COVID-19 & BSM: An Oral History of Spring Semester 2020
May 19, 2020
This year, spring semester at Benilde-St. Margaret’s has looked a lot different. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely transformed the traditional school year, moving to a completely online platform. As everybody has adapted and coped with this drastic change, many have overcome different personal challenges, and each person has a different perspective. To document these times, this oral history showcases the points of view from various members of the BSM community.
What were your initial thoughts on the coronavirus?
Dr. Adam Ehrmantraut, President: “I even remember that specific week, where things changed really, really quickly in March. I think it was the second week of March and we had conferences on a Friday, and the severity of the situation was starting to unfold slowly, but people were still open… schools were still open, and society and the economy was still open… And then by Thursday, the entire game changed. The whole game plan changed. We went from thinking we’re going to be able to navigate this, to understanding we may not be coming back to school for a very long period of time…The speed, it was unbelievable. That was what will always stick with me.”
Andy Judkins, Boys’ Varsity Baseball Coach: “At first it did not seem like it was going to greatly affect Minnesota as it was out East. The more you heard about the virus, the more serious it became and, of course, causing disruption for us in Minnesota. During our first week of practice, we discussed the upcoming season without ever thinking we would not have one. We went about like business as usual until school went to distance learning.”
Ms. Abbi Baker, Science Teacher: “I didn’t know much about it in the beginning, until we had our first few cases. I really wasn’t paying attention until I talked to people in my department and the possibilities of going online. By the time I started paying attention, it was the week before we went online and we found out we were going online.”
Sarah McGurl, Class of 2021: “At first I thought everyone was overreacting and that we wouldn’t even get out of school for it. I kind of thought of it as Ebola, something that we would just hear a lot about but it would never actually affect us.”
JoAnn Meyer, Parent: “Once I started watching the news in China, I really did believe it eventually would make its way to the United States. I thought traveling to highly populated areas may be an issue, but I never thought about schools needing to close.”
Mr. Tanner Stevens, Physics Teacher: “I wasn’t all that concerned at first…I was interested in what was going on…but as it started to spread and got more prevalent in the US…I even told some students at the beginning of it…being in the US, if it comes, if it gets to be a big deal, we’ll deal with it there…I’ll worry about it when I need to worry about it…Obviously what we know now…maybe I should have been slightly more concerned.”
How does this affect the phase of life you are in right now?
Dr. Susan Skinner, Senior High Principal: “I’m in my mid-50s. My husband and I have been married for 33 years, and we have a 32-year-old daughter and a 29-year-old daughter… so our house is actually nice and quiet. So for me, not having grade school-age children at home is nice. I don’t mean that disrespectfully to people who have small kids, but I can’t imagine doing my principal job while also having kids at home. So in that sense, I’m feeling that I have it a lot easier. My husband and I, we have fun together. So that part feels easy. I’m down on our main floor, and he has his office up in our guest bedroom. We’ll have lunch together. So I have it pretty easy. But… my parents are old, and my mom has a lung disease, so she’s high-risk. So I just worry about them… we make them a nice home-cooked dinner every Sunday night. We used to have them over for dinner every Sunday night… now we have to make it and deliver it.”
Dr. Adam Ehrmantraut, President: “You know on a professional front, you really have to rethink education and the value proposition that a school like ours offers. You have to think about how you help people adapt to these circumstances. You know, my job, in particular, is about the broad-scale vision and direction of the school, and I work primarily with adults. So, that whole landscape has changed. All elements of that landscape have changed. So it forces you to think differently about literally everything you do.
Mallory Mathwig, Class of 2023: “It doesn’t really affect my life too much right now. Yes, I am missing out on the last bit of my first year in high school but that seems like nothing compared to how the seniors must feel.”
Sarah McGurl, Class of 2021: “I was expecting this semester to be the hardest of high school. First semester was super difficult and I wasn’t even in a sport yet and wasn’t taking the ACT, so I was preparing for the worst this semester. Now everything has gotten a lot easier mainly because I think teachers are being a lot more generous with how they are grading things. The ACT is another challenge right now; I am still doing prep since I don’t want to lose the progress I have made but nobody really knows when the test will happen.”
Ms. Anne Dougherty, Engineering Teacher: “Right now, my husband and my 5 children, ranging in age from 5-16, are all working and learning from home. We’ve had to create workspaces and office areas, even build new desks out of scrap wood.”
JoAnn Meyer, Parent: “We suddenly have five people needing to work and study in our house! Our biggest change was that our college freshman moved back home from Milwaukee. Then both of my husband and I are working from home, and our sophomore and 6th grader are obviously home now too.”
Mr. Tanner Stevens, Physics Teacher: “As a teacher, it certainly is…not what we signed up for, it’s not what we expected, …I do just miss though…as a teacher, one of the things I get the most joy out of is every day, just coming in, checking in with you guys, being like what are you up to today, what coffee did you get this morning…the little stuff is the important stuff…missing…how your lives are going and being there with you and experiencing it with you through the ups and the downs is something that I miss.”
Would you rather have had this happen at a different time?
Dr. Susan Skinner, Senior High Principal: “I think any time that it happens is bad. But having said that, I would not want to have little children, because I would just worry. And I have no grandchildren yet, so I don’t have to worry about them.”
Dr. Adam Ehrmantraut, President: “Maybe a better scenario would be sometime when we have an ability to come back and bring closure professionally, you know with all our students and families, that may have been advantageous versus a virtual closure. That’s the only thing… the beginning of the year would be very challenging I think.”
Avery Junker, Class of 2022: “As a sophomore, I have it much easier than other grades, however, it has been hard to go through school online and to interact with my sports teams and friends through the internet… personally I feel like I am in the perfect grade for this to have happened.”
Charlie Warnert, Class of 2020: “Yes, I wish it happened second semester junior year because second semester junior year is hard.”
Peter Giertsen, Class of 2023: “Yes I would, it would be better if I was a child in second or third grade because then we wouldn’t have much online school, and we wouldn’t be missing out much because you didn’t hang out with friends anyways.”
JoAnn Meyer, Parent: “I can’t say that I can think of a better time. It would be much harder for us to work from home with younger kids. While we interact with ours a lot, they can work on their studies independently, and we can sneak out for a walk by ourselves whenever we want. Those poor parents who can’t leave the house have it rough.”
Mr. Tanner Stevens, Physics Teacher: “In some ways, the end of the year is maybe different than the beginning of the year in that I did get to spend a good chunk of time with you guys…and we built those connections and now we can rely on those connections, those bonds that we’ve made.”
Mr. Zach Zimny, Art Teacher: “I am not too sure it would’ve been any different if it got shut down earlier in the year.”
How have you reacted to students not being able to play spring sports?
Mr. John Groess, Ultimate Frisbee Coach: “As a coach, I’ve never defined anything by like wins and losses and like what the team could have been but I do think to not have a season where we’re even allowed to try is really really hard. .. And I think what also makes it hard too is not being able to say goodbye even or just like you know just be sad together.”
Ben James, Baseball Player: “I’m just sad and disappointed that I’m missing out on this baseball season. I was looking forward to getting out on the field again, and we for sure could have made another run this season.”
Sarah McGurl, Girls’ Lacrosse Player: “I think it’s really sad that spring sports aren’t happening, especially for seniors. For many of the seniors this would have been the last time they are together with a team playing a sport and to miss out on that is an experience they can’t get back. So many people have been training all year long to pay this spring so it is sad seeing that go to waste.”
Charlie Warnert, Class of 2020: “I feel bad for the kids that trained all winter for their main sport in the spring and didn’t get to play it… especially if they are seniors.”
Mallory Mathwig, Class of 2023: “I feel terrible for the senior students that were relying on spring sports for college or even for students who are very serious about their spring sport.”
Xela Gunvalson, Girls’ Lacrosse Captain: “It is what it is. Yes, it is upsetting to not be able to play but that sacrifice has impacted the world greatly.”
How has the pandemic impacted your daily life?
Mr. John Groess, Math Teacher: “As weird as it is to say, it’s odd being like, ‘Well, I can take a nap in the middle of the day if I want, like it’s not the end of the world.’ And that’s definitely different than what it used to be, so yeah.”
Mr. Zach Zimny, Art Teacher: “It’s different not having a set schedule with time, and there’s not much of a structure. Doing screencasts is much different and I don’t have to do one thing at a specific time.”
Ms. Megan Peterson, Marking and Communications Director: “My husband and I are both working from home. It is strange not being in the school environment on a day to day basis. My work life has changed as crisis communication has become a large part of my job in recent weeks. In addition, we are ramping up all things video and social media in this new environment.”
Ms. Abbi Baker, Science Teacher: “I’m an introvert, so I’m really loving the excuse of not having to go/be anywhere. On one hand, I’m getting a lot more sleep and I’m more relaxed. On the other hand, there’s no end to working as a teacher. Many of us have dreams about teaching and constantly think about work during the school year anyway, but I can’t leave the building and detox. I used to go to coffee shops or libraries to do more work and try to avoid doing work at my house. Now my home is my work area now, and there was a point I wondered when I should just log off and stop answering emails.”
Nicole Strom, Class of 2020: “I can’t work anymore, I can’t see my friends, and it feels so weird to barely leave the house.”
Mallory Mathwig Class of 2023: “I need to talk to my friends more on facetime or over social media because you could lose relationships because we aren’t being forced to see them in the halls every day.”
Dr. Susan Skinner, Senior High Principal: “I spend way more time on video. I think that the changes are simply that you’re not with people. Yet you still maintain the relationships. I’ve always been good with technology, so I don’t have to learn a bunch of new things… But I think the routine of the day, like me just walking around and seeing what’s going on, those things are missing. You have to be more intentional about dropping into classes. You don’t get any of those accidental conversations. I text the other assistant principals… all the time.”
What new things have you started doing during this time?
Dr. Adam Ehrmantraut, President: “Well, I bought a bike, I’ve been anti-bike for a long time. I broke down and bought a bike. This isn’t new, but I’m golfing more than I ever have because it’s the only thing I can do, you know. We never really did walks, and now we’re taking walks. We’re doing board games which, you know, in a busy world pre-COVID where everyone is scheduled to every minute of their day by and large. We’ve gotten into board games and stuff like that and it’s been a blast. Virtual connections with friends, that’s obviously a new scenario. That’s been cool.”
JoAnn Meyer, Parent: “I personally pulled out a new 1000 piece puzzle, but can’t seem to talk anyone into helping me complete it! We have enjoyed bike rides as a family and we put up an outdoor volleyball net and play that as often as we can.”
Nicole Strom, Class of 2020: “I’ve started embroidering clothes.”
Ben James, Class of 2022: “I’ve been binging video games in a way I don’t think I have ever before.”
Sarah McGurl, Class of 2021: “I got a job at Starbucks because I was getting very bored. I’ve started to do a lot of cooking from cool recipes I find. I learned how to print designs on shirts. I also do a lot of online workouts.”
Xela Gunvalson, Class of 2021: “I have a few plants growing which isn’t necessarily a garden but yeah got some things going. Baking a lot. Rollerblading a lot, going to the skatepark and jumping ramps and stuff, really messing around with what I can do; I enjoy it a lot because I haven’t ice skated in a while.”
Ms. Abbi Baker, Science Teacher: “I finally started using my sewing machine. I made some masks for my spouse and co-workers because they started wearing them all day, every day… I also organized a greeting card drive for the senior citizens in my area with my volunteer organization. We made cards for them around Easter and dropped them off through meals on wheels or at their assisted living facilities. I’ve also been playing games online with relatives or just talking to relatives more. I’ve been on TikTok. I’m having fun watching my nieces’ content–one of them even sent me a bunch of dances to learn. Haha!”
Charlie Warnert, Class of 2020: “I picked up biking and jogging around the lake.”
What are the pros to this situation?
Dr. Susan Skinner, Senior High Principal: “I think the pros are that we are challenged to really think about what matters. We have to give up restaurants, we have to give up being together in school. I think about family, and I think about relationships and how you maintain them. And I also think that it has helped us develop some resiliency. It’s hard, but you know, life is hard. I think it has made people more spiritual. I was seeing that people have googled ‘prayer’ more often after the pandemic hit. You become more reflective about God and spiritual things.”
Mallory Mathwig, Class of 2023: “I have started to appreciate and be more grateful for the little things that I took for granted before.”
Ms. Anne Dougherty, Engineering Teacher: “It’s helped us think about what we really value, about how and what we teach. We’ve learned some new techniques and tools that we will continue to use once we get back on campus.”
Mr. John Groess, Math Teacher: “The first thing that I think this does is it gives people time to kind of reflect and to kind of take the time and pause… I think another pro is helping each student realize how they’re different than maybe their peers or even their siblings and figuring out how they work best, which a lot of, I think a lot of students their first year in college, that’s what they struggle with is they’ve never had this freedom.”
JoAnn Meyer, Parent: “I believe our family was over-scheduled for most of March and April, so staying home has been nice in that regard.”
Avery Junker, Class of 2022: “I don’t think there are any.”
Ben James, Class of 2022: “Not having to go to school has been a pro for me and my grades, and so far online school for me has been a lot less stressful.”
What are the cons to this situation?
Dr. Susan Skinner, Senior High Principal: “I think isolation is probably the biggest thing. Beyond, obviously, getting sick. I also think that the isolation, and the worry, and the depression that may come along with being isolated. And I think the economic hit that families are taking… that can take a long time to recover from. Anxiety, just the fear of the unknown. But when I think of those negative things, I think of what can mitigate the damage… family, relationships, being more reflective, being more spiritual.”
Mr. John Groess, Math Teacher: “You know, it sounds silly but missing things like prom and missing things like graduation. At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world, but it is like something major that’s just sad that that won’t happen.”
Ms. Anne Dougherty, Engineering Teacher: “I miss seeing students and colleagues in person. It’s harder to have spontaneous collaboration and some of those surprise moments when we’re not working in the same physical space. It’s not impossible, but it certainly requires more intentionality.”
Peter Giertsen, Class of 2023: “You lose a lot of learning in school. You also lose the ability to see your peers every day and compete with them in sports and other activities.”
Sarah McGurl, Class of 2021: “People that I used to only see and talk to at school I haven’t been able to see in a very long time.”
Mr. Tanner Stevens, Physics Teacher: “The struggle in my mind to want to be with [students], but when I’m at home it’s hard for me to turn away from my family, my family is really important, so trying to balance both.”
Ben James, Baseball Player: “I am missing baseball which I had been looking forward to since last season.”
What precautions have you been taking because of the pandemic?
Mr. John Groess, Math Teacher: “I have a cool cloth mask back there that I wear when I go out. My mom made it, so it’s like math-themed and it’s got a bunch of math formulas on my face. Yeah, I’m a pretty big dork.”
Dr. Adam Ehrmantraut, President: “The elements that are recommended by the governor and the CDC. We just implement those so if I’m going out in public and I’m going into a building I’ll wear a mask, my hands feel like leather because they’re constantly being washed. You know, we’re limiting our contact with other people as much as possible. But we’re on the verge, I think we’re going to start seeing a change soon. People are broadening their circles, and you know you can see people say ‘I’m going to get on with life a bit and live through this.”
Ben James, Class of 2022: “I’ve tried to avoid close contact with other people. Also, I really increased the amount I wash my hands and use hand sanitizer now just to make sure I don’t get sick.”
JoAnn Meyer, Parent: “We are staying home. We order as many groceries and necessities curb-side as we can and only go into a store when absolutely necessary. Our kids are not socializing with friends in-person and we luckily don’t have to go out much since we can work from home.”
Sarah McGurl, Class of 2021: “At work, I wear a mask. I carry wipes in my car and wipe down my door handle and steering wheel often.”
Charlie Warnert, Class of 2020: “Staying away from strangers, especially the ones that are coughing everywhere.”
Xela Gunvalson, Class of 2021: “I don’t really go to the store; my mom gets the groceries for us. If I have to go out to get something, quick I wear a mask and have hand sanitizer in the car.”
Where do you get your information about the pandemic?
Dr. Adam Ehrmantraut, BSM President: “You know it depends. The professional organizations I belong to have been the most helpful along the way. There are different networks, like the independent schools network…. Their job is lobbying and making sense of data by and large. So they help us understand what the data’s suggesting related to COVID and all the legislation that’s being associated with it. Because there are significant elements in relation to schools, that’s supposed to be helpful for schools, that helps us understand all those things. So I’d say that’s the primary source, in terms of just understanding the impact on Minnesota in particular, we’re watching, as a school we’re watching, the governor updates at 2:00. So we get perspective. Those have been the primaries, and then there’s two others that have caught my attention. I always read the wall street journal just to read it but the other piece Mayo, Mayo has been putting out quite a bit of content to its patients and as a part of their fundraising campaign. And that’s been really interesting, I trust the source really well, you know, they’re on the front end of this nationally.”
Dr. Susan Skinner, Senior High Principal: “We as a school and me personally get the information from the CDC… the state government. We look for those official agencies, and from there you can find people that comment and have an opinion. What we don’t do is get hung up on social media and Facebook posts and social media, whereas Dr. Fauci is a recognized expert in the field, CDC, same thing. It’s easy to go down these rabbit holes on Facebook, so I try to stay away from… media that doesn’t come from the official sources.”
Peter Giertsen, Class of 2023: “I get most of my information from either watching the news or from my parents, but I have also obtained some information from social media.”
Ms. Megan Peterson, Marketing and Communications Director: “I watch the news regularly to stay informed, especially as it relates to the Governor’s news conferences. I need to keep up to date to ensure that our community gets information quickly and efficiently during this process.”
JoAnn Meyer, Parent: “I like to watch the nightly national news and then we watch the local evening news. We try to watch it just once so that we don’t end up getting bogged down and bummed out every night. It’s important to know what is going on, but after so long watching the news or reading social media, I find myself needing to switch to something that’s not news related like getting some exercise, calling a friend or watching an entertaining show.”
Nicole Strom, Class of 2020: “I’ve been getting my news from CNN, the New York times daily briefings, and my parents.”
Mr. Tanner Stevens, Physics Teacher: “I am all into modeling and data science, so I’ve been reading a lot about Minnesota’s prediction model they’re using to see when their peak is going to be and what factors they’re using. I read the whole academic paper the other night, it was fascinating…I try to click on lots of different news sites…I click on all of them just to see kind of what the spectrum of all of the perspectives are on where this is going.”
What are you looking forward to when this crisis is over?
Dr. Susan Skinner, Senior High Principal: “I want to be at school, in person, and in the morning when kids are coming in, and I’m standing out on that front area with my coffee just chatting. I really want that. And then the second thing would be just going out to eat at a nice restaurant with friends.”
Dr. Adam Ehrmantraut, President: “I think the big piece is the social interaction and seeing real emotions, real smiles in live time when you’re a foot away from somebody instead of through a screen, that’s absolutely number one.”
Sarah McGurl, Class of 2021: “It will be nice to go out to eat instead of ordering takeout. I’m excited to hang out with big groups of people and be able to go over to friends’ houses. The biggest thing is that I am very excited to go back to school in the fall and see everyone again.”
Mr. John Groess, Math Teacher: “You know that feeling when you get to the airport and someone is so excited to see you that they sprint up to you and they give you a hug? Like, the two weeks after quarantine is over, that’s going to be literally every person you see. And I am so for that lifestyle … I’m hopeful and really excited that people think about how lucky we are to be able to like go outside and experience nature in Minnesota and not only do people do that more but we like make some meaningful changes to protect those kinds of things.”
Ms. Anne Dougherty, Engineering Teacher: “Hugs.”
Mallory Mathwig, Class of 2023: “I’m looking forward to hanging out with my friends without being given weird looks and going to restaurants.”
Xela Gunvalson, Girls’ Lacrosse Captain: “My team. All of them. I miss them all and just want to be able to have the joy of sharing a space and completing a common goal”
Charlie Warnert, Class of 2020: “I’m looking for a rowdy get together when this thing is over.”