RADNOR, Penn. – Masks. Zoom. Temperature Checks. Social Distancing. Outbreaks. Being a student or teacher has always had its fair share of difficulties, but this past year has unleashed more new hurdles and unfamiliar concepts to learning than could have been imagined. Couple this with the existing challenges faced by institutions creating a space for the Armenian language and culture to be taught while boasting a rigorous and competitive American educational curriculum, and you can begin to understand the moment which the Armenian Sisters Academy outside Philadelphia has had to rise to meet. Nobody said it would be easy for this preschool through 8th grade day school with over 120 students and 30 teachers and aides, but it has diligently done so in A+ fashion.
Like schools around the world, the Academy had to abruptly transition to Zoom-based distance learning in March 2020 due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, many of its beloved community events such as its annual year-end Hantes performance had to be canceled for the first time in the school’s history of over fifty years. While students acclimated to distance learning through June, an ambitious project was set in motion to allow students to safely return to campus in time for the new school year. This was not easy, and would require major financial investment, at a time when quarantine restrictions prevented it from carrying out its typical fundraising events and activities. Yet as past generations sacrificed much in order to establish the Philadelphia community and the school itself, there was no question that it had to be done.
“This year has presented many challenges, not only for our school, but for the entire world,” commented school principal Sister Emma Moussayan. “The Armenian Sisters Academy responded wisely and prudently to the pandemic by creating a COVID-19 Response Advisory Committee to develop a safety plan for in-person instruction. By the end of August 2020, a written plan was in place and all CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines were either met or exceeded.”
Every aspect had to be considered and no expense could be spared, from replacing all classroom windows and the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning filtration systems, to allowing for increased ventilation, hiring a full-time cleaning staff to do continuous disinfection throughout the school and increasing the number of security cameras. In addition, a whole new approach to daily practices in school life would need to be taken. The school day starts with temperature checks and mandatory masks, students arrive based on staggered drop off times and plexiglass dividers are provided for each student’s desk. Students remain with their homeroom class all day and no parents or visitors are allowed inside. Outdoor spaces are utilized when weather permits, and windows are kept open at all times, even in winter with the building’s heat turned up to maintain proper airflow. A lot of new rules to be sure, but vital in regaining a degree of normalcy.
Classes were able to resume on time in September as planned and have continued relatively smoothly till now. It has been a lot of work but well worth it, due to the students’ joy to be back with their friends and no longer having to attend school by computer every day. An important factor in making it work was the initiative taken by the school’s faculty, as Sister Emma noted: “I commend our teachers for accepting the challenge to safely return to school, without hesitation, for the students. Their commitment and dedication are noticeable through their daily enthusiastic instruction. I also commend the teachers for their diligence in helping to maintain the cleanliness and sanitization of the building throughout the course of the school day.”
In fact, word got out about the Academy’s preparedness and it was inundated with applications from non-Armenian families eager to take advantage of it. The local elite public schools surrounding the Academy are still only conducting classes remotely and so the opportunity for in-person instruction has been highly sought after.