I had to adjust with only reading the upper half of people’s faces, and it is much harder to understand body language when you're six feet apart and banned from the language of touch."
—Dylan B.

"What’s missing from this collection—or at least not strongly highlighted—are the benefits of the powerful emotions felt throughout the pandemic. These emotions were what allowed us to create some of our strongest pieces of art, poetry, or whatever we enjoy doing with a deeper sense of passion—a passion that one will still be able to feel after looking at the piece years and years later. This can help others understand and connect with you in a way that would have never been expressed through just having a conversation."
—Erika P.

Student Voices

Rowland Hall kindergartners around the story fire during outdoor classroom.

On a mild January morning, a Rowland Hall kindergarten class gathered around an imaginary fire. Surrounding them were the sounds of birds chirping, and the open fields and majestic trees of Sunnyside Park, a public greenspace located across the street from the McCarthey Campus. Behind their masks were the unmistakable signs of smiles as they called out the reading powers they’d been practicing.

“Stretching-out power!”

“Pointer power!”

“Beginning sound power!”

After listing all of their superpowers, the students picked up books, as well as pieces of carpet to help keep them dry, and excitedly walked to their favorite park trees. They settled down at the base of the trunks and began to read out loud. From across the field came the sound of little voices sounding out words. At each tree, a child sat focused, tracing a finger across a page to track their place and, occasionally, pausing to share an illustration with the tree.

The research is clear: spending time learning outdoors results in stickier learning, better emotional regulation, connection to and appreciation for nature, better collaboration skills amongst students—even improved appetite and eye development in young children.—Emma Wellman, Beginning School principal

Reading to the trees has become a beloved component of outdoor classroom, the newest addition to this year’s kindergarten curriculum. “There’s something magical about it,” said kindergarten lead teacher Melanie Robbins, who—with her background teaching outdoor classroom at the International School of Zug and Luzern in Switzerland, and studying nature education in Finland—has played a big role in introducing the learning method to Rowland Hall.

Put simply, outdoor classroom is the practice of taking school lessons outside to enhance learning. It’s a good fit for Rowland Hall’s Beginning School, where a focus on indoor-outdoor education and its benefits has always been a priority (design features of the Beginning School building even include access to common courtyards from all classrooms and a dedicated division nature yard).

“The research is clear: spending time learning outdoors results in stickier learning, better emotional regulation, connection to and appreciation for nature, better collaboration skills amongst students—even improved appetite and eye development in young children,” said Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman. Melanie agreed, noting that her early interest in outdoor classroom was sparked after seeing firsthand the benefits of learning outside, including the realization of how much more captivated students seemed to be in nature. 

“I noticed that the children were even more engaged than they were when we were inside, and I wanted to know more about this,” she said.

A kindergartner reading to a tree during outdoor classroom.

Reading to the trees has quickly become a favorite part of outdoor classroom at Rowland Hall.

And though an emphasis on outdoor classroom was already playing a role in plans for the 2020–2021 school year, the pandemic helped turn it into a priority (or, as the teachers view it, a COVID silver lining) since learning outdoors is safer for teachers and students. Many Beginning School teachers now choose to utilize Sunnyside Park for lessons each week—appointments that have become so cherished, teachers say, that students are “devastated” when a scheduling conflict or severe weather derails plans.

“I think there’s this freedom in the outdoors that they’re connected to,” Melanie explained.

In fact, the instructors say that despite the park’s many distractions, students are greatly connected to outdoor activities, and their focus and overall stamina for learning have improved outdoors. The story fire ritual that opens each session, for instance, is helping to sharpen their listening and imagining skills, while reading to trees is helping to build confidence and endurance (“We can read a lot longer outside than we do inside,” said Melanie). These benefits aren’t limited to certain subjects, either. Teachers can take almost any unit of study to the park (and some have been known to wheel two wagons’ worth of supplies over to do just that) and are also utilizing the space’s natural materials for lessons. As a result, students are trying all sorts of activities, from practicing measurements and studying patterns, to creating art and making science drawings.

“We want to get kids learning from the world around them, making real-world connections with science, and bringing math, language, and literacy into an outdoor space,” said lead kindergarten teacher Kelley Journey, who previously taught at a nature-based school in Massachusetts.

I used to think it was fun to take kids outdoors. But now I know that it is a uniquely powerful setting to help develop curious, happy, focused learners.—Melanie Robbins, kindergarten lead teacher

Outdoor classroom is also proving to be a way to build on already-successful units. 4PreK lead teacher Kait Abraham, who’s attended outdoor classroom seminars, brought it into her classroom this year and said it’s been a valuable addition to units like the evergreen study, which had previously only been conducted on campus. By including Sunnyside Park in this year’s study, Kait said, students could view more types of evergreen trees as well as access fallen branches, sticks, and pine cones to use in counting and sorting exercises.

“It was really cool to see how kids take what we usually study indoors into the outdoors and study it even deeper,” she reflected.

And that indoor-outdoor link is happening across the division, with teachers seeing children asking more complex questions and realizing that learning happens in all kinds of places. For Melanie, their joyful engagement, and the fun they’re having because of it, is a reminder of the initial spark that drove her to study outdoor classroom.

"I used to think it was fun to take kids outdoors,” she said. “But now I know that it is a uniquely powerful setting to help develop curious, happy, focused learners."


Students and teachers gather on Zoom to hear from Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez.

“An editorial cartoon isn’t just a funny picture,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez told Rowland Hall eighth graders at a special virtual presentation on January 25. “A good editorial cartoon is a fine instrument of journalism: It defines an issue. It challenges hypocrisy. It reveals the best and the worst of humanity. It calls the reader to arms against the complacent, the lethargic, the evil-doers, the indolent body politic, the champions of the status quo, the sordid predators of society.”

Editorial, or political, cartooning isn’t often a subject that middle school students examine closely. So when Rowland Hall had the chance to invite Michael—uncle of eighth grader Elli Ramirez and senior Ke’ea Ramirez—to speak to eighth graders, teacher Sarah Yoon jumped at the chance. She knew that the discussion on editorial cartooning, free speech, journalism, and citizen responsibility would tie to current studies as well as give students a unique opportunity to interact with an esteemed artist: in addition to two Pulitzer Prizes (1994 and 2008), Michael’s awards include a 2015 Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year (the highest honor the profession bestows) and three Sigma Delta Chi awards for excellence in professional journalism (1995, 1997, and 2007). 

Michael urged students to seek out balanced information on complex issues, noting that this practice will provide them with a more comprehensive view of those issues, help them better understand and solidify their own beliefs, and prepare them to have constructive conversations.

At the January 25 event, Michael talked about how he views his role to help protect and inform the public, and gave students the chance to ask questions about his work, his career path, and even his love of surfing. He also used the time to inspire students to become active citizens and, one day, voters. The job of members of a democratic republic, he told them, is to be informed.

“Information is a necessary component to guide you in a political system based on self-governance and individual liberties,” Michael explained. He urged students to seek out balanced information on complex issues, noting that this practice will provide them with a more comprehensive view of those issues, help them better understand and solidify their own beliefs, and prepare them to have constructive conversations.

“You cannot make a substantive opinion on anything if you don’t know the depth of what you’re talking about,” he explained. “You can’t build a car if you don’t know the mechanics of an automobile; in the same way, you cannot construct an argument unless you know the mechanics of the debate.”

Michael’s presentation encouraged students—some noted that it aided them in understanding the power of their voices, while others reflected on how learning about Michael’s career helped them realize that they can express themselves in creative ways. They tapped into this inspiration as they embarked on their post-event assignment: to create their own editorial cartoons. In the weeks following the presentation, they became junior editorial cartoonists, researching, editing, and drawing (by hand or computer) their opinions on topics such as the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and the impact of COVID-19. For Monica Fernandez, the assignment gave her a chance to share her views on a subject she cares deeply about: climate change.

An editorial cartoon created by Monica Fernandez.

Eighth grader Monica Fernandez's editorial cartoon on climate change.

“I decided on the subject of my cartoon because I think climate change is a very important and real thing in our lives, and we should all try and become more aware of it so we can make smarter decisions in our day-to-day lives,” she explained. Like Michael and his fellow editorial cartoonists do, Monica took time to research her topic and consider the best approach to make her viewers think.

Monica's perspective is a reflection of what she and fellow students took away from Michael’s presentation—that good editorial cartoons inform and challenge readers as well as draw them into debate and action, and that engaged citizens have a say in the destiny of their country.

“I decided to include an hourglass, because I think this was a good way to visually show how fast time is running out,” she reflected. “My original plan was to show different natural elements (animals, trees, glaciers, people, oceans), but after creating a rough draft I realized that it looked sloppy and didn’t get my point across. I decided to just use the visual of the globe, and I was more happy with that design. My end result was three hourglasses—as the time goes by, each hourglass has more sand at the bottom and less world left.”

Monica hopes that, in addition to making viewers think, this image may also inspire them to change behaviors. “Even the little things in life that we do on a day-to-day basis can affect how much longer we can all make this world last before it all runs out,” she explained.

Her perspective is a reflection of what she and fellow students took away from Michael’s presentation—that good editorial cartoons inform and challenge readers as well as draw them into debate and action, and that engaged citizens have a say in the destiny of their country. The powerful images the students created prove that it’s never too early to help them think about their role as American citizens and sharpen the skills that will support them in that role. After all, as Michael pointed out, “Developing future citizens and participants in our democratic republic is so important.”

An editorial cartoon created by Annie Lutton.

An editorial cartoon created by eighth grader Annie Lutton.

Experiential Learning

Lower School student working on class project

In the newest episode of Rowland Hall’s award-winning princiPALS podcast, Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman and Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus discuss some of the most inspiring things they’ve learned (so far) while educating preschool- and elementary-aged children during the pandemic.

During the first months of in-person instruction since March, the princiPALS have learned a lot about the capability of children, the power of good teaching, and the strength of community.

Recorded during the 14th week of Rowland Hall’s 2020–2021 school year, Emma and Jij reflect on leading their divisions during the first months of in-person instruction since the school moved to full distance learning in March. During that time, they said, they’ve learned a lot about the capability of children, the power of good teaching, and the strength of community. And though they’re aware that schools across the country are dealing with different learning models and regional challenges, they believe that their perspectives on in-person learning during the pandemic may help other educators—as well as answer some of the many questions parents and caregivers have as schools readjust learning models in 2021.

“Our hope is that these important things we’ve learned are helpful to anyone out there,” said Jij.

The princiPALS also draw on their top lessons to create tips that will help parents and caregivers continue to support children (and themselves) at this time, with an emphasis on making intentional choices rather than, as Emma noted, “letting the world wash over you.”

Listen to “What We’re Learning about Learning during a Pandemic,” along with other episodes of princiPALS, on Rowland Hall's website, Stitcher, and Apple Podcasts.


Sixth graders recording the original radio play "The Awakening."
Like all educators across the country, Rowland Hall theatre teacher Matt Sincell had to rethink his lesson plans after the COVID-19 pandemic derailed in-person learning in March.
With traditional classes and a spring production off the table, Matt found himself looking for ways to provide theatre experiences for students during quarantine. He decided to introduce them to radio plays, a completely acoustic type of theatre, which could be produced from their homes.

While the term radio play might bring to mind radio series from the 1930s and 1940s, this type of production still attracts audiences today—podcasts, for instance, are “sort of the modern-day version of a radio play,” Matt said. Stories told as radio plays also have lasting power: "The War of the Worlds," a Mercury Theatre on the Air radio episode based on the 1898 H.G. Wells novel of the same name, dramatized a Martian invasion and is remembered because of the fear it stirred when it aired in 1938. “It caused a nationwide panic when it was first performed. People actually thought we were being invaded by aliens,” said Matt.

In the early months of distance learning, Rowland Hall students began exploring this theatre form, ultimately creating an adaptation of the popular children’s book The Gruffalo (which was edited by seventh- and eighth-grade Arts & Ensembles theatre teacher Meighan Smith). Their work was shared with families and friends—and, thanks to Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company, the wider community when it was featured on The City Library’s BiblioBoard. And as Matt planned for the 2020–2021 year—which he knew would still include distance learning in some form—he decided to continue the study of radio plays. “With students at home, in class, and, for some, distance learning only, it seemed the most likely class project to be able to complete,” he explained.

This fall, Matt assigned his sixth-grade Arts & Ensembles class the task of creating an original radio play. The result, The Awakening, is a 16-minute production written and performed by students Sebby Bamberger, Lila Bates, Josie Fonarow, Elayna Hoglund, Paulina Ize-Cedillo, Emery Lieberman, Elle Prasthofer, Morgan Schmutz, Sophie Smith, Izzy Utgaard, and Kate Weissman. The play, which took about two months to complete, was written in both the horror and comedy genres, explained Elayna.

“The inspiration for it was the story of ‘The Ghost with the Bloody Finger,’” she said, referencing a well-known campfire ghost story designed to make listeners laugh. Elayna said the sixth graders wanted to incorporate humor into their radio play because they knew their audience would be mostly made up of listeners who were middle-school-aged and younger. “We knew that it’d be more fun to have some funny in it.”

All 11 students were invested in the project, getting involved in the brainstorming, writing, and script editing required of a radio play. Although they weren’t able to do the close-contact acting techniques of a stage production, they did get to experience voice acting, with distance learners applying best practices to capture the cleanest sound possible by recording with blankets over their heads or by sitting inside a closet, and in-person learners utilizing a handmade, COVID-approved sound booth made of two stacked desks wrapped with a thick, padded moving blanket. (Blankets were changed and desks and equipment were sanitized between each recording session.)

“There was never a time that a student was directly interacting with another student, but we were able to create the illusion that they were indeed responding to each other,” said Matt, who edited The Awakening.

The students also learned the importance of sound effects in radio plays, which are key to bringing this art form to life. “The tricky thing about a radio play is that there, of course, is no visual to accompany it,” Matt explained, “so it's even more necessary to rely on our sense of sound to tell the story.” He had students experiment with Foley, a sound-making technique pioneered in the 1920s and still used today—Elayna captured the sound of a refrigerator door closing, a microwave beeping, and a candy wrapper crackling, while classmate Sophie recorded a door slamming, feet running on concrete, and her interpretation of a leprechaun laughing. Sophie said it felt good knowing that her sound effects helped make a difference in the finished recording. “It was pretty nice because you knew it was your work,” she said.

Art will find a way, even in the most challenging times.—Matt Sincell, theatre teacher

And that finished recording is impressive indeed. It’s a strong reminder of student creativity and ingenuity, even within a pandemic. “What they have been able to accomplish in the face of such adversity is really quite unique and wonderful,” said Matt.

The theatre teacher is hopeful that the radio play will also bring smiles to the larger community: on December 14, Matt announced that Jerry Rapier, Plan-B Theatre’s artistic director and a dedicated supporter of theatre education in Utah, had offered to again promote the Rowland Hall students’ work by linking The Awakening to The City Library’s BiblioBoard and to Plan-B’s mobile app.

“It's super exciting to once again have Plan-B Theatre support our students' work,” said Matt. “It’s nice to think that they are able to provide a 16-minute gift of joy to other students outside of the Rowland Hall community. It's proof that art will find a way, even in the most challenging times.”

Banner photo: Rowland Hall middle schoolers Lila Bates and Kate Weissman preparing to record lines of The Awakening.


You Belong at Rowland Hall