What “back to normal” looked like for Save The Bay’s education team

What “back to normal” looked like for Save The Bay’s education team

By Mackensie duPont Crowley, communications specialist

Beginning in March 2020, prolonged school closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic left Save The Bay’s education team with the challenge of delivering meaningful Bay education experiences to students learning from home full-time.

Wheeler School students on a Save The Bay education vessel in Spring 2022. Photo: Jed Mahoney

Our educators hit the ground running, preparing materials and video content highlighting Narragansett Bay habitats and critters. Lessons moved online and evolved according to the various stages of school restrictions; Save The Bay educators went live on Facebook on weekday mornings for Breakfast by the Bay; they pre-recorded lessons for teachers to use in their curriculum; they virtually “zoomed” into classrooms; they developed a Shore to Your Door kit and a book of worksheets full of activities for kids to do at home. While none of these new programs were quite like our traditional hands-on and experiential ones, they did bridge the gap and allowed us to deliver Bay-focused environmental education to students. 

A return to normalcy

In-person learning began its return with a small-scale BayCamp at the Providence Bay Center in summer 2021, with plenty of COVID-19 precautions. Then, in Rhode Island, the 2021-2022 school year began with students returning full-time to their classrooms. 

“From an administrative point of view, it was a bit of a roller coaster as schools and districts were unsure what their policies would be for in-person learning or experiences,” said Gráinne Conley, education program manager. “In January, when the Omicron variant hit, we had mass cancelations. Then, when restrictions were lifted in March, the floodgates opened and it was a frenzied (but exciting) booking process!”

New perspective

Virtual learning offered educators the flexibility to research and develop new programs to add to their curriculum (who remembers Space Explorers from Breakfast by the Bay?). Many of these newly-developed programs have transitioned from the virtual world to the classroom, along with the teaching aids that educators utilized to engage students online: Kahoot quizzes, polls, and PowerPoints have injected new life into some older lessons!

Save The Bay educators returned to Gordon School with touch tanks of live Bay species! Photo by Cendhi Arias Henry & Siobhan Welsh

Teaching virtually also highlighted ways of making our educational offerings more accessible to all students. For example, features like closed captioning are necessary in videos for anyone who is hearing impaired. “We need to continue to do everything we can to make sure these opportunities are always available to everyone,” said Captain Chris.

Educators returned to the classroom with a new perspective. They changed the pace of their lessons and are breaking the time up with even more opportunities for students to ask questions than before. After all, you can’t pause an in-person lesson to re-watch it the way you can with a video, an option that benefitted many students during the remote learning period.  

“I feel some students actually thrived when learning virtually with minimal distractions in the room,” said afterschool manager Jeff Swanlund. “However, many students get more out of in-person because you can see, hear and interact with them much more easily than through a screen.”

“The excitement is palpable.”

After 18 months behind a screen, it is understandable that our educators would have some anxieties about things like reviving their classroom management and student engagement skills, as well as the risk of personal COVID-19 exposure. However, as we put COVID precautions in place, and educators rediscovered student enthusiasm while teaching in-person, many of these concerns began to fade

“I think everyone is just so excited and grateful to be able to get back to safely being in nature as well as having an amazing, hands-on experience with their classmates,” said Jess Bornstein, outreach coordinator and education specialist. She works with students primarily at the Exploration Center and Aquarium, which re-opened in July 2021 and has since been serving both school groups and the public.

5th grade students from Vartan Gregorian School test water quality as part of a Save The Bay program

“[The best part of teaching in-person is] watching the faces of our students light up when they make a connection to our lesson,” shares Jeff, who has been working with seniors from Mt. Hope High School all school year on a program called Silver Creek Field Studies. “Working with the same group of students numerous times throughout the year helps us build relationships with them and see more of their personality. It’s much easier to see the progress of our students when we can talk to them face-to-face and see that they understand the concepts, compared to talking to a screen full of black squares.”

Captain Jen Kelly agrees: “Seeing the excitement on kids’ faces as they hold an animal or ride on a boat for their first time [is the best part of teaching in-person!].”

These are the experiences that Save The Bay educators are happy to share with their students since the return to in-person teaching. Teachers have expressed their gratitude, too!

“Many teachers expressed how much they valued being able to bring their students out to one of our sites or a coastal location,” said Gráinne Conley. This past year, Save The Bay programs were more than just field trips to teachers; they were about reconnecting their classes to the importance of in-person learning.

A series of firsts

A program with Save The Bay usually provides some type of “first” for most students: their first time on a vessel or their first time petting a shark. This year, for many young students, leaving the classroom for a Save The Bay program was their first field trip! 

Chariho High School students were finally able to plant their salt marsh grasses at Quonnie Marsh after growing them in their classrooms!

“They were thrilled to be on their first-ever field trip experience,” shared education specialist Felicia Greco, who helped teach Warwick students this spring. Every fourth grade class in the Warwick School District attended a Field Experience Program at the Bay Center in Providence, which included the opportunity to go aboard one of our education vessels to gather water quality data and trawl for live creatures. “In total, between our Bay Experiences this past January and the Field Experiences in May, we educated about 604 Warwick 4th graders,” noted Felicia. 

Looking to the future

With the school year wrapped up, our educators are hard at work kicking off a busy BayCamp season, back at our total capacity across multiple sites in Rhode Island. Save The Bay looks forward to delivering meaningful, hands-on summertime Bay experiences to students throughout the watershed as we reflect on a year of being reunited with students! After all, as Adam Kovarsky put the return to in-person teaching, “It was a reminder that this is what I love to do.”