Friday, November 27, 2020
Sun Valley Community School Offers Best Day Ever in a COVID Age
Teaching Assistant Lindsey Emmer and Head of School Ben Pettit stand outside the Sun Valley Community School Elementary School, which offers all kinds of reminders to practice healthy hygiene.
Friday, September 4, 2020


A circle of chairs sits under the aspen trees where Spanish class will be held this year. Middle School students are scattered across the lawn penning writing assignments while seated in Crazy Creek folding camp chairs. And Head of School Ben Pettit has set up office with three chairs in a shady corner outside the school library.

Sun Valley Community School looks a lot different during the coronavirus pandemic.

But, as some parents are quick to point out, it’s in person.

Trying to put the puzzle pieces together has led to good conversations with officials of other schools, Pettit said as Megan Mahoney leads a movement class in the school courtyard.

“My children are absolutely thrilled to be back!” noted one parent. “It may be the first time ever that they have lost sleep at night with excitement for the first day of school.”

Pettit has heard the same thing from students.

“I asked third-graders how they were doing today and one told me the first day of school was the best day she’d ever had, that she didn’t mind wearing masks because it meant she could be at school,” he said.

Every year the first day of school proves the most exciting, most nerve-wracking day of the school year for Pettit, and even more so this year.

Sebastian Silaghi completes an assignment from his new desk—a Crazy Creek chair.

 “Just focus on making the first day of school the best day of school ever, to let the joy of school shine through,” he told his faculty Sunday night. “Then we’ll worry about Day 2.”

The biggest hiccup so far? Parents were so excited to gather their children into their arms at the end of the day that they began arriving an hour before school was slated to be let out, ignoring the pickup schedule that had been carefully crafted with directional cones placed around the turnaround circle.

“Everyone’s just happy to be back in person. Understandably, there’s still some nervousness. But 94 percent of the families wanted to return,” Pettit said. He paused. “It was quiet last night, which I think is a good sign.”

Pettit said the school welcomed about 85 new students this year, about the number of new students it normally gets to replace 45 graduating students and a few lost to attrition.

Students are spaced out as they have recess.

The school’s quota of 450 students was reached by the end of April 2020. It has had numerous inquiries and a flurry of applications from both local and out-of-state parents since. A few of those on the waiting list got in. Many more didn’t.

Thirty-five administrators, teachers and parents serving on the school’s unification committee volunteered at least 400 hours each this summer, meeting twice weekly over five months drafting different plans to address the school year. Another 75 served on subcommittees.

Teachers prepared lessons to teach in person, remotely and via a combination of the two. With the county considered “green” for go, they opened fully in person.

“Everything has been a puzzle as we’ve had to rethink every aspect of how to deliver school within health guidelines,” said Pettit. “Psychologists and sociologists say it’s critically important for students to be in school but we have to do it as safely as possible”’

Head of School Ben Pettit, wearing a Cutthroats face mask, says he has had good discussions with other school officials in the area as they try to figure out how best to offer in-person school in a COVID age.

Parents provided suggestions. And Tamara Strong, a nurse with South Central Public Health District, sat in on every 9 a.m. Monday Zoom session for fourth months to help the school examine its hot lunch program, student-teacher ratio, fire code and the number of students who can be taken into national parks as part of the school’s outdoors curriculum.

“Everything has been a challenge, even figuring out how often we need to clean the school,” said Pettit. “From the beginning, we said every time we meet we would reaffirm every decision we made or change as things shifted. We looked at the outings we take at the beginning of school as ‘go/no go’ every week for the past four weeks. And I reserve the right to change a plan at any moment with no notice. But whatever I do must make sense.”

Pettit and his faculty first began addressing the COVID19 pandemic on March 2 after he came back from the national conference of National Association of Independent Schools. They circled March 17 on the calendar to test remote learning should the school need to use it. Then, all Blaine County schools abruptly shut down a day ahead of that after the first cases of the virus were reported in the county.

“One thing we really learned about remote learning in the weeks that followed was that school is much more than academics,” Pettit said. “It’s about relationships between kids and kids and kids and teachers. Character development is so critical. We also found that delivering academic skills content to young students is a challenge. It’s easier for older kids because they’re used to digital learning.”

A few Community School families have chosen to have their children start the school year remotely. So, teachers are taking their laptops with them on rafting trips and other outdoor outings so those students can follow their classmates virtually.

The school has added more bivy sacks and one-person tents to its inventory. And it’s shortening this weekend’s introduction to backpacking and high-altitude camping at Baker and Washington lakes in order to give kids the experience while keeping it manageable.

The school capped the number of students at its residential academy to 18—half the dorm’s capacity—so each student can have his own bedroom. It also made over windows in the dorm to allow more circulation.

Teachers and students are being encouraged to use the school’s 50 exterior doors to enter and exit classrooms. Hallways have been transformed into one-way avenues for when they can’t.

Pettit has constructed a map assigning 50 different outside spaces for classes to use, and he hopes teachers can find ways to teach outside as long as possible with the help of heaters and open-air tents to shade students from sun, rain and snow.

The school has also added an infirmary and a school nurse to provide daily symptom checks.

“The intellectual challenge of this has been amazing,” said Pettit. “The heart challenge—to keep the risk low—has been even more stressful.”

School officials have facilitated fall sports like soccer, volleyball, cross-country and dryland training for ski racing by moving weight room workouts outside and following Harvard metrics. Saturday’s soccer meets pitting varsity and junior varsity boys and girls went well, with Wood River High School doing an exemplary job of setting up pods for spectators.

Sun Valley Community School has had to cancel a few games with teams from places like Gooding because of too much virus circulating in those communities, but Pettit said the school hopes to make up those games.

The school is planning a full theater and music season, although performances might be livestreamed.

Summer programs, which began remotely, transitioned to in-person classes without any problem. The school began its Young Explorers preschool in June 22, and teachers Phil Huss and Celeste Holland successfully led 11 masked students into the White Cloud Wilderness as they studied salmon recovery, wolf depredation and wilderness policy.

Sun Valley Music Festival workshops held on the campus went without incident, as well.

If COVID spread in the community forces the school to cut back, the priority is to keep younger children in school while have older students transition to remote learning so their classrooms can be used to spread out younger students. The school has also identified spaces around the community that could be used.

“So far, everything’s working well. But it’s only Day 2.” Pettit said. “I just hope we all do our part in following the protocols so we can stay open.”


Sun Valley Community School was recently named a 2019-20 winner of the Schools of Excellence program sponsored by the Idaho Army National Guard. Schools earn points based on student-athletes’ performance in athletics, academics and sportsmanship.

The Community School topped 1A Division II schools; in second place was Boise’s Timberline High School and in third Twin Falls’ Lighthouse Christian High School.


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