By Marissa Yelenik

News Editor

As many changes have occurred recently and there is much uncertainty regarding the end of the school year, The Bear Press sat down with the principal of Hammond, Dr. John DiPaula, through a virtual call on January 19. This interview took place prior to Governor Hogan’s announcement which stated he wishes for schools to return by March.

Online Learning: Semester One Takeaways

Throughout the semester, Dr. DiPaula has stopped into different classes to observe how each one works. He shared his views on how he believes teachers have grown throughout the year, and what he believes to be one of the most helpful tools to promote engagement in this online world, saying “I think that when we started the year, it started a little bit slower.”

“But when we started to function with breakout rooms, it really improved our engagement.”

“Smaller environments make it so there’s not just one person answering or responding, but small groups [are] working together and having discussions… you can engage a whole lot better, and there’s a lot more learning overall in those smaller groups.”

He later added that one way he believes we will really see the progression is throughout the next semester. “I think… it’s gonna be better [for teachers next semester]. This semester, it was like teaching something new for every teacher. Almost no one has ever taught online.”

I think for the teachers that are going to be teaching the exact same course they taught this semester, it’ll be a whole lot smoother.” 

“In fact, each time you teach the same lesson, it gets a little bit better, because you know what works and what doesn’t work for students, so you can change things based on that.”

“Really what [teachers are] doing is they’re making changes for next year. They’re figuring out, ‘what are we learning today, what do I need to reteach or reintroduce to make sure everyone gets it?’” He gave a bit of insight on the issues teachers have faced throughout this new model, explaining, “They’re thinking about, ‘what do I have to do next year to make sure this lesson is as successful as possible?’” 

“Whether the students realize it or not, it shouldn’t be 180 random, unconnected lessons.”

“It should be one curriculum for the course, and each day we’re biting off a little piece of it so that we’re leading up to the overall course.”

Dr. DiPaula recently held a town hall, as well as asking students to send in video feedback that could be used to better understand how to help those in need. He went on to explain just how much this emphasized the difference between those that are independent and dependent learners in an online environment.

“We have more students than ever getting straight A’s and making the honor roll, [but] more students than ever are failing.”

“The independent learners do very well through this online learning, while the students that are dependent typically require the teachers to come around, get them started, answer certain questions.” 

Community and Student Voice

Dr. DiPaula went on to reinforce just how important a sense of community is, especially in times like these. 

“Every classroom should have a community, and each and every one of your periods should as well. If you get to know the other students that are in your classes, you’ll support them, they’ll support you, and all students will be more likely to take a risk academically… I think the more we feel like a community, the better the learning environment it is for everyone.” 

“We really encourage teachers to make sure every single classroom in the building is a community.”

On the topic of how a safe and diverse community might be built, he responded about how important it is for teachers to start it in their own classrooms, and the necessity for hard conversations to begin.

“Let’s be honest, the majority of teachers in our building, and across the country, are white.” 

“You have to be comfortable with having conversations about race, and racism, and equity, because it’s important, and students need to have a safe place where they can have discussions… The first place I like us to be able to share students’ voice is in a classroom, and I think teachers need to be able to create those opportunities for students.”

Returning to In-Person Instruction

Moving forward, he talked about the idea of returning to school in person this year, and what that might entail. Masks would always be required, “and everyone in the building will have to have a mask on at all times unless they’re eating. When anyone is eating or drinking with their masks off, [they] will be required to be distanced away from others.” 

He explained the most likely schedule for the fourth quarter would be a four-period day, with first, second, and fourth period being 90 minutes long, and third period being two hours long to include a 30-minute lunch. It is currently unknown how lunch would be approached, as guidelines and recommendations are constantly being updated and changed.

As far as the schedule for next year goes, the current plan is to return to a full-year model with seven periods in all, including A days and B days. 

Dr. DiPaula shared his own perceptions of which scheduling model he favors. 

“The good thing about the four-period day is students are able to take more classes.” 

“If you think about it, students are able to take 32 classes over 4 years as opposed to taking only 28 over 4 years as we do normally, giving students more room for electives. Instructional and learning-wise, though, I think taking classes over the course of an entire year is probably better, so we’re gonna go back to that model for now.”

Dr. DiPaula also touched on the idea of temperature checks if Hammond were to return to in-person learning, explaining the policy that states kids with a temperature of 100 degrees or higher are to be sent home within an hour. 

“If any student has symptoms of COVID, we want them to be out of the building within an hour, and then they must be tested before they can return.” 

“There will be an expectation that students, as well as staff members, are taking their temperature before they enter the building in the morning because we don’t have the capacity to take the temperature of every single person that enters the building during the day.”

He explained that all high schools will have separate areas in their health rooms in which students that have come in contact with, or potentially have, the virus will be kept. They will be sent home in their own vehicle, with their parents, or with the contact on their emergency card.

Fostering Community and School Spirit

To finish up, Dr. DiPaula went on to mention any further plans he has to bring the members of the school together, and complete the year on the highest note possible.

“I’d like to bring in some upperclassmen, specifically seniors, in order to transition [the freshmen] into the building, and teach them what it means to be part of the Hammond community.”

“We need to teach the freshmen that we are in a community where we support each other.” 

“We’d also like to do some sort of Homecoming in April, around the time we return, since we’ll have the end of our fall season around this time. We might even have an outdoor dance, and I’d like to have as many activities as we possibly can, providing we’re allowed to. We’d like to have concerts with orchestra, band, choir, and dance. We’d love to have senior Awards programs on the stage, maybe a live culture fest. More than anything, and this is going to depend on metrics, I want a parade. I’d also like to decorate the building, maybe have some of our Seniors or Juniors come in early and do some decorating to prepare the building for students to come in. we may be able to do that a week earlier, so just to make it feel like a community and feel welcome… We also still have the intention to graduate at Merriweather if we’re allowed. That’s up to Merriweather Post Pavilion to make that decision. If they say no, we will graduate on our [football] field, right here at Hammond.”