Small contingent of CRMS students remain on Carbondale campus as prep school concludes year online |

Small contingent of CRMS students remain on Carbondale campus as prep school concludes year online

Colorado Rocky Mountain School students Vince Kunawicz and Eli Li hang out together on campus during their lunch hour. Both students foreign students from out of the country and currently unable to return home.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

A campus normally teeming with close to 100 boarding students and scores of others who live in the Roaring Fork Valley has been a bit surreal for international student Eli Li these past few weeks.

Li, from Hong Kong, is one of a dozen students — nine of them from other countries — still living on the Colorado Rocky Mountain School campus just outside of Carbondale amid the global COVID-19 pandemic that has public and private schools around the world closed to classroom learning.

The rapid series of events leading up to the campus shutdown, just as students were leaving for their two-week spring break in mid-March, resulted in Li and a handful of other students attending the independent prep boarding school choosing to stay put.

Originally, Li planned to head home to Hong Kong for spring break. 

“They’ve done a pretty good job of containing it, but there were cases so we decided to cancel my spring break return home in case I wouldn’t be able to fly back (to Colorado),” Li, who is a senior, said of the situation back home in southeastern China.

She was to take a replacement trip to Iceland and Greenland, but then the coronavirus outbreak blew up in Europe, as well.

“My dad and I decided that wasn’t a great idea, and the night before I was to go my flight got canceled anyway,” she said.

So, Li and the small contingent of other students who remain on campus have been doing their online studies via virtual classroom connections with fellow students who are now scattered far and wide, and with teachers who mostly reside on campus.

About 35 teaching faculty and staff members live on the CRMS campus with their families. Meals are still being provided to the students, delivered straight to their dorm buildings.

“It has been weird, but I kind of like it,” Li admitted. “It’s silent and there’s space to sprawl out and study. But I do miss many of my friends being here.”

One of the dorm “parents” even bought her a thousand-piece puzzle that she has been working on when she’s not studying. 

Instead of taking spring break themselves, CRMS staff members stuck around and began planning to launch online classes by early April when classes would have resumed, said Nancy Draina, academic dean for the school.

“In some ways, we were lucky with the timing,” she said. “As soon as it looked like schools would be shutting down, we just told students to take everything they would need and not plan to come back after spring break.”

Unlike a lot of the other schools in the valley, CRMS students only really lost one day of instruction, Draina said.

Distance learning can be particularly challenging for teenagers, she observed.

“It’s so not what teenagers are programmed to do,” she said. 

In one Zoom breakout session this week, she said students didn’t want to stop talking to each other, “they were just so happy to see each other.”

The outdoor experience is a big part of CRMS education. But that, too, has moved to a virtual setting.

In addition to maintaining regular daily contact with students as if it were a normal school day, teachers provide physical activities and online resources for them to stay active at home, and to keep a fitness log.

“This is all really hard on teenagers right now,” Draina said. “They need that exercise and the social connection.”

Spring is the time when CRMS students are usually busy with their “Project Day” expeditions in early May. 

Seniors are also required to complete their culminating senior project. Typically, they will leave campus for three weeks prior to graduation to participate in an academic, arts or athletic endeavor, work on a community service project, have a wilderness experience or intern with a business, professional studio, workshop, laboratory or service organization. 

Those programs, too, are moving to a virtual setting, explained Diane Hackl, director of active curriculum for CRMS.

For the 9th-11th grade projects, “We imagine students will create projects ranging anywhere between learning to make pasta and planning a meal for their family, to researching their family tree, to volunteering at a local food bank, to composing songs, to learning how to replace the brakes on their bike, to researching old films or reading an author.

“The sky’s the limit, and we know students will amaze us with their creativity,” Hackl said.

As for the senior projects, in consideration of the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors are being asked to develop “authentic and meaningful projects that can be accomplished from home, and will share their projects with the community during a (virtual) Senior Symposium at the end of the year,” she said.

Li said she is booked to return home to Hong Kong in mid-May. She is working with students and faculty on a way to celebrate graduation in early June when the normal commencement ceremony would have taken place.

“Hopefully, we can all get together later in the summer and do something in person,” Li said.  

CRMS has 47 students set to graduate this year. In addition to Li, the school also has international students this year from Bhutan, Spain, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Venezuela, Finland, the Philippines, Mexico, Greece and Japan.

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