Planning in a Pandemic: Student Life

Shari Rossmann, Director of Student Activities.

Planning activities that keep teenagers safe and engaged is a difficult job at any time, but during a pandemic it is even more challenging. We recently sat down with Director of Student Activities, Shari Rossmann, for a “virtual” face to face conversation to find out what George School boarding students have been doing this fall and what they can look forward to throughout the year.

Q: What have the students been up to since arriving on campus in August?

A: Outdoor activities and more outdoors activities! The “gold standard” for activities during the pandemic is fresh air and small numbers of participants. So, we have been taking full advantage of our fabulous campus riding bicycles, practicing yoga… outdoors, using the low ropes course, and having fun exploring all over campus with scavenger hunts.

We have been slow to incorporate food into our program this year, but have recently ventured to do so with great care. Recently the Student Activities Board (SAB) hosted “Wafflemania.” Students placed their orders via social media, SAB conveyed the orders to our chefs in Bettye’s and then delivered these wonders to individual students. Adults on social duty limited how many students could enter Marshall Center at one time and students happily cued outside for their turn. Some of our waffle selection included Harvest Apple (fresh sliced apples, vanilla ice cream, and homemade caramel sauce), Valentine’s Day (sliced fresh strawberries, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate sauce), and PB and B (Peanut butter, fresh bananas, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream). Look out Nina’s…

Q: What has been your favorite event so far and why?

A: I LOVE water sports! As a rower, I find my peace on the water. While we can’t share that sport easily, we can offer kayaking- even now! It’s possible to launch onto Neshaminy Creek from campus. Best of all, is sharing the novel sensation of buoyancy. Many of our students have never been on a boat of any kind. The feeling is amazing for them, something akin to flying. Once on the water, it’s also as if we were a hundred miles away. Right now, with so many restrictions, this sense of freedom is therapeutic! I love to watch them just relax out there.

In addition to recreational kayaking, we have made this resource available on weekends to students for science projects involving water, flora, and fauna sampling. It’s great to be able to support and collaborate with our academic departments!

Q: What have you learned from this experience? Anything that can carry over to when things return to normal?

A: What could be more liberating than the feeling of zooming, for real, down a hill on a bicycle with the wind in your face and sun on your back? George School has a corral of bicycles for our summer camp programs. In past years, we have struggled with how to make them available to students during the year. This year we initiated a new sign-out procedure as part of our opening Outdoor Explore Weekend. In the first two days the bikes were available, 120 students signed up to ride! The enthusiasm has kept going. Bike riding is now a regular weekend offering. Students love the freedom of riding all around campus and have been so cooperative in keeping the bikes and helmets clean and sanitized in-between riders. So, we learned, that “if you build it” (the protocol and availability), “they will come” (ride and take care of the bicycles).

Seeing this success, the Athletic Department is offering bike riding as a PE option this semester. It’s great seeing Mike Bailey escorting his PE classes riding the cross-country trail and around campus!

The popularity of activities on Science Weekends really triggered something wonderful; students getting into some real substance. One such activity was night sky viewing. We have a beautiful campus, people that are knowledgeable, and all the right equipment to make this happen, but we rarely took advantage previously. It’s beautiful and mid-expanding. So, while clouds sometime get in the way…we will do it again.

New student clubs are forming too, like Camping Club. There is an active group of students this year eager to share their knowledge of camping and others eager to learn and try it for the first time. Our fabulous campus provides a perfect venue but we do need some help getting additional equipment- only one tent in pandemic times! Other things that would be great to have would be hiking backpacks and camp cooking accessories.

Q: What has been the hardest part about keeping George School students engaged and entertained during a pandemic?

A: Social distancing, getting the students to participate, and adjusting to a new schedule have been the hardest parts.  Accommodating both, the need to wait for darkness and the reality of early dorm check-in, made this a challenge. Now, it’s getting too cold for outdoor movies. We had a custom screen fabricated so we can show feature films (and shorts) in the Penn Outdoor Auditorium.  The rise of the hill creates natural stadium-style seating.  We set yoga mats to configure socially distanced seating.  But, the weather has to cooperate! For other activities, we still need to issue constant reminders to stay safe and maintain 6 feet of distance.  It isn’t easy, but we keep at it and we all try!

For some weekends we can have virtual activities for day students, which I am excited about. I am sad they cannot participate in our campus life this year, so this is one way we can include them.

Q: We saw that there is now an outdoor movie theater on campus. Have there been any other adjustments or additions made on campus to help expand opportunities? Is there anything you wish we had?

A: A rock-climbing wall would be a tremendous asset on campus. Pre-Covid, we could visit local rock climbing gyms; this was very popular. There is potential to build an entire outdoors program around rock climbing. We already have high ropes and low ropes courses, archery, and could easily add camping and woodsman skills, to build such a strong program.

Q: This year’s Harvest Weekend looked a little different than previous years. Can you share some of what went on?

A: We still did most of our treasured traditions, we just needed to rethink the way we did them this year. We did not make apple butter, but we had a haunted trail instead of a haunted house (so we could be outside). We carved pumpkins, made s’mores, had hot dogs, and showed four movies at the outdoor theater; two scary and two family friendly.

Q: What are some other upcoming weekends you are excited about?

A: I always love the energy and creative brilliance of GS theater weekends. Of course, the theater experience will be different this year.  We are working to live-stream the performance to the outdoor screen. Hopefully, we can move the screen closer to Walton, so the cast can come outside for their curtain call. That would be gratifying for the entire production team!

Q: Is there anything that you want the community to know about the opportunities you have created for students?

A: Yes, that all of this would be impossible without the great leadership and service of our Student Activity Board! These student leaders really, really are the life and breath of the program; we could not have these great activities without them. We also couldn’t do what we do without the help of Vince Campelone and the Grounds Crew. They are our campus angels; they truly make the impossible, possible! And finally, a shout out to our Deans who keep ever vigilant watch and care of our students, providing all kinds of nurture and support.

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