March 12th — who would’ve thought?


Brandi Marlin

Who would have thought the world and our lives would change so much on March 12th, 2019?

TOWAMENCIN – As humans, we’re accustomed to preparing for the “lasts”—school years, summers, and sports seasons being just a few of the rituals for which we are all but guaranteed an outcome of our choosing. But what happens when reality has other plans?

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County ballooned, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf held a press conference on the evening of March 12th. “My top priority as governor – and that of our education leaders – must be to ensure the health and safety of our students and school communities. As such, I am ordering that all schools in the commonwealth close for the next two weeks,” he announced. By March 23, government officials made the difficult decision to extend the school closures—indefinitely.

Who would’ve thought that the North Penn School District’s all-powerful schedule, responsible for governing our every move nine months out of twelve, could all be scrapped overnight?

That innocuous Thursday was far from how the North Penn community had visualized the school year ending. Class time turned to Chromebooks, and crowded hallways to houses, in the subsequent weeks as students and teachers alike grappled with the abrupt descent into a new reality.

“A big shock came in terms of college planning. I was going to sit for the March SATs and visit colleges over spring break, but I can’t anymore,” said Catherine Cavanaugh, a North Penn High School junior. “I plan a lot, but some things are much bigger than us, and a pandemic is more than certainly one of those things.”

However, it was only a matter of time before the administrative machine that has powered North Penn through countless first days, championships, state tests, and commencements recalibrated to pandemic-proof education itself. In a district-wide email to students and parents, Superintendent Curt Dietrich wrote, “we have been distributing meals to students at five locations in our district.  We have worked with parents to retrieve medication left at school and we distributed more than 3,000 Chromebooks/iPads to elementary students.”

Who would’ve thought that our district was so thoroughly capable—food, medicine, technology—to handle it all so quickly?

On March 30th, all grade levels officially began the process of distance learning, in which teachers instructed students in subjects ranging from geometry to gym using Google Classroom’s technology.

“We’re very fortunate, very lucky, to have the opportunity to be able to use technology from home… I think that Google Classroom itself is a great tool,” commented Alejandro Vidal, a Spanish teacher at North Penn High School. Vidal has been using a mix of live sessions and pre-recorded content to ensure continuity for his students.

“I think it’s important for students to see my face every day, because at least there’s a connection with the class that I’m teaching, the material that I’m teaching,” said Vidal. “I try to keep everything exactly as I was doing it. So my lessons haven’t changed. The only thing that has changed is the way I deliver them.”

For Vidal, the biggest challenge of distance learning is “the lack of the human touch – not having the opportunity to see the students on a regular basis.”

Cavanaugh agreed. “There really is no substitute for human contact,” she said. “I miss the little everyday joys of walking into class where teachers make us a surprise activity or my friends crack a funny joke because in quarantine it’s hard to try to live life together.”

Despite this, Vidal remains vigilant in the pursuit of a silver lining.

“Not just the students, but everybody, all of our society, we are going to try to take everything with a lot more thought. We will probably learn not to take things for granted. And one of the best positive things from this, I think, is that the students right now are probably learning what the future is going to look like, in terms of employment, in terms of education… perhaps the students now understand what it’s like to be working from home, and to be able to create a schedule so that you can manage your time, so that you can be proactive, and at the same time still have a personal life,” he added.

Who would’ve thought that this social deficit, undoubtedly education’s worst-case scenario, could be so valuable?

“While our transition to distance learning wasn’t without a few challenges, I’m extremely proud of all of the work that our teachers, support staff, and administrators put in to make it as successful as it’s been,” said Pete Nicholson, the principal of North Penn High School. “While our plan may not be perfect, when you think about the fact that we planned and instituted a whole new way of teaching and learning in less than two weeks, I’m super proud of where we are today.”

In short, distance learning worked – and it worked because, as Dietrich wrote, the North Penn community “will achieve greatness in the best of times and the most challenging of times.”

“I think that for unexpected situations like this, or anything in life… there’s always a solution to whatever the problem is… and as long as you have your health, as long as you have your loved ones with you… just be positive. It’s probably what’s going to get us through a situation like this,” encouraged Vidal.

Shortly after that fateful Thursday in March, the Knight Crier launched Senior Spotlights, a feature intended to highlight the accomplishments of our soon-to-be graduates; its final question prompted respondents to finish the sentence “to the class of 2021 I leave…” Staff writers had expected to elicit brief, nonchalant quips; maybe even humor. But like almost every scenario since early spring, that’s not what happened.

“A wonderful senior prom.” “Nothing but positivity.”  “Reassurance…you will compose yourselves and carry on. And you’ll do great.” Those are just some of the 50+ responses we received. Who would’ve thought that the class of 2020, grappling with the loss of their senior year, would choose to summon the maturity and compassion to pass on hope to their successors?

The phrase “who would’ve thought,” while vague, shouldn’t imply that our actions are a result of some inexplicable force. Circumstance alone didn’t drive the behavior of the North Penn community. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t suddenly gift us with reserves of integrity, resilience, and compassion; they simply existed all along. We could not choose our outcome, but we persisted anyway. We will continue to persist.

“If this has taught us anything, it’s that we have to be flexible. We don’t know what the next few months will hold. We don’t know if we’ll be back to a “normal” school setting or not in September. Many in the Class of 2020 don’t know if they’ll be going off to school as planned this fall, going to basic training as planned, or going to work where they had planned to be working. Stay flexible, keep your head up, and know that everything happens for a reason,” said Nicholson.

Cavanaugh concluded, “we’re all in the same boat, and we’ll figure it out even if reality and our initial plans don’t line up.”