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Students in graduation

AFTER CLASS: A Q&A WITH DEXTER LOPINA ’98 AND DENNIS LANSANG, M.D. H’18

In the space of 72 hours in March, St. Benedict’s Prep took classes and daily traditions like Convocation onto Zoom and Google Classroom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Director of Technology Dexter Lopina ’98 and Science Department Chair Dennis Lansang, M.D. H’18, were the unseen forces behind a monumental technical effort to keep our Gray Bees on track and the community connected.

How prepared was St. Benedict’s to transition to distance learning when COVID-19 hit, and in what areas did the School need to get up to speed really fast?

Mr. Lopina: We had to do a hard pivot. A lot of the teachers are already set up with Google Classroom, Google Drive and Google Docs, so I would say we were 90-percent there. A lot of our students already had their own devices. All of the teachers had Chromebooks or Windows laptops. The important piece was making sure we could get our teachers’ faces and voices out to the students.

As a school, the speed that we went to remote learning was just great. Michelle Tuorto (Associate Headmaster for Academics) was so willing to go. A lot of public schools were afraid to make a move, they were scared of it not being perfect at the start. Michelle and our administration said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Our last day on the Property was Friday, March 13. The Monday before, I sent a survey to students asking what type of internet and device they had at home. By Wednesday, I was testing Google Meet and Zoom, and Thursday to Friday, we were testing really hard. On Friday, we held a faculty meeting and told everyone how we were going to do distance learning.

Dr. Lansang: I remember very clearly there was a lot of apprehension at that meeting about how distance learning would work, but very quickly everybody became comfortable. Dex was able to get us online, working smoothly, in less than a weekend. It was incredible.

Initially, I was apprehensive about managing classroom behavior online. After the first day, I knew my fears that kids would be rude to each other or inappropriate were completely unfounded. The kids were 100-percent, and took to it very naturally. They are Benedict’s guys and I should not have doubted them.

Both of you worked very hard to keep the community together through Virtual Convocation, held three times a week on Zoom. What exactly was involved?

Dr. Lansang: If you remember the first week of Virtual Convo, I was on the Property to play the music. But the presence of outsiders was putting the monastery at risk, and so my role of singing at Convocation would have to be done from home. We wanted to have music at Convocation, but doing it on Zoom or Google Meet is problematic, because the software prevents the music from being continuous.

Then I remembered this free software, Open Broadcaster Software®(OBS), that some of our kids use to broadcast their screens when they are playing video games. They showed it to me last fall, and intrigued, I started playing around with it. When social distancing hit, I told Dex about it. After the first week of distance learning, we met every night to figure out how to send the piano signal and vocals through OBS, while everyone is attending Convo on Zoom, and not crash. When we were finally able to broadcast music the way we wanted, it was like, ‘Wow.’ I really have to credit the kids for getting me interested in OBS.

Mr. Lopina: Dennis always has a way of filling in a hole or gap when he needs to make something work. I had never heard of OBS, Dennis is the reason music at Convo started working remotely. I have no idea how he juggles playing the piano, singing and running the broadcast at the same time. It amazes me every day.

I’m very process-oriented. I worked on the back end, trying to make each broadcast cleaner and bit more efficient, by getting assignments out to students ahead of time and organizing the outline so it functioned like teleprompter. Then I started on quality control. Every single time we did Convo, I would watch it two or three times and make notes on how we could make it better the next time. And we’ve been getting there. Every time we broadcast Convo, it’s just a little bit better.

You both put a great deal of thought and effort into Virtual Convo, as well as the Town Halls with Fr. Ed and end-of-year traditions like Commencement. In planning and producing remote events, what did you want the community to come away with?

Mr. Lopina: When we were planning the Senior Writers Night, I kept telling the kids who were going to be on a live broadcast to talk about their writing: ‘Listen, this is for you guys. Relax. Our goal is to honor you and all the work you’ve done.’ So that’s my goal for all our students. To make them look as good as we can, because they put so much into everything.

Dr. Lansang: As much as we love this technology, it does not replace the idea behind community. Eventually there will be a face-to-face graduation for the Class of 2020 and a Presidential Award Dinner. This is just to tide us over until we can be together again. That’s what I want to keep reminding the kids, and they’ve been reminding us too.

What else has the experience of learning together while apart taught you?

Dr. Lansang: One thing it’s taught me is that the energy of Convocation comes from the kids, responding to a prayer, or in my case, singing. It’s also a completely different feeling to try and generate the energy of the classroom when you are not in the same physical space as the kids. It’s made me value even more the community I miss so dearly and taught me to never take for granted our ability to create genuine community when we’re together.

Mr. Lopina: For me, there’s a lot of things learned outside of technical skills. My son is going to be a freshman. I watched the meetings Mario Gallo (Director of Admissions) held with incoming freshmen every day, and my son already knows a lot of the classmates who will be there with him at St. Benedict’s. My wife watches Convo every day with my other children. She knows the Convo songs and so do my kids.

Virtual Convo has made us more available to people. When I do the alumni check at 8:49 a.m., and we read out the names of 60 guys who graduated anywhere in the past 60 years, it’s amazing. For the students to hear all these names of people they don’t know, that they are connected to because of this place, it’s made our community tighter in a different way.

Dexter Lopina ’98 and Dennis Lansang, M.D. H’18 resume their respective roles at the first Virtual Convo of the Fall Term on Sept. 14 at 8 a.m. on St. Benedict’s YouTube Channel. When the St. Benedict’s community can be back on the Property, both men say live streaming of Convocation will continue on a regular basis. They also plan to transition production and broadcasting responsibilities for live streaming over to the students.