Area private schools are finding ways to keep a sense of community during the pandemic.
One of the most perplexing and biggest challenges in the ongoing battle with the COVID-19 pandemic has been how to best operate the country’s educational system. Ask any longtime administrator or teacher and they’ll quickly tell you that this is unlike any other school year they’ve ever known. Countless parents and students would agree. And with these unprecedented times forcing schools to reimagine modern day learning, it’s been no small feat to arrive where we are today. It’s a time where social interaction has been replaced with social distancing and the advent of hybrid learning has given new meaning to the definition of homework.
To try and prepare for these uncertain times, much of the work began at the tail end of last school year as officials immediately began formulating plans for this fall. Recognizing the importance of having students spend time in a physical classroom while also acknowledging parental concerns over their child’s well-being was paramount. Educators had to devise a new playbook, one that would provide students with an enriched, albeit atypical, academic experience without sacrificing safety.
There were several questions to address, not the least of which were how could they make in-person instruction work? How would families feel assured that their children were going to be safe? Could the potential pitfalls of remote learning damage a child’s development?
At private schools, where some of the biggest selling points are how the tight-knit community atmosphere and increased extra-curricular opportunities can help stimulate studies and build character, the focus has been on the need to keep students engaged and enthused whether sitting at their desk or at the dining room table.
Moorestown Friends started the year by having preschoolers through sixth grade attend school in-person five days a week while students in grades seven through 12 maintained a hybrid schedule that has them rotating between in-person and virtual learning.
Head of School Julia de la Torre says that was done cautiously and intentionally to gauge what it was like having a smaller student body on campus before bringing everyone back. So far, she’s been encouraged by the early results.
“Kids are getting contact time with one another, with their teachers and reconnecting with school. So, it’s feeling like the right move for us to take it slowly and get feedback on how the new protocols and procedures are working for everyone,” says de la Torre.
It’s a similar feeling at Doane Academy, where a 29-member team worked since last May to create a reopening plan. Confident in the measures they put into place, things have gotten off to a solid start.
“Our students are just so happy to be with their classmates. Although we are all wearing masks, it’s easy to see the smiles in their eyes. They understand that they are fortunate to be on campus every day, when many of their friends who go to other schools are still learning from home,” says George Sanderson, head of school. “[And they] have been wonderfully understanding of our health and safety protocols. This goes for our youngest students—who are 3 years old—to our seniors in high school. They have all been remarkably resilient.”
Bishop Eustace’s Head of School Dr. Jacqueline Coccia says faculty collaborated across disciplines and grade levels to be able to strengthen their approach and the hard work is paying off.
“One of the bright spots was the first day that everyone was back. To see the smiles on their faces; it sounds corny, but it really was heartwarming to see that,” says Coccia. “Students [by nature] are social; they’re here for more than just their academics. They’re here to be with their friends and to build these relationships.”
While things certainly look different with barriers separating students as they eat their lunch or sit in the library, Coccia thinks the students have adapted quite well. And to see the fall athletic programs recently kick off their seasons or to hear music billowing from the band room has provided a welcomed feeling of familiarity. “We’re slowly getting back to some sense of normal,” she says.
A reopening task force was also created over the summer at Our Lady of Mercy Academy (OLMA) to create its reopening plan dubbed “The Path Back.” Gathering feedback from surveys sent out to parents, students and faculty, it was made clear that the majority wanted to be back in school as soon as it was safely possible. After beginning the year with distance learning, OLMA switched to its flexible hybrid learning model in late September.
“This isn’t easy for anyone, but I could not be more pleased with the way the OLMA community has risen to the daily challenges that come our way,” says Brooke Coyle, head of school. “It’s great to see students back on campus and doing what they need to do to stay safe and successful. I can’t say enough wonderful things about my faculty and staff. They’ve proven their dedication and commitment to our students yet again.”
The success seen on campus is also carrying over to remote learning and schools are relying on lessons learned from last spring. At Doane Academy, 15% of the students have opted for at-home instruction this year. To prepare for that possibility, faculty members put in numerous professional development hours this summer, studying the best practices from remote learning experts.
“In the spring, we were conducting what I called ‘emergency remote learning’ given the sudden nature of the shutdown. Through the creativity and incredible commitment of our faculty, we made it work. But we also knew that we could do better if we were to find ourselves again in a situation where we would have to have a remote teaching and learning program,” Sanderson says.
Coyle says that OLMA is fortunate to have administrators on staff with experience teaching online courses at the college level, which helped make the transition smoother. “This enabled us to train our teachers and pivot almost seamlessly into the remote learning environment last spring,” she says. “While our program was very successful and earned high marks from students and parents alike, our academic committee worked all summer to develop a program that provides more structure to support student academic growth and also student accountability.”
Bishop Eustace made preparations and took precautions to be able to welcome back every student this fall, but Coccia says she also appreciates that some families were more comfortable with a virtual option or an individualized hybrid plan.
“We want to meet the needs of all our families and we’re doing our best to make sure everyone is equally engaged and the students, no matter where they are located, can interact with each other,” says Coccia.
All of this planning over the summer will continue to be put to the test as the school year progresses, but for now each passing day that a child is learning feels like special moment to de la Torre, who says this year is the most unique in her more than 20 years in the educational field.
“I have never seen children and adults so excited about school. It has a new meaning this year, to be in the company of each other,” she says. “And despite all the unpredictability … the predictable joy that comes from students and adults being in a community with one another in school still exists and I think we appreciate it way more now than we ever did before.”
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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 7 (October 2020).
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