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September 24, 2020

By Kevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager

It’s 8:15am, and the first 6th Graders are arriving. Outside the Fieldston Middle building, students sporting shiny backpacks, pristinely white sneakers, and a healthy dose of nervous jitters — all the hallmarks of a new school year — disembark from their buses and line up to greet the new Interim Principal of Fieldston Middle, Jon Alschuler. Those being dropped off in cars assemble under tents on the Lower Field, where Assistant Principal for Academic Life Francesca Pisa checks names and reminds everyone to physically distance before directing them into the building.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s 6th Grade orientation looks a little different from orientations of years past. For one, every person — student and adult alike — dons a mask. There also isn’t the crush of eager students hugging and jostling one another after a summer spent apart. But for all the differences, there’s plenty that remains the same: teachers excited to meet and greet a new cohort of students, and students curious about what life is really like as a middle schooler. It’s going to be an exciting year ahead.

First up is advisories — or getting to them, more specifically. Decals line the floors, stairs, and walkways, guiding both students and adults as they wait their turn to navigate the building. Bathrooms have been outfitted with large buttons that users press with their elbows to indicate occupancy. In the classrooms, desks with privacy shields have been set up to comply with physical distancing.

Of the three grade-wide orientations at Fieldston Middle, 6th Grade is arguably the most special, with students from Ethical Culture, Fieldston Lower, and other elementary schools meeting each other and stepping foot on campus for the first time. A commingling of strangers calls for a couple rounds of icebreaker activities — and the faculty advisors are ready to serve.

In Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator Mica McGriggs’s advisory, the class is playing two truths and a lie. Some of the students in her advisory are dialing in from home, so McGriggs turns the Chromebook in her lap around so that they can see their peers on campus face-to-face. Clearly, everyone’s getting along — and determined to outdo one another with their stories. The tales the students spin become so elaborate that at one point, McGriggs breaks in, laughing, “This is one story? This is not three sagas and a lie.”

In the advisory two doors down, where Substitute Teacher Jessica Thompson leads the room as English Teacher Ron Villanueva dials in remotely, Villaneuva’s voice comes over the speaker, his tone confident but inviting. He’s asking his students what their favorite music genres are, and the answers are as varied as you’d expect: Zoe O. ’27 is into upbeat pop singers like MattyB, while Bennett S. ’27 prefers Imagine Dragons, the first band he saw in concert. Kaelyn M. ’27, wearing a mask with an anime character printed on it, says she likes J-pop, and a brief discussion of Japanese and Korean pop culture ensues.

Introductions done, the 6th Graders head out to the Lower Field for some fun in the sun. Alschuler leads a game of Simon Says, and several students participate, standing on white X’s painted six feet apart on the grass as they balance and contort themselves to Alschuler’s directions.

Free to mingle with classmates outside their advisory, the students rekindle old friendships while making new connections. Scarlett B. ’27 is excited to see friends like Amira M. ’27, whom she’s known for seven years since starting in Pre-K at Fieldston Lower. She’s also eager to show around her new buddy Cody Y. ’27, who’s starting her first year at ECFS.

After the outdoor break, the students head back to the classroom for a presentation from the school nurses. There’s a bit of a technical snafu when the audio fails to broadcast, but the teachers rally quickly, reading the nurses’ slides and sprinkling in their own commentary as the Technology team untangles the issue. As Spanish Teacher Clara Gorman encouragingly reminds her students: “It’s not difficult to be safe because you all have a brain.” Soon, the audio returns, and the presentation is back on track, as the nurses go through the health and hygiene protocols that will keep all members of the community safe.

Free to mingle with classmates outside their advisory, the students rekindle old friendships while making new connections.

One of the most anticipated — and impressive — parts of the day comes with lunch. One by one, each advisory is called to the dining room over the intercom — and, like beloved Eagles teams being welcomed at a pep rally, there’s plenty of hoots and hollers as each advisory is announced. Each group crosses the sky bridge to the Upper School, turns left down the hallway, and enters the dining room, where students are cheerily shepherded into a cordoned queue that would make the most efficient of airports jealous. The 6th Graders pick up their food — barbecue ribs and chicken, plus several options for those with other dietary needs — before they head out onto the Lower Field for lunch and recess to conclude the day.

Over the next few weeks, the 6th Graders will continue to familiarize themselves with Fieldston Middle, with their teachers, and with each other as ECFS rolls out the rest of its phase-in plan. For our newest middle schoolers, today is a day to celebrate: They’ve just completed their first Fieldston Middle orientation, one of several more to come.