Cultivating Community During COVID-19

Online School Must Be More Than a Collection of Online Courses

By Chris Bradford

What makes a school great? I have long believed that the greatest educational institutions are intentional communities. They have clarity of mission and purpose, and define a culture and set of values that reinforce that purpose. Such schools foster the kind of society in their halls and classrooms that they hope their students will one day build beyond the campus.

We do not send children to school simply so they can learn to read or to multiply fractions. We send children to school so they can learn to be – to discover their humanity, to work with others, to contribute to the common good. In the rush to move to remote instruction in the face of the coronavirus, many schools have rightly focused on moving classes online in the new normal, ensuring that instruction in literature or mathematics does not stop. But we must not ignore the rituals and experiences in day-to-day school life that reinforce our shared intention and foster community.

Cultivating Community During COVID-19

For the past five weeks, I have worked from my home office, at a distance from our students and colleagues. I miss the buzz of campus life: activist campaigns on campus; debates over lunch; joyful dancing that always seems to be just around the corner. Lockdown is a lonely existence. But each Monday and Friday, I pause – along with all of our students and staffulty – to participate in our online assembly. It is the highlight of my week and a source of motivation in these challenging times.

Assembly has long been the anchoring ritual of our intentional community at African Leadership Academy; it has simply moved from our auditorium to the internet. On Monday, it included a celebration of Freedom Day in South Africa and Independence Day in Sierra Leone. Our Master of Ceremonies, Obed Antwi-Baidoo of Ghana, paused between each segment to share salutations and commendations he had collected from across the community: students celebrating teachers, teachers celebrating students, students celebrating each other. One group of students shared a well-produced four minute segment called “This Week in Africa,” highlighting news from across Africa as the continent battles the coronavirus, and reminding us of our shared role as leaders who will shape the continent’s future.

As the Master of Ceremonies works through the assembly program, our whole community participates. Over 250 faces are on screen each Monday and Friday: young and old, laughing together, celebrating each other. A chat box on the side of my screen captures notes of celebration or comment, fostering deeper interaction. During Lisa Simelane’s Dean’s message, students highlight the importance of women’s leadership in Africa; during commendations, they add snaps and short notes of gratitude. We may be physically distant, but we remain connected to each other and to our mission.

Every school is a community unto itself, and the anchor of a broader community. We must continue to deliberately foster these communities and radiate our collective purpose throughout the challenging months ahead. When we do so, we will lift the spirits of all. We will support learning beyond the classroom, foster resilience, and ensure that we process and internalize the broader lessons of the pandemic.

So, what does an intentional community look like during a time of physical distancing? I invite you to watch the closing three minutes of our Monday assembly here: a celebration of Sierra Leone by Eugenia Rogers and Isata Dem, and some final words and commendations from Ghana’s Obed Antwi-Baidoo. I hope all of you are finding community and connection during these challenging times.

Cultivating Community During COVID-19

PS: On Thursday evenings, we have extended our assembly concept to include our broader community. Students, alumni staffulty, admitted students, parents, and friends from around the world join our online speaker series. We invite you to watch these webinars here.


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