Ahead of 1 September, we had the opportunity to ask Skolkovo Gymnasium Director Oksana Demianenko a few of the questions worrying many as the new school year begins. What changes and innovations await gymnasium students and staff, and what educational objectives will be a priority in the coming year?
Director Oksana Demianenko at this year’s gathering of gymnasium graduates. Photo: Aleksandr Gakhov, Skolkovo Gymnasium.
Oksana Yurievna, please tell us how the gymnasium has prepared for the new school year. What additional safety measures have been put into place? And to what extent is the gymnasium prepared for the many changes and challenges associated with the need for added safety?
We had the opportunity to work out many organizational details regarding student safety over the summer months. In July, once we received official permission to do so, the gymnasium opened its doors for summer kindergarten groups. Now we are fully ready for the new school year.
Of course, there will still be challenges for teachers, students and parents, particularly considering that staying safe now demands increased discipline and personal responsibility from everyone: maintaining social distance, wearing masks at all times and using gloves in shared spaces, washing one’s hands and observing other personal safety measures. From my own experience I can say that not shaking hands or not hugging someone you haven’t seen in a long time is a very difficult thing to do, but we have to consciously put up barriers to stay safe. And this is something everyone must do. Teachers are prepared this year not only for their usual pedagogical duties, but also for the fact that everyone who works at the gymnasium is now responsible for educating and working with students to observe new rules regarding personal and public safety. It may sound dry, and even a bit harsh, but I know that the importance of this responsibility is on the minds of all our teachers and staff.
I know the most difficult task for many students and parents will be to observe the gymnasium’s timetable for arriving in the morning. Here we are relying on the understanding and responsibility of not only students, but parents as well. In order to medically screen each child properly, it is necessary to divide the student body into separate groups and schedule the arrival of each. Our youngest students need the most time to prepare for the school day, which is why students in grades 1-3 are asked to enter the gymnasium between 8.15 and 8.30. For these students the day begins with breakfast at 8.50. Students in grades 4-11 will enter the gymnasium between 8.30 and 8.50, with those in grades 10 and 11 using the administrative entrance. Lessons in grades 4-11 begin at 9.00 sharp.
At the gymnasium, lessons begin and end without a school bell. Our overlapping timetable of lessons, organized by grade, allows us to logistically regulate the use of common areas and the school cafeteria, ensuring a minimum of contact between groups.
A special schedule of cleaning and disinfecting has also been put into place. This is particularly important for classrooms and areas used by multiple student groups. In the context of our school building, and considering the specifics of our educational model, in which students are often divided into smaller subject groups, excluding the use of common areas in the gymnasium would be next to impossible.
I understand how difficult this is for parents and I empathize with those who are especially worried and concerned about the beginning of the school year. Yes, access to the gymnasium for parents has been restricted to the entry zones outside the administrative and kindergarten entrances, as well as the meeting room in the administration hall. An exception to this rule has been made for the parents of our very youngest students, for whom an additional entrance point will be opened in a separate“Pre-K bloc”.
We will, however, maintain contact with parents from a distance, keeping them informed about the everyday goings-on at the gymnasium through our weekly Friday school digests, our social media accounts, and the gymnasium’s website. Parents can find important information specific to individual classes, grades and groups on their Skolcity dashboards, which will remain our central communication platform. Understandably, regular development dialogs with students, teachers and family members, as well as parent meetings with classroom teachers in the form of online conference calls, will become even more important.
What are the gymnasium’s educational priorities for the coming year? How are you planning to maintain your institution’s high standards of academic achievement?
In order to maintain quality and consistency, it is necessary to have a well-developed methodological and technological foundation, by which I not only mean communication technologies, but pedagogical technologies and systems as well. The combination of a stable digital communication platform with a well planned, distance-learning-flexible teaching methodology allows us to provide quality educational programs in the classroom, online and through a mixture of both. This has been our primary focus. Using the invaluable experience gained this spring, we spent the summer refining our preparations for the new academic year. Microsoft Teams has been chosen for the gymnasium as an integrated platform supporting and facilitating distance learning, while simultaneously providing a digital space for sharing resources, storing teacher-developed materials, and maintaining general communication. Dnevnik.ru, it should be mentioned, will continue to serve as the gymnasium’s primary platform for class scheduling and student marking, as well as delivering homework assignments and subject teacher feedback. One important technological resource that will see further development this year is ManageBac – the online system used for planning and organizing the gymnasium’s International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.
Distance-learning technologies are an educational instrument now very much in demand, regardless of whether the academic program employing them is online or classroom-based. That is why they are such a priority. As a school our task is to employ these instruments and develop our academic program so that it is able to provide students with an accessible, consistently high-quality educational environment, both at the gymnasium and when lessons move online. One day per week students in grades 7-11 will attend lessons exclusively online. This will both support compliance with specific policies and limitations regarding the use of the gymnasium building, and no less importantly help students and teachers adjust to a new educational format, where distance learning plays an important role. I would like to point out to parents here that our task is not to build an academic program in which students or parents choose which subjects to study online and which in person. Rather, our priority is to build the capacity to transition smoothly to fully-online education for individual students, whole classes or the entire gymnasium in the case of a quarantine. At the same time, we understand that the future will bring continued individualization of both educational format and content, increasing the relevance of education for every student, and making it more convenient to access. The current situation is accelerating this development, but a prioritization of tasks will allow us to move forward with new innovations while still saving what has already been built. Our goal now is not to stop, to continue developing and refining the content of our educational programs while making them ever more accessible to gymnasium students.
I am encouraged by the fact that so many of our teachers spent the summer mastering new pedagogical approaches and techniques. The motivation they have shown is vital to working effectively under conditions where one must always be ready for challenging new tasks or situations.
How does the administrative and teaching staff feel at the moment? Describe the atmosphere around the gymnasium as you prepare for the new year.
In a word, focused and positive, and looking forward to seeing our students on 1 September! There is much to do, but our tasks and goals are clear, and we have the strength, the motivation and the will to see them through. For our teachers the most important thing is the trust and emotional support of parents. Dear parents, I wish you all a calm and confident start to the school year, faith in your children, and a positive attitude that will last the whole year through!