- Schools are working to keep students learning, but also to keep them engaged, active, and well.
- The platforms and approaches vary between schools, with the suite of offerings at each as unique and personal as a fingerprint.
- Spirit days, faculty meetings, talent nights, even open houses—schools are finding creative ways to ensure that all aspects of school life are addressed: the building might be closed, but the school communities are, in some ways, more active than ever.
- The agility demonstrated by the quick response is emblematic of other, more fundamental characteristics of private schools: committed, motivated staff; freedom to innovate on the fly; and an unwavering sense of accountability to key stakeholders.
Stability, routine, and expectation are seen as important as curriculum
How a school responds to the current crisis says a lot about who they are and how they have positioned themselves in the lives of the families that turn to them. And, while it’s a stressful time, there’s a lot to be inspired by. “Our children will need comfort and care,” writes Hugh Burke, headmaster at Meadowridge School of their developing online program. While academics are important, he’s clear that a goal as they pivot to distance learning is also “to provide care, comfort, stability, routine, and expectation. [Students] will need ways to interact with their teachers and other children. In times of challenge, children need structure and caring adults.” He admits that “we are not yet expert in this”—certainly, given the unique context, no one is—but that they’re working to find creative ways to keep all aspects of the life of the school alive, if not at the school property itself. “It may not be ideal, but it will be as good as we can make it, and will become better over time.” No doubt, it will, and certainly families appreciate all of that—the perspective, the creativity, the leadership, and the humaneness of it all.
“ ... we will be creative, adaptive and doing all we can to support children and families”
Braemar House was founded in 1996 by a group of parents looking for a school for their children centred around some key core values: citizenship, stewardship, and community. The response to the crisis follows in kind. “I don’t know we will be the most innovative,” says Kristin Pass, a school administrator, of their online offering. “But I know we will be creative, adaptive and doing all we can to support children and families.” That includes school work, true, but also an athletic challenge. The tweet from Mr. Enyedi read “Braemar Gym Doesn’t End! Get out there and get active!” And, clearly, lots of kids did.
Shift to digital delivery is “bittersweet,” says school administrator
Amanda Dennis, administrator at Delta West, writes that the shift to digital delivery is “bittersweet.” While they are excited to launch a cutting-edge learning platform, and are chuffed to have done it so quickly—it went live the week of March 16th, so well ahead of the curve—she says that "we are sad to have the day-to-day routines and personal contact with our students altered so drastically.” Nevertheless, they’ve met the challenge quickly and aggressively. They provided their K to Grade 3 students with tablets and set them up with some age-appropriate communication and conferencing applications. They’ve provided the Grades 4-9 students with Surface Go laptops, and the older kids already had devices, per the school policy. They all were then granted access to virtual classrooms, though the culture piece is important too. “Every student,” says Dennis, “will still feel like they are a part of our school community” including alternative Phys Ed programming as well as virtual performing arts. The talent show, too, is a go, hosted online.
School focused on addressing challenge of isolation when learning from home
"Learning is important,” says Dawn Levy of LCC, “but we are looking at this from the point of view of health and wellbeing as well.” That includes the recognition that isolation is one of the challenges that students are facing. “Being able to use a platform like Google Meet will allow students to connect with their teachers and peer groups in meaningful ways. This will really push teachers in a new direction in terms of creativity in the classroom." Trainers are posting fitness videos, and student leadership teams are keeping clubs active online. Personal wellbeing is, per Levy, a key priority as well—to keep students involved in the life of the school through online forums and school-wide events, such as an online St. Patrick’s Day celebration. “We’re launching those kinds of initiatives to keep spirits up and create a feeling of engagement."
School already well positioned to pivot to online delivery
Not all schools have been caught off guard, and Blyth is a prime example of that. With 11 brick and mortar schools, an online academy, as well as overseas programs, Blyth was exceptionally well positioned to pivot to online delivery. They opened up the online offerings to all of their classroom students—of which, incidentally, there are more than 7000, making Blyth essentially one of the biggest schools in the country—ready for when students came off their spring break. They were able to pick up seamlessly from where they left off, taking advantage of more than 160 Ontario high school courses designed specifically for e-learning already available within the greater Blyth context and invigilated by Blyth faculty.
Feedback from students, teachers, and parents is positive, says school
The Sacred Heart School, too, had a running start at moving to online delivery. They’ve partnered with GradeSlam for many years in order to provide student-directed tutoring. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, they’ve expanded that offering. Still, they’re not inclined to rest on any laurels. Isabel Brinck notes that the administration team is meeting regularly with department heads and faculty to check in, to gauge the success of the offering, and to respond to comments and requests from all aspects of the school community. When we were in touch, they were three days in, and Brinck was happy to note that “the general feedback from students, teachers, and parents is positive.”
“Quality learning can occur at a distance, without solely relying on technology.”
This is very much a when-you’re-given-lemons moment, and SJK has met it energetically and enthusiastically. The school rightly prides itself on the relationships that it forms, the creativity that the faculty bring to those relationships, and what they then bring to the life of the school. Their response to the current crisis is a case in point. School administration sees this as opportunity to explore learning, and to use the moment as one to model to their students what a response to adversity can, and perhaps should, look like. Tellingly, they have chosen to use the term ”remote learning” instead of “online learning” based in a conviction that “quality learning can occur at a distance, without solely relying on technology.” Which, frankly, is an excellent point. Classes stick to a Monday to Friday schedule, with students encouraged to keep to the same weekly schedule. Weekends are still weekends. On school days, teachers deliver new concepts and assign readings and activities through the proprietary online platform. Texts, videos, links, and conferencing software, apps—everything is fair game. The notice on the school site says “Although our doors are temporarily closed, the minds of our students remain open!” The spirit of SJK remains undimmed. Love that. There are also detailed, parent-facing learning plans to keep everyone on the same virtual page. Love that, too.
To maintain sense of community, school keeping a modified dress code for students learning from home
“No child learns math before she learns the connection with her teacher,” Karrie Weinstock, deputy principal at Branksome Hall, once told us. ”If the connection isn’t there, she’s never going to learn as well. This is the enduring value of connection and community.” True to form, they’ve met the COVID-19 crisis rooted in that understanding. Measures were put in place quickly, working with existing platforms. Says Principal Karen Jurjevich, “we have every intention to be creative, adaptable, and innovative … to remain connected and to focus on our students’ social and emotional wellbeing.” Their attention to that has been laudably broad and comprehensive, from clear and ongoing communication with parents, to even addressing the school dress code when working from home. Casual, appropriate attire is required given that “we are learning and working virtually with face-to-face interactions.” Students are not required to be in uniform, but do need to follow existing student guidelines, in keeping with life on campus. Which is important, actually, as it lends a unique continuity and connectedness to the experience of working remotely.
Finding strength in (socially distant) numbers
Burlington Christian is moving toward online platforms, though sometimes the smaller things can have a nice impact as well. They recently interrupted their virtual staff meeting to wave hello to all our BCA students, parents, and community. “We are hard at work together as a team to bring you some very exciting and engaging online learning opportunities and look forward to connecting with you all next week! Stay tuned!”
Wars, fires, and now this—for nearly two centuries, Pickering carries on
Pickering College has seen a lot in its long history. Since it was founded 1842, it’s lived through the creation of the nation, moves, fires, the Boer war, two world wars, the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, and the Great Depression. It’s a reminder that, yes, we’ll get through this, too, as Pickering gracefully weathers COVID-19. The online learning program has launched for students JK-Grade 12, available through an existing Edsby interface. Campus events and tours have been suspended at this time, though admissions is hosting virtual visits and an online open house for prospective families.
When in doubt, sing the Brady Bunch theme song
When Brentwood students left campus for their break on March 6, they all imagined that they’d be back soon. Of course, they didn’t return, with students then challenged to reconnect online from literally all corners of the globe. “Brentwood has a way of feeling more like an extended summer camp than a boarding school,” wrote the head prefect in an address to the school, “and perhaps, Covid-19 has made us realize just how much we value that.” She continues, “You may be in isolation, but the Brentwood community extends beyond the campus gates on Mount Baker Road. Find comfort in the unified experience of separation.” It was an appropriately sombre and serious note, but just as the classrooms pivoted online, the faculty and students pivoted to a stance of community and fun. Delightfully, they recorded an online conference where, together, they sang a revised version of the Brady Bunch theme song. True to form, they looked down and across as they sang “here’s a story, about a group of teachers, who were distanced from their students and their peers …" Love that!
“Our building may be closed for now, but school definitely isn't! “
Virtual classrooms launched on March 18, beginning with online assemblies followed by advisory periods. In the assemblies, Katherine Nikidis, head of school, addressed the student body about what to expect fielded questions. The belief is that nothing is more important now than staying connected. “Our building may be closed for now,” says Nikidis, “but school definitely isn't!"
Agility is an advantage of low student/teacher ratios
All classes shifted online with the resumption of instruction on March 23rd, hosted on Zoom and Google Classroom. The low student/teacher ratio adds a level of agility with delivery, and the transition has been smooth. “We have had a very positive response,” says Principal Alex Evans, “from both students and parents to the changes that have been implemented.” Social interaction is key, which the online hosting provides. “Most of them have been staying in their homes and practicing social distancing.” Evans notes that the decision to re-convene in-person classrooms will follow that of the provincial government. In the meantime, the life of the school goes on.
Thinking beyond the classroom
Classes are being hosted on Zoom, with all students conferencing in real time. “We had a few bugs here and there,” says administrator Sophie Alice Tremblay, “but the response is very good and we had a lots of positive feedback from parents.” There is a commitment to educational and administrative continuity, and a nice creativity to delivering a range of learning experiences. On the website, the school has curated lists of online books, resources and, delightfully, virtual tours of museums and cultural destinations around the world.
Building age-appropriate activities and experiences
The Shepherd Montessori Private Catholic School provides an intimate learning environment for students ages 2.5–5.5 years. Keeping younger kids engaged in the life of the school, and connected to teachers and peers is rightly seen as important, though, for kids this age, uniquely challenging. Where Zoom classrooms are useful for older students, the younger ones don’t naturally gravitate to those kinds of online interactions. As such, the school is providing shared hands-on experiences by creating a video a day demonstrating a Montessori activity that students can do easily at home, such as sorting items into bowls with tongs. Parents have then been posting on Instagram what the kids are doing. It’s lovely, and while perhaps simpler than the robust programs that high school programs are providing, is nicely responsive to the kinds of experiences that the students are used to sharing when together in person at school.
Finding the right tool for the school
Administration of St. Jude’s Academy, in consort with the Maples Academy and Oakwood Academy, is dedicated to continuing to provide meaningful instruction and learning opportunities for all students. To that end, faculty and staff began putting tools in place through the March Break, and were online in time for when classes would have resumed on the three campuses. Online learning for the Lower and Upper Schools is conducted using online platforms. “The platforms are specific to each school, education grades and access to technology,” says administrator Ann Harvey. St. Jude’s Academy Upper School is using ManageBac, email and Discord to keep students connected with each other and to deliver course content. “We also want to document this online learning,” says Harvey, in order to share best practices, but also to evaluate and adapt as students and teachers move through what is a very new learning experience.
Starting over in a virtual world
Guiding Light moved quickly to get online tools in place and to be ready in time for the end of spring break. That Tuesday, rather than walking to class, students were provided with prompts log into their google classrooms. What they found there was course content, true, though they also found much more. “Simply circulating online resources would be doing a disservice to students,” writes Johan Jackson on the school’s blog page. The goal was to support the learners as people, not just as students, and to find creative ways to grant them a sense of ongoing involvement within the school community. Everything was an option, with staff developing lesson plans suited to online delivery. “This was months of work previously completed that had to be scrapped and reworked to function in this new virtual world.” That means Zoom for conferencing, though it also meant providing access to online apps to increase engagement and keep students focussed and on task. “Students in Kindergarten proudly completed their cursive writing lessons, Jolly Phonics activities, and even performed their ‘show-and-tell’ online.” The challenges remain, though Jackson notes that it’s a truly team effort, one that relies on teachers, students, and parents, all of whom have stepped forward enthusiastically to support not just the ongoing work of the school, but the on life of the school as well.
Addressing a linguistically diverse student population
With more than 25 languages spoken within a student body of just 120, College Prep International comes by its name honestly. The primary language of instruction is English, though many students arrive for whom English is a second language; a majority are international students. All of which creates a unique constellation of challenges given the current context. Content delivery is important, though for many students, so is language instruction. The school launched google classrooms on March 17 and so far, says school president Ms. Ut Mora, “it is working well.” Faculty are working to keep to the existing class scheduling and timetables, appealing to intuition and adding a welcome sense of business as usual. There have been a few hiccups, though IT staff are available to staff and students in order to work through them quickly and efficiently.
Reading out to the greater community of parents and learners
The concept of Changemaker schools is gaining attention, with schools around the world adopting the model, one based in hands-on, student driven instruction. The Calgary Changemaker School’s response to the current crisis reflects the very personal, community-based approach. They have begun maintaining a blog of hands-on, interest-based projects, activities and resources that parents can do with their children at home. They’re active on Facebook, too, posting resources, videos and activities. “We also are offering a video admissions presentation,” says founder Kristi Kraychy, which includes virtual tours and telephone meetings that can be booked online through the school website.
Responding on global scale
While this is a challenging time for all schools, it’s true that the challenges that Columbia International College faces are of an order and magnitude unto themselves. The school is home-away-from-home for in excess of 1500 students from more than 70 countries. Just to give a sense of the scope of that, the school’s liaison office interacts with parents and students in nine languages: English, French, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Russian, Turkish, Portuguese, and Spanish. The administration, to its credit, has met the present challenges with skill and grace. Courses have been moved to two online platforms, Google and Moodle. Of course, not all students are able to easily travel home, and in some instances it’s preferable that they remain in Canada. Compound that with initial uncertainty on their ability to return should they be out of country when their study visa expires (the government has since noted that all students who had valid visas prior to March 18th will be able to return, when able). For those who wish to leave, the school has worked to ensure safe travel, extending an offer to complete course work online from their homes overseas. For those who chose to stay, the school was well equipped, given that it has on site medical and counselling offices, residence staff, an IT office, and campus security. Meals are being delivered to students within the dorms, rather than requiring them go move about or gather in the cafeterias. Where all schools find themselves responding on the fly to an ever-changing landscape, the Columbia team is responding to those changes here as well as in the countries around the world; they need to keep abreast of border closings, travel restrictions, and airline embargos. And yet, to their credit, the student experience is relatively calm. Students know they are in good hands and, as demonstrated by the mammoth effort the school continues to face, that trust is absolutely well placed.
Taking things one day at a time
The staff worked together to transition to using Google Classroom to post assignments, assignment submissions, and course information. On March 23rd all classes began convening on Zoom. While just at Day 4 when we were in touch, all were adjusting well. Teachers and students are sharing websites, videos, pictures and using the online whiteboard, among other tools. “I have been very pleased,” says school principal Brian Quistberg. “Our attendance has been near perfect and staff are being creative; students are engaged and are being flexible.”
Balmoral Hall School
Establising routine key to successful online programs
Balmoral Hall had been using online learning tools prior to the coronavirus crisis in order augment their offering, so students had a level of familiarity and were able to transition easily. Brian Williams, humanities teacher in the senior school, has been connecting with all of his students each day through video, even if it’s simply with a short video prompt. He notes that it’s a lot easier to ignore an email or a direct message than it is to respond to a teacher, face-to-face, in real time online, and that particularly now, that kind of engagement is key. In a recent example, he asked students to give one word and a gesture to describe how they are feeling. Further, he says “it’s important to establish what the new routine and what the new expectations are. There shouldn’t be any confusion about what the students job is.” Balmoral is using Microsoft Teams and Flipgrid, both of which are regarded as essential to the school’s ability to deliver quality online programs. Just as important as the tools, says Williams, is adapting to the new context, with shorter, authentic tasks—rather than say hour-long classroom sessions or lectures, the trend is to shorter meetings based around clear, intuitive activities. Lois McGill, director of innovation and technology at Balmoral Hall, notes that assignments and assessment, too, need to be adapted, and that more traditional forms of assessment—quizzes and tests—don’t work as well online. Creativity, flexibility, and sharing best practices, are felt to be necessary components of the school’s online learning strategy. “I want to reinforce the importance of making this time together as enjoyable as possible,” writes Joanne Kamis, head of school, underscoring the need to pursue wellness in consort with academics.