Mimi Kelly Csatlos ’00 has been an educator ever since her departure from College Hill 20 years ago. In that time, she met her husband, moved across the country, had two children, and adjusted to numerous new positions and responsibilities. Now, as academic dean and director of college counseling at Virginia Episcopal School (VES) in Lynchburg, Va., Csatlos is facing one of the biggest challenges of her career — making the switch to online learning while keeping over 250 students engaged.
“Planning for the shift to online learning was an all-intensive, three-week endeavor that fortunately hit during our spring break,” says Csatlos, who now devotes almost all of her time to planning VES's virtual curriculum. “Our leadership team still spends hours each week in planning sessions for both the current operations of VES Virtual School and in looking ahead to the fall semester.”
Three main goals drove Csatlos and her team when planning for remote learning: encouraging student engagement, maintaining a clear sense of the VES community, and incorporating essential academic work to reinforce the first two priorities.
“The biggest goal was to keep students, now scattered around the world, feeling connected and supported during an incredibly uncertain time, and to keep them moving productively forward in their studies in an encouraging, engaging manner,” Csatlos says. “We pride ourselves on being a close-knit community, and we didn’t want to lose connection with anyone.”
Achieving these goals did not come easily. As Csatlos explains, having students in numerous time zones with varying access to internet connection and technology initially posed problems. In addition to these logistical issues was perhaps the most notable challenge: the mental health toll of rapidly responding to the unprecedented circumstances and adjusting to a socially distanced world.
“An ongoing challenge has been remembering that we can only give our best help to others when we are taking care of ourselves,” she says. “Once the adrenaline of getting VES Virtual School launched faded, many of us began feeling depleted; for most of us, being here on campus with students is the best part of the job.”
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Despite obstacles, Csatlos says the VES community has come together in meaningful ways. The school’s Student Life team launched such programs as Fine Arts Fridays that feature student performers and speakers, and a Rise and Shine morning show created by a faculty member and student airs live three times a week. Efforts toward engagement are also aimed at faculty members who stay in touch via a virtual “faculty lounge” on Slack where stories and information are shared.
“We are all doing our best to stay true to our mission and values, prioritizing engagement and a sense of community not just for the students, but for all the adults who make VES tick,” Csatlos said. “I think that when we look back on this time, we will appreciate the way that our mission translated to the VES Virtual School experience … and we will be all the more appreciative to be back together with our students and colleagues in person.”