One Philly school is a 150-acre farm. How did COVID-19 affect Saul High?
“Agriculture operates 24-hours a day,” said Alexa Dunn, Saul High School principal. "This is an essential business."
Students haven’t set foot inside W.B. Saul High School in nearly 13 months. But Gloria the cow still needs to be milked and Sir Charles the ram still needs to be fed.
“Agriculture operates 24 hours a day,” said Alexa Dunn, the principal of Saul, the Philadelphia School District’s agricultural high school and a working farm set on 150 acres in the city’s Roxborough section. “This is an essential business. Things didn’t stop on March 13, 2020.”
COVID-19 has meant sea changes for schools across the country, with classes shifting online and worries about learning loss and student isolation. But there’s another layer for Saul, with its land and animals to worry about.
“Without the kids and teachers, it was more challenging,” Dunn said of keeping the farm running. “They normally do a lot of the chores, and it’s not easy work.”
To compensate, the school system hired more farmers and Dunn invested in technology to allow students to see what’s going on inside the barns. Some teachers stream lessons from the farm. Lambing season just finished, and students took turns on lamb watch — literally, watching the lambs — on livestream, Saul’s own “Ewe Tube.”
Instead of young people shearing sheep as usual, Saul had to bring in a professional shearer this year. And the horses’ coats are less lustrous without students brushing them frequently.
“They’re just not getting as much attention as they would when you have kids on them twice a day,” Dunn said of the horses.
Still, the farm is a hive of activity from 5 a.m., when the first worker comes in to run the manure spreader, until the evening, when the last chores are done.
TaiLyn Lyghts, one of the new farmers, is deeply familiar with the work. She graduated from Saul in 2017 and is now a senior at Delaware Valley University in Bucks County. Lyghts returns to Philadelphia every weekend to work at Saul.
“This is full circle for me,” Lyghts said on a recent Saturday, sticking a pitchfork into a pile of hay.
Lyghts had a long list of chores, including feeding and checking on the lambs, mucking out stalls, and keeping an eye on a cow that had been ill.
“She spiked a fever yesterday, but she’s much better today, she’s standing, and she’s more alert,” Lyghts said after checking the cow’s temperature, relief in her voice.
Lyghts loves the work and plans to make a career out of it. Growing up in Philadelphia, the daughter of a police officer, she didn’t imagine herself becoming a farmer, but an elementary school teacher introduced Lyghts to 4-H, the youth organization that taught her about agriculture. She never looked back.
“It’s a lot of work,” Lyghts said, “but it’s a passion.”
The rhythms of the farm are different this year, and Saul has adjusted. Though students are still fully virtual, nearly 90% attend school 95% of the time, a stellar figure for a city high school. (Saul is a magnet school that draws from across the city, and students must have strong grades to qualify for admission.)
But it’s been tough in many ways, Dunn said.
Teachers “are so used to hands-on, experiential learning,” said Dunn. “They grieved a loss with this type of work with the students.”
Maxine Antinucci, a Saul senior natural resource management major, loved working with animals, loved exploring the Saul land, with its greenhouses, labs, barns, and fields. Being away from the Saul campus and stuck behind a computer screen has been tough, she said.
“At school, we would go hiking,” said Antinucci, who plans to enroll in Northampton Community College’s environmental program in the fall. “I gave a snake a bath.”
Antinucci misses the farm and the trappings of a traditional senior year, but Dunn also wonders how the COVID-19 building shutdown will affect freshmen, who must choose their course of study for the next three years without ever having hands-on experience in it. (Saul has four majors: animal sciences, food sciences, horticulture, and natural resource management, and students need more than 1,000 hours’ experience in their chosen field before graduation.)
“What does it look like when they haven’t experienced this prior to setting their major?” the principal asked. “This is the first time that some of our students have ever been around such large animals. They haven’t experienced the smells.”
The year has brought innovation, though, Dunn said: Mandy Fellouzis, the administrator at the district’s Fox Chase Farm, is helping Saul think through modernizing its dairy operation. And teachers have kept strong relationships with students and found ways to impart concepts differently.
“This year’s been very experimental,” Dunn said. “That’s going to continue into next year.”