In Pandemic Year, DA Family Tweaks Traditions, Creates New Ones


In a typical year, it can be easy to put traditions and community on autopilot; so many of these activities have been on the Durham Academy calendar for many years, running like a well-oiled machine. But this year — when being together in person was challenging — students, faculty, staff and parents had to be more intentional than ever in their efforts to foster community, preserve traditions and keep learning fresh and fun.

Upper School Field Day = Fun, Games + #DAFamily

With a hybrid model of instruction in place for much of the school year — and cohorts of students taking turns learning on campus and remotely — it had been a year since Upper Schoolers had seen more than half of their classmates in person when March 2021 rolled around. So the Upper School Student Government Student Life Committee decided to get everyone in each grade level together for some fun and games at the first-ever Upper School Field Day.

The event featured competitions such as a water balloon toss, rock-paper-scissors, red light-green light, relay races and Simon Says. Advisories competed against each other, with the winning advisory of each grade level receiving an award. And on this particularly warm March day, Locopops were abundant, and there was plenty of time for students to catch up.

Photo by Kathy McPherson

Gold Medals All Around at Kindergarten Olympics

Students in all four kindergarten classes gathered at the Upper School track in March to celebrate the first-ever Kindergarten Olympics. The event kicked off with an opening ceremony consisting of remarks from Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner, a singing of the alma mater by senior Lauren Read, a lighting of the torch and dances from each class. The seven-event competition featured the discus throw (with plastic rings), the javelin throw (with pool noodles), balloon tennis, a bouncer race, the long jump, a bean bag Olympic ring toss and the balance beam.

The Kindergarten Olympics marked the first opportunity many parents had to serve as in-person volunteers all year, and their masks couldn’t disguise the ear-to-ear smiles elicited by their being on campus once again.

Seniors Share Wisdom with Junior Class

Junior year can be daunting. Schedules are often packed with difficult classes, and it can seem like every decision one makes could have a life-altering impact, with college just around the corner. So Junior Class Council representative Emily Gao decided to create an opportunity for juniors to get advice from people who have a fresher understanding of these challenges than just about anyone: seniors.

In the spring semester, Gao hosted a series of mentorship panels with DA’s senior class. The panels focused on topics like exploring colleges, getting letters of recommendation for college, summer plans and choosing senior classes. Juniors submitted questions and proposed mentorship panel topics via an online form prior to the panel meetings, which were hosted virtually via Microsoft Teams so that students could safely connect from home. And perhaps just as important as who was in attendance was who wasn’t — adults — to allow for candid discussions among the students.

Let the Special Olympics Games Begin!

While DA students and Special Olympics athletes from around Durham were unable to exchange in-person high-fives for the second consecutive year due to the pandemic, DA students and faculty members, as well as Special Olympics supporters around Durham continued to support the athletes’ hard work from afar via Durham County’s Virtual Special Olympics Spring Games. Participants walked, danced and ran one mile in honor of
athletes on April 30. 

The virtual event was organized by the Upper School Special Olympics Committee headed by faculty coordinator Laci McDonald and assistant faculty coordinator Jennifer Rogers. 

Watch a video kicking off the Spring Games.

Parents Association Makes Real Connections in Virtual World

DA Parents Association couldn’t host the on-campus events that typically help families connect with one another this year — but that didn’t stop PA leaders from community-building in virtual and COVID-safe ways. 

Among the highlights was “Bandingo” (think “band” + “bingo”) — a game of bingo played over Zoom, in which players listen to and match tunes on their player card as a professional emcee spins family-friendly songs. There were also family science nights in which participants built model oscilloscopes and test tube lava lamps. And, just for the adults, DA brand and design manager Sarah Jane Tart led parents in a floral watercolor workshop via Zoom.

While the beloved Used Book Sale — a massive event that typically takes over the Middle School gym — could not be held this year, Parents Association volunteers organized a “Mystery Book Bags” sale, in which Preschool and Lower School families purchased pre-packed bags of books.

Photo by Leslie King

Parents Go Virtual as Lunchtime Readers, Classroom Visitors

Initially, DA parents couldn’t visit campus this year. But even amid a pandemic, Lower School teachers found a way to welcome families into their classrooms, albeit virtually. 

Through a virtual reading program, parents signed up to call in to their child’s classroom via Microsoft Teams and read a story during lunchtime. The chance for parents to see what school was like and to interact with their child’s class was brief and, of course, there were some technical issues along the way. Even so, the program was an amazing experience for parents, students and teachers alike.

Parents also made virtual visits to share their profession or expertise with their children’s classes. Guests in Anna Larson’s fourth-grade class included UNC assistant baseball coach Jason Howell and pediatrician Kelly Wood. Howell taught the class how to hit with the help of some Major League Baseball players, and Wood talked about vaccines — specifically the COVID-19 vaccine — during her visit.

Photo by Sarah Jane Tart

Library on Wheels Visits Students

With the Preschool/Lower School library serving as a first-grade classroom this year, students weren’t able to browse the shelves as they normally would. But librarian Michelle Rosen made sure students still got their reading fix with her magical “Land of Stories” cart.

Just as they would for regular library classes, teachers made a library reservation and told Rosen what sort of books to bring. Rosen then parked her cart outside of the classroom at the scheduled time, and children came out a few at the time to browse the collection with their eyes. Once they saw a book they wanted, all they had to do was point at it and Rosen checked it out for them on the spot using her handy library app. For both students and teachers alike, Rosen’s visits were a highlight of the year.

CavDome Fans Connect From Home

Students from Preschool through Upper School turn out each winter for special nights at the CavDome — varsity basketball games in Kirby Gym that are packed with fun activities. But since kids and families couldn’t come to the CavDome this year, the CavDome came to them! 

The Feb. 5 Virtual CavDome was a hit, with the girls and boys games live-streamed and fun giveaways announced over Microsoft Teams between the games. Fans had a chance to win DA athletics T-shirts by making a DA spirit sign and sharing a photo; sending a video of their best trick shot using a hoop, trash can or whatever; sharing a selfie in DA gear; or getting together with family and sending a best game face selfie. A good time — virtually — was had by all.

Pen Pal Projects Replace Preschoolers’ Visits to Emerald Pond

The Preschool reinvented its relationship with friends at Emerald Pond retirement center this year, with several pen pal projects taking the place of field trips to sing, visit and share some hugs with the senior citizens who live just across Pickett Road. Preschool teachers dropped off personalized valentines and carnations for residents, and Preschoolers received their own oversized valentines in return, signed by Emerald Pond residents and staff. 

One Emerald Pond employee shared what that meant in a note to pre-kindergarten teacher Sheri-lyn Carrow: “… thank you to the students at Durham Academy for brightening our day at Emerald Pond Retirement Community. … The residents were so happy to have received valentine cards from your students. They so appreciated the home made cards, candy and gifts. I appreciate all you do for our senior residents at Emerald Pond. It was truly a dream come true to be able to give them the cards and fliers and candy you sent. It really made our Valentine’s Day special.”

Photo by Sarah Jane Tart

Sixth-Grade Hero Books Become Tree Books

For 14 years, a highlight of the year for many sixth-graders has been the “My Hero” project, in which students create pop-up books to honor special people in their lives.

This year’s project evolved to accommodate COVID-19 protocols and to incorporate themes of learning outside, trees and taking advantage of recyclable materials. After weeks of hard work with artist-in-residence Peg Gignoux, this year’s sixth-graders presented their work at FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill’s University Mall on May 15. As a bonus, last year’s hero books (which had been created by this year’s seventh-graders) were also displayed since the spring 2020 event had to be canceled.

A Different Way to Celebrate Third-Graders’ State Projects

State projects are a big part of the third-grade curriculum and are also a key component of the third-grade class’s Grandfriends Day when the state projects are on display. Each third-grader is assigned a state and carefully conducts research to learn about that state and create a written and visual display.

Third-graders worked on their state projects as they have each year, but Grandfriends Day — with visits to the third-grade classrooms, demonstrations of students’ research in the computer labs, a program of songs and dances celebrating the United States and a display of all the state projects in the Lower School gym — couldn’t take place this year. Instead, each of the third-grade classes had a morning to display the students’ projects outside in the covered play area and invited their special guests to view them there. It was a contest to determine who wore a bigger smile behind their mask — the proud third-graders or their proud guests.