How have private schools responded to COVID-19?
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Pivoting on a dime, independent educators have put the academic lives of their entire communities online (just as camps have switched to online programs).
How private schools have worked through the coronavirus quarantine to date shines a light on what makes them so strong in the first place—namely, academic cultures that celebrate innovation, dedication, and resilience.
The story is evolving. What happens next could redesign education as we know it. Stay up to date with Our Kids, and see how schools are using online learning and web-based teaching platforms to adapt and innovate during the COVID-19 crisis.
An unscheduled revolution
How independent schools stepped up when they were shut down for COVID-19—and how it might change education forever.
April 1, 2020
Written by Geoff Davies
Last week, independent and private schools across Canada accomplished something incredible.
They came back from March Break.
Against a hazy end date for the COVID-19 lockdown, and amidst a cloud of uncertainty, thousands of students of Canadian independent schools were brought back together in a moment when “together” seemed impossible.
Classrooms were out of the question. Yet teachers taught, learners learned, laughter rang, and communities buzzed, all without the bricks-and-mortar spaces that have long been at the centre of modern education.
Independent schools of all stripes responded by stepping up in a way that showcases their greatest strengths: innovation, nimbleness, and care.
This was not strategy—it was culture.
It was the ties that bind and the dedication that underpins the culture of each academic community.
One point of consensus is emerging: the status quo has shifted.
Across Canada, different schools have met the crisis from different footings. Many have resumed learning, many haven’t yet. What happens next is an open question, with an evolving answer, but one point of consensus is emerging: the status quo has shifted.
It’s been not quite three weeks since public health orders shuttered classrooms across the country, and the response that came from Canada’s independent schools is a story about innovation, resilience, and optimism for the future of learning.
“All hands on deck”
To keep the learning going in a time of social distancing, the effort began behind the scenes, well before students started logging on and signing into their new academic reality.
“There were a huge number of teachers involved, even though they were on March Break,” says David Grant, dean of studies at Crescent School in Toronto.
He recalls how, when March Break started just as the pandemic became a local reality, his colleagues worked around the clock to help meet all the challenges involved.
“It wasn’t a question of ‘I know you’re on holiday, but can you do this for me’—it was people emailing, saying ‘how can I help?’”
I think it’s an exciting time for teaching,” says Boughton. “I think this is going to change education forever.”
At Branksome Hall, associate communications director Lisa Stephenson says it’s been no easy endeavour, but the response their efforts have received from the school community has been warm.
“We basically spun up a virtual offering and launched it, all in a matter of days,” she says.
“It was all hands on deck.”
The Toronto private school’s faculty launched “Virtual Branksome” with a video message to the full student body, complete with the smiling children, furry friends, and living room “offices” of the teaching staff.
The message was clear: this is new for all of us, but we’ll figure it out together, with a healthy dose of fun and creativity.
“It’s an opportunity for independent schools to showcase what makes us unique and special—to be nimble, to pivot, to respond to changing conditions,” says Cheryl Boughton, head of school at St. John’s Kilmarnock.
Located outside Kitchener-Waterloo, the picturesque campus at St. John’s Kilmarnock School is a treasured part of the students’ experiences there, and outdoor education is a specialty.
So, to fill the void the students are feeling, the Outdoor Education teacher is filming “15-minute Field Trips” for the students to try for themselves.
“Our music teacher, with the help of technology, is also determined to find a way to get our jazz band all together for a mini-concert,” says Boughton.
“I think independent school teachers are a special breed, and right now, they are perhaps uniquely well-positioned,” she says.
Boughton shares how, for many teachers in her network, the first thing they did when they saw the crisis looming was to go back to class themselves.
In her school, in her social media network, in the blogs she reads and the webinars she attends, teachers have been sharing their own ideas on remote learning.
There were crash courses and “conversation circles” on how to digitally teach to different ages and stages—such as dozens of kindergarten teachers, for example, sharing best practices for helping students who are still working on words, let alone Microsoft Word.
“I think it’s an exciting time for teaching,” says Boughton.
“I think this is going to change education forever.”
Flying blind in uncharted territory
Remote learning requires many different pieces working together—the devices at home, the technology for teachers, the portals that make it possible, and the IT infrastructure backing it all up. While many schools were in a privileged position to respond, all found themselves in uncharted territory.
Many teachers, for their part, were already proficient with the tools of online teaching, if not from their regular work, then from their own experiences as learners.
On the phone from Quebec, where schools went on March Break a week earlier, Amalia Liogas has the perspective of being a week further along into the new educational reality.
As IT director at the Montreal-based all-girls school The Study, she has also fielded countless questions from teachers—including those from other schools—trying out new EdTech platforms.
She underlines that teaching online just isn’t the same. Her advice to teachers is to try new things, make mistakes, and most importantly “have fun.”
Patti MacDonald, executive director of the Canadian Association of Independent Schools, is sharing a similar message, on a national scale.
“The challenge is taking a faculty that has never had to function in this way, and students whose lives have been flipped upside down, and supporting them to take their learning online,” she says.
“That’s a momentous task.”
Working with an array of provincial counterparts, CAIS has been one of the industry organizations making a significant impact on how independent schools respond, in large part thanks to the communication channels it has created between colleagues across Canada.
“Education is all about relationships,” MacDonald says.
“It has been remarkable and heartening to see the strength of the network.”
That network extends internationally as well.
Through organizations such as ICAISA, the International Council Advancing Independent School Accreditation, MacDonald and her colleagues at CAIS have been able to share ideas from educators in other countries around the world, where they are weeks ahead in terms of responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
That same spirit is what keeps Amalia Liogas at The Study reaching out to colleagues as much as she can.
“For us, it’s more camaraderie than competition,” she says.
School community, 2.0
How do you control a room when that room is digital?
“Well, I can tell you the ‘mute’ button felt pretty good the first time I used it,” confides Debbie Keough with a laugh.
As vice-principal of The Prestige School’s Richmond Hill campus, she has been working with her teachers to make sure everyone is up to speed with platforms like Zoom, with its “breakout rooms” function and that handy mute button for classroom management.
We threw [students] the keys, said ‘hey, drop in,’ and they did—but it was midnight.
In many ways, the learning curve for teachers across Canada has been about how their longstanding, essential teaching skills—such as classroom management—transfer over to a digital classroom.
Suddenly deprived of their antennae for body language and instinct for emotions, so many teachers are re-experiencing their craft with the fresh eyes of someone who is “flying blind,” so to speak.
With or without knowing it, students communicate a lot to their teachers without speaking: their understanding of the material, their distraction level, as well as their physical and emotional comfort, perhaps with hints they may need help outside the classroom too.
Students are missing that connection too.
As much as schools are finding asynchronous learning to be a hit with their older teenage students, in the synchronous moments, the time spent learning together online, students are showing their newfound appreciation for why they need to be their own best educational advocate.
“Never have the boys more appreciated or craved that contact with the teacher,” remarks David Grant at Crescent.
“It’s not about PowerPoint slides on a page: they want that relationship.”
But the older students are enjoying asynchronous learning too.
With later start times and fewer fixed commitments, students are more free to work whenever it suits their sleep schedules. At Crescent, Grant says teachers are seeing surges in online activity from their senior students between the hours of 6 pm. and 1 am.
Across Toronto at Upper Canada College, Sam McKinney says that, as a parent as well as the school’s principal, he loved hearing about students hanging out together in the Zoom rooms at hours they wouldn’t otherwise want to be “at school.”
“We threw them the keys, said ‘hey, drop in,’ and they did—but it was midnight.”
As the father of a Grade 12 student, McKinney says he has a particular sympathy for how the crisis will cut short the experiences of students poised to graduate from UCC.
“The sensitivity is for those for whom the opportunity may not come again,” McKinney says.
“Whether it’s sports games or plays, they may have just had their last experiences.”
The plan, he says, is to work with students and families, to take it case by case, and to make sure that graduating students still get a special send-off experience, even if hallmark events like the Leaving Class Ceremony or UCC’s traditional Battalion Ball can’t take place.
One deeply-rooted tradition that can proceed, more or less normally, is the daily ritual of school assemblies.
For McKinney at UCC, the daily gathering in Laidlaw Hall has become a digital assembly, but that hasn’t stopped the important tradition of students joining together in less-than-serious song—most recently, with an inventive version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” adapted for the age of social distancing.
(“Not touching meeee / not touching youuuu …”)
Martha Perry, principal at St. Clement’s School, spoke with Our Kids shortly after the school’s first assembly back together.
There were 479 people on the call.
“To see so many faces, I found it very emotional,” Perry says.
“We had everybody muted, but at the very end we turned all the mics on so everyone could shout and say hello to each other—it felt great.”
No perfect model
For adults and older students, working and learning online is an increasingly commonplace reality. High schoolers forced to embrace it now may find the experience was to their advantage when they see how post-secondary works.
For younger students, however, for whom “screen time” is normally something discouraged, the abrupt move to remote learning is a bold new experiment.
There’s no going back: we can’t put the genie back in the box.
Rose Bastien, head of curriculum at Toronto’s Hudson College and vice-principal of the elementary school there, says it’s essential to make sure that social, relational element is still built into remote education.
“The foundation of learning is the social environment,” Bastien says.
“Kids learn because they’re in a group setting: it’s a reflexive learning process, that constant give and take, and that’s what has been taken away.”
Recess and gym, Bastien says, are often what kids pick as their favourite subjects: it’s because that’s where they can communicate and play. Similarly, for 5 to 10 minutes before any bricks-and-mortar lesson starts, you’ll see students filing into the room, sharing a laugh, or connecting with their friends.
That need to connect informally hasn't changed, so teachers are responding by intentionally building it into every lesson, allowing students to chat freely as people start joining the call.
“The kindergarten kids are really cute with it, saying ‘Hi’ to each other,” says Bastien.
“The technology is new to them. It’s still really fresh and exciting.”
Ask teachers too, and you’ll think you’re hearing echoes.
“This is really new, this is fresh. This is Day 3,” says James Whitehouse, head of school for Elmwood School in Ottawa.
To respond to the crisis, the all-girls schools already had technology and online learning platforms at the heart of their daily academic lives. Still though, they were on unfamiliar footing.
“Learning isn’t about being perfect, so we said ‘let’s get it rolling,’” says Whitehouse.
“There is not a perfect model.”
How to assess, examine, and grade students is an evolving question with uncertainties of its own, so Elmwood opted to bypass that for now: all work is meant to be formative, with no grades attached.
“Pedagogically, it’s been awesome having kids do work for the love of it,” Whitehouse says.
To learn on the fly, Whitehouse turned the great asset they had in the form of their own student body: a generation of girls who have grown up with technology.
“We told them, ‘you’re the experts in this, you give us feedback,’” says Whitehouse.
One lesson learned has been to scale back on synchronous learning time: talking on a Zoom call is not the same as talking to a person, and one hour can feel like three for teachers and students alike.
For parents with multiple children now learning remotely, and finite resources for them in terms of both technology and Mom and Dad’s attention, too much synchronous learning adds new layers of challenge.
Rose Bastien designed Hudson College’s curricular response with her community’s parents in mind.
“Our parents are working parents … when they become a caregiver and they're also working, what happens then?” she asked.
So, she says, she created three different schedules, each with as much flexibility as possible, staggered in the knowledge that many families have two Hudson College students vying for the same computer.
Each schedule was designed to re-introduce some consistency in her students’ lives.
Each would balance face-to-face synchronous learning with asynchronous learning, where students complete assignments on their own time.
As well, there would be a healthy mix of the other essentials of a successful school day: time to be active, time to rest and recharge, and time for the natural interpersonal energy that learning requires.
Across the board, students are getting full marks for how they too have stepped up in response to the new normal.
At independent schools across Canada, the unscheduled revolution in how learning happens is creating new questions, new answers, and new opportunities in all directions.
“As a school, we are saying we can’t go back to the old way,” says James Whitehouse at Elmwood.
“There’s no going back: we can’t put the genie back in the box.”
The responses of different private schools: learning in quarantine
- 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.
Supporting learners and families
At Marie-Reine-du-Clergé Seminary teachers worked through spring break to get online learning started for students on their return. They’ve also opened the program to all grade 6 students, even if they don’t attend the school. The school sees this as an opportunity to give back to the local community, and to support parents during a hectic and difficult time. Feedback has been brisk and positive.
Staying productive, upbeat, and positive
Distance learning at The Governor’s Academy began the week after the return from March break. Dubbed “Together Online,” class sessions resumed with an adjusted schedule to allow both teachers and students flexibility. Courses meet just once per week but the length of each class session has been extended. Teachers meet face-to-face with the entire class; conduct shorter individual meetings with students; and provide simple check-ins after recorded lectures for a “background classroom” arrangement. While there is a shared sense of sadness and loss in within the school community, reports Victoria Bernier, feedback shows that both faculty and students are doing their best through weekly advisory meetings, dorm check-ins, Zoom athletic workouts, and other activities to make these months productive, upbeat, and positive.
Class is still in session!
CFIS leadership, faculty and staff members are delivering remote learning to all students from Preschool through to Grade 12, ensuring they continue to receive a robust, well-rounded, educational experience. Writes Lana Van Damme, “our teachers’ dedication to ensuring student success, no matter how learning is delivered, will keep our students in good stead over the coming months.” The pedagogical team developed clear expectations for remote learning, communicated in a Remote Learning Handbook, with strategies to ensure an appropriate regulation of screen time. In the primary and Early Childhood Education programs, students are learning in an asynchronistic learning environment to ensure they feel as engaged as possible, given the non-formal classroom environment.
Students may not be physically attending our school each day, but leadership feels it is important that there is continuity within the social and co-curricular aspects of school life. “More now than ever, we want our students to be proud, healthy and feel they belong to a lasting community.” The House system has been delivered online in order to continue building positive relationships, recognizing students' successes, and promoting the development of the whole child.
To learn more about what CFIS is doing and request a copy of the Remote Learning Handbook email [email protected].
Connection is the goal
As soon as the Ministry of Education announced the closure of schools in mid-March, BC Christian Academy Head Principal, Mr. Ian Jarvie, reached out to all families. He assured everyone that BCCA will continue to deliver a robust and excellent education for K-12 students on a virtual platform while staying safe at home. Teaching staff took their vacation time to begin work to plan and prepare for the launch by April 1st.
Attendance was at 100% and the students were excited to see their teachers and classmates again. The Primary students from Kindergarten to Grade 3 were introduced to Seesaw while the Grades 4-12 used the Google Meet and Google Classroom and other online learning resources. "The goal is not only to engage our students academically but also to make sure they are having fun attending our virtual school," writes Ana Enduma. “Our message continues to be that we are still figuring this out and learning together, and that connection, not perfection, is our goal.”
Principals are taking turns sharing their video devotions and messages of hope and encouragement from their homes to the BCCA community through the school Facebook and Instagram feeds. A Care Team is calling and checking on families, and have also asked parents to fill out a Parent Survey. “We know that it is important to get feedback from our parents so we can improve things for them on a weekly basis.” The response and satisfaction, reports Enduma, has been high. The school is also supporting students with printables and/or devices as needed, and a tuition relief fund has been inaugurated to ensure that no families need to remove their students due to financial insecurity.
A global campus
One of the many questions Rosseau Lake College faced was how to continue to strengthen and support learning with a student body that is now scattered across the globe. The school is predominantly boarding, with a majority of students arriving from overseas. “We knew for sure that ‘online learning’ could never honour the full extent of our school experience,” writes Graham Vogt, Director of Academics at RLC. “As a faculty, we worked quickly to find the right way to maintain our school day and all parts of school life, while scattered across the planet.”
The response was swift, with online classes convening on March 25th, one day after the end of the regular spring break. The remote platform, RLC’s Global Campus, includes morning assemblies, real-time classroom learning, discussion and support, a full arts and athletics program, and innovative teaching that allows time away from screens. Other initiatives mounted online include a weekly coffee house where students perform, school campfires, and even the Spring Arts Festival.
“At Rosseau Lake College we have come to realize that our best approach to this Global Campus has been to rely on our strength, and to change as little as possible. Indeed, the secret to our engagement throughout this pandemic is found in who we already were as a community.”
A quick pivot, an ongoing dedicaion to learning and support
University of Toronto Schools (UTS) dove into the brave, new world of online education, in just over a week, as a rapid-fire response to the COVID-19 crisis. Teachers returned from March Break on March 23, and on March 24, the school launched online learning using a model that includes live teaching in real time. A new timetable was crafted to better suit the online learning environment, and new guidelines for online teaching to foster an engaging learning experience for both teachers and students. “As a Bring Your Own Device school, UTS was already using Google Apps for Education, which made the transition to online learning infinitely easier. However, the shift to live or synchronous online teaching presented a learning curve for the entire school community,” says Marc Brims, Head of Academics.
One of the challenges was being flexible, and agile when adapting new technologies. “In these current times, things are super-ambiguous, and they move really fast,” says Dr. Cresencia Fong, Head of Teacher Learning, Technology and Research. “We decided to create a safe, informal way for our teachers to share their challenges, while learning new technologies and building community.”
Student feedback from an online survey found that students are enjoying the “interesting ways that teachers have adapted and being able to see friends in a new environment” as well as the flexibility. The Student Life office organized E-Sport tournaments. The school’s Co-Captains (leaders of student council) hosted a virtual coffee house for everyone in the community and launched a 24-hour COVID-19 fundraising drive to support a local charity that delivers food to those in need. Also, UTS continued with student elections, moving everything online -- from nominations to speeches to voting.
On the family side, the UTS Parents Association worked closely with the school to host meetings for parents and guardians, catered to their child’s grade level. Families submitted questions ahead of time, then joined a Google Meeting with Vice Principal, Garth Chalmers and the parent representatives for each grade.
“During each call, parents had the opportunity to post additional questions to the chat and have them answered live in the chat by Principal Rosemary Evans,” says Garth Chalmers, Vice Principal, adding that attendance at these meetings was exceptional with 80 to 90 percent of families logging in. “The Parents Association turned the conversation toward how to keep families engaged and involved, looking at online social gatherings and other digital gatherings in the hopes of providing social outlets for everyone during the quarantine.
Providing ECE online solutions
Guidepost Montessori was intending to open a new school, though that coincided with the covid crisis. Undaunted, administration took the program online, offering robust Montessori instruction remotely. For a detailed desciption of the offering, visit Guidepost Montessori’s Home Distance Learning.
Developing a hybrid model
Prestige School has continued to provide advanced, engaging educational experience while students are at home. Students take part in daily classes, communicate with their teachers and submit assignments and tests for feedback and assessment.
They’ve adopted a blended approach, combining Google Classroom and ZOOM with emails and personal correspondence. A variety of tools and apps are used across all grade levels to provide engaging and interactive experiences. Teachers utilize their shared screens to incorporate curriculum-based games, videos, online stories, Google Slides, Power Point Presentations, Jamboards and whiteboard activities into lessons. Teachers and administrators are always available to help students with any assigned work they are struggling to manage.
The school has integrated a virtual physical education component designed to help students stay active indoors using Just Dance, GoNoodle and the Movlee Channel on YouTube as well as creative scavenger hunts and “Minute to Win it” challenges. Physical education instructors conduct regular fitness and wellness sessions to aid in developing students’ strength and flexibility and improving their cardio abilities. Art and music lessons are hosted online. As a means of building school spirit and positivity and coming together as a community, Prestige has been hosting theme weeks. “Although it was never our intention to move to a virtual platform,” writes vice principal Debbie Keough, “our goal is to deliver to our students the absolute best educational experience within our present-day conditions. We remain dedicated to an individual learning approach and a full-day program that allows for the progressive development of skills.”
Developing a hybrid model
London Christian High launched online classrooms two days after the March break. The school is sending email surveys to parents every two weeks to check in and to see what's working well, and what can be adjusted to support students and families. Every lesson is recorded so students can access if they were unable to attend during the live class time. Weekly email bulletins keep parents informed, including information on how to support learning and issues around assessment.
Innovative responses for those with learning differences
Founded in 1975, The Help Group is the largest, most innovative and comprehensive non-profit of its kind in the United States serving children, adolescents and young adults with special needs related to autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, ADHD, developmental delays, abuse and emotional challenges. At the heart of its efforts is the commitment to helping young people fulfill their potential to lead positive, productive and rewarding lives, something that continues despite the school closures that began on March 16. The Help Group is offering a range of innovative online programs, from a Rube Goldberg machine designed by Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter, to STEM projects and collaborations.
Great lessons, great support, excellent communication
The move to remote learning at Aspengrove has been swift and comprehensive, with detailed communications for parents. Teachers spent time over the spring break planning and designing the school’s Online and Guided Learning Model, with classes going live the week after. The schedules are clear and detailed, with numerous lines to technical support. “We find it amazing how well Aspengrove organized the switch to the online program,” writes a parent. “The students are engaged and the teachers are amazing! Kudos and a big thank you to all the teachers and admin staff.” Using MySchool, administrators are seeking regular feedback from parents, with similar surveys for students to fill out. Younger students are interviewed during regular one-on-one meetings with their teachers, both to check in with them as well as to inform and build best practices. In all, Aspengrove frankly provides a study in how to handle a difficult situation with confidence and professionalism.
Proactive embracement of virtual learning
At Rothesay Netherwood School, discussions around virtual learning strategies were taking place as early as February, when global awareness of the virus first rose. In the meantime, many of the school’s international students have traveled home, creating a logistics challenge in running virtual classrooms. “We have 16 hours of timezones to deal with,” says Paul McLellan, the school’s headmaster. "We have kids in British Columbia and we have kids in Japan. So, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., will sound like an odd time but that means that kids in British Columbia would start at 6 a.m. and kids in Japan would start at 10 p.m.”
The school is learning to strike a balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning. “We’re hoping to have four, 30-minute classes each day. From 10 a.m. till 12:30 p.m., will be the synchronous portion of their day and then 1:30 to 3:30, will be the asynchronous part of the day and the first hour of that their teachers will be available.”
The school is one of several New Brunswick and Nova Scotia private schools where virtual learning has been underway since mid-March.
Developing a hybrid model
Star Academy has an 11-month school year, so it wasn't off for March Break like most schools. Students left on Friday March 13th expecting to return to school on Monday. With the shutdown, they didn’t, with remote learning beginning instead.
They took the first couple of days to roll out the planned curriculum via email, onboarding learners, and getting comfortable with the Zoom environment. Since then, instructors have grown the offering using a variety of apps, including SeeSaw and Flipgrid to interact with students and deliver effective class and small group instruction, tutoring, and social engagement. A key goal has been to keep the structure and routine of a school day, and proceed as normal as much as possible. Science Fair projects were nearly complete, for example so with tools like Flipgrid and Zoom those presentations continued as planned.
Principal Julie Benneyworth writes that assessment is an important, if tricky, piece of the platform. “Right now, teachers are using their one-on-one time to develop assessment tools,” she writes, “and like at school, they are assessing during online lessons and group sessions.” Teachers send out daily lesson plans, a 'social time', a PE suggestion, and mindful activities. A weekly newsletter includes a curated list of articles for families relevant to learning online and issues relevant to the shutdown and the pandemic. Given the importance of personal connection, teachers are supervising 'social' times for the kids to hangout and chat with one another. Teachers have also scheduled weekly phone calls or video calls with their students to check in.
Seizing a unique opportunity
Part of the existing Ashwood Glen program includes leveraging technology to enhance learning for all. Consequently, the sudden disruptions to in-school student learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic were reduced. Through effective partnerships with parents and teacher collaboration, instructors were able to swiftly roll out home learning that maintained the daily routines, community, service-learning, and academics. Virtual class circle time maintains a community of engaged learners, daily structure for students, and emotional support for students. They’ve also developed a comprehensive program of parent support, including ongoing communication via phone, Zoom, and emails, to extend our support and strengthen our partnership with them. A digital Home Learning Handbook and shared learning resources and tips support delivery, consistency, and authentic academic engagement.
“We understand the importance of being flexible and able to adapt to the changes in our students’ learning environment. For us, Home Learning is not simply delivering lessons that are meant to be taught through face to face sessions. Instead, our deep understanding of how learning works and consideration for the changes in our students’ learning environment have both made it necessary for us to transform our classroom management skills into those that are effective for learning facilitated at home. “We are embracing the challenges presented to us during this unprecedented time,” writes Marianne Yong-Macdonald, head of school, “and are continuing to work with diligence to be better equipped with the advanced trends of education as our current reality decrees. Our goal is to do the best we can to better shape our children’s educational future.” The shutdown is seen as an opportunity to really consider the benefits of online learning, as outlined in an ongoing blog, Embracing the Future.
Taking time, learning together
Online classes launched on March 23rd. The first two days were devoted to onboarding, getting everyone connected to Zoom, saying hello, and class sessions started on day three. Along with academic work, the teachers are doing live online art, music, even yoga and exercises. Classroom sessions include show and tell, something that works particularly well online, given that everyone wants to share something from their home. “Children are thrilled and the parents couldn’t be happier,” writes Principal Ilaria Sheikh. The BEN is also offering parenting sessions in the evening, including tips on how to speak with their children about the crisis.
Ensuring learning through individual lesson plans
The teachers prepared learning schedules for the week of March 30th, using Google Classroom, Zoom, Flipgrid, and streaming video. Teachers are doing worship services, read-alouds, math lessons, reading classes, tutoring sessions, and offering crafts and activities for parents at home. Opportunities for socialization are provided through virtual playdates.
“We also acknowledge the potential of overburdening parents during this time,” writes Britteny Wilson. “We are approaching our online classes as ‘daily learning opportunities’ - they are opportunities, and not strictly mandatory. Hopefully, with our efforts to live stream and record most of what we do, we will be able to reach as many children as possible.” While the times are indeed unprecedented, the school is making individual learning plans in order to ensure that no child is left behind.”
Innovation under the circumstance
Throughout the spring break, teachers and administrators prepared to move classes online, using Google Classroom and Zoom. Teachers also prepared the spaces from which they would engage with their students online, one kindergarten teacher making an alphabet tree on the wall in her living room. The first day after the regularly scheduled break, remote classes were convened at 9:00am. Lively classrooms were patterned with screen sharing powerpoints, Kahoot quizzes and whiteboard teaching. The sense of community was kept consistent, and personal phone calls were made to each family to check-in, to chat, and to identify any necessary accommodations. Feedback, understandably, has been brisk and positive.
From class to cafeteria, bringing life to learning online
At Keystone International Schools students were back in class (virtually) on March 23rd. The program had been in development over the past 18 months, initially intended to offer international students a pathway to graduation with an OSSD diploma. That platform was called into service, allowing current students to continue their classes without interruption. They spend between 4 to 6 hours a day on the platform, much of it in live synchronous classrooms. Outside of instruction, Keystone created a virtual cafeteria for students to continue their social interactions and collaborate on projects. Keystone also started live-streaming sessions every Wednesday titled “Physically Distant, Virtually Connected” inviting guests from various industries to discuss topics of interest. Of the entire experience, Director Doa Demirsu writes that “this has been a crash course in what online education can and will be. We plan to continue our streaming series and enhance our virtual cafeteria once school is physically back in session.”
Finding the right platform
Naghmeh Razmpoosh, Principal at Oxford Learning Academy writes:
"When COVID-19 hit, it was like a nightmare had begun. How were we going to teach all these children through an online platform? How were we going to do our exams and tests and clubs and our fun extracurricular activities? How were we going to give our students some resemblance of normalcy? I was very lucky to have been approached by the founders of Go-eLearn as they discussed the capabilities of this platform. The Go-eLearn team was able to support all of our needs as a school. They have been training our teachers, supporting our students and families as well as meeting all our requirements. Teachers have been customizing their lessons based on the needs of our students. They have been creating differentiated lessons, assignments, quizzes, and formative assessments. They are conducting live lessons for their classes. The reports that the Go-eLearn platform generates is extremely intuitive and useful for the teachers. Marking has never been easier as our teachers are able to mark student work digitally. Go-eLearn has allowed our school to continue doing what we do best-help our students reach their full potential."
"The key is being able to see what's hidden."
Shifting online literally overnight, faculty created lessons using the tools they had available. They planned initially for two weeks, though of course have since extended that, now working out beyond two months, able to adapt as needed. “Our teachers have arisen in true form, to bring our children into excellence," writes Principal Catherine Dumé. A low student-to-teacher ratio certainly helped ease the transition, while also allowing teachers to provided individualised care and instruction. “The key is being able to see what’s hidden,” writes Dumé. "Those with learning challenges or the maladjusted student who is needy for attention, there is a chance of fallout so our teachers are on alert.” Families are checked daily and prayer or encouragement in the Lord are offered to parents. “The school of tomorrow, in fact, the school of today is upon us!”
Developing a hybrid model
CEFA Early Learning schools are still open as the B.C. Provincial Government moved that licensed child care operators should be classified as essential services. To provide parental supports, founder Natacha V. Beim has been adding resources and activities to her website Parenting with Natacha. All the activities are created to be done easily with material available in the home, and all are colour keyed in order to signify which curriculum category the learning outcomes are aligned with. Natacha has also written a blog post on how to address COVID-19 with your children, which is another great resource for parents.
Staying healthy, staying fit
Remote learning began the last week of March with the return from the break. In order to prepare for the launch, leadership met to discuss communications, strategies for remote instruction and the delivery of curriculum. Chris Grieve, Head of School, also reached out to other private school heads via Zoom to gather and share information and best practices. He writes, "We’ve got fantastic teachers who worked really hard throughout the break and we launched last Tuesday." The program, rightly, is seen as one in development, though feedback from parents has been positive. "You can understand that when you’ve got two or three children home all day and your world has changed, there are some challenges with regards to launching this, but the feedback has been very good... we've had dozens and dozens of very positive comments from students and parents."
Communication is seen as key, with regular points of contact online. Activity is seen as a priority as well, and daily workouts posted to the Gryphons Workout of the Day (G.W.O.D) website. Writes John Gareau, Athletic Director, “The focus will be on strength and conditioning and as we are staying home. Stay healthy. Stay fit.”
Staying agile, keeping in touch
SMUS is up and running online since the term reconvened on April 14. Mark Turner, Head of School, writes that the feedback from all aspects of the school community has been overwhelmingly positive. “As we researched remote learning, we were told that it would be necessary to be nimble, to adapt and even to pivot, if necessary.” To that end, Director of Academics Denise Lamarche crafted a program of consistent, templated feedback through a series of series of online surveys. Student attendance is high, if online.
In addition to classroom sessions, students are attending House meetings, to meet with friends, share experiences, and simply stay connected. ”I have also heard reports of some inspirational lessons,” writes Turner, and “even rugby and band practices are conducted at a distance.” While remaining cognizant that “all this is new and uncharted territory” he adds, echoing thoughts we’ve heard from other heads across the country, that “this is also an exciting opportunity for the future and there will be long-term benefits, particularly around our dexterity with harnessing technology.” The communication from SMUS has been a study in how best to connect with students and parents, keeping them informed as things unfold, all located at a single page of the school website.
"We're a hit!"
“We’re a hit, as hits go,” writes Dr. Kelvin Sealey, Head of School, of the developing remote learning platform. And, when two students hadn’t shown up online the first day, he was on the phone to parents, who responded immediately and roused their kids out of bed. Since then, attendance has been consistent and reliable. The school is making use of a range of applications, including Google Hangouts, Discord, Zoom, Quickschools. “Skype appears to have worked well for users, too,” says Sealey. “I’m not a Discord user so I can’t vouch for it, but it seems to be the platform of the moment.”
Rightly, staff see this as less a work in progress than an opportunity in progress, a chance to work with new tools, maybe even develop some new best practices. Feedback from students and parents has been brisk and positive. “I just wanted to drop you a note at the end of day one of elearning at The Dragon,” wrote a parent. “It went off without a hitch in our home.” Meg Fox, founding principal, writes that “we continue to adapt to the ever-surreal changes wrought by this pandemic,” and that while some uncertainties remain, “I only know that I am moved by the dedication, the creativity, the spirit of community.”
Bringing a sense of normalcy during uncertain times
Acadecap International School (Académie de la Capitale) switched to online class delivery on March 30, and since then, has successfully continued their K-12 full-day, academic programs on various online platforms. Everything, from math to jiujitsu, from French to music, has continued virtually, with classes held based on the regular school schedules. Students get to interact with their teachers and classmates in real-time. Even lunch time clubs and student-led weekly, morning announcements have continued virtually. “We have tried our best to recreate the school learning environment, virtually,” writes Mariela Ileto, “bringing a sense of normalcy for our students and their families during these uncertain times.”
The building may be closed, but the learning goes on
Children are naturally good at learning, notes Kelly Farrell, director at Oak Learners, given that it’s something that they’re doing essentially from the moment they’re born. They learn language, culture, social norms, and knowledge from everyone around them. “For most children, learning doesn’t end when the school bell rings,” she notes, “or when schools close for summer vacation. Most children are intensely curious and, given the right environment, will dive into the exploration of new knowledge.” That naturally continues online, an environment in which Oak Learners has always been ahead of the curve in educational practice; when the education world prepared to pivot towards online and inquiry-based learning, Oak Learners was already there.
The Virtual Learning platform, Oak Online, has been enlisted since March to provide day school, academic tutoring, music essons, yoga classes and inquiry-based courses, all in in real time. During the shutdown, administration also decided to bring a signature early childhood program online as well, one dedicated to Kindergarten readiness, presenting children and their parents with interactive learning opportunities.
Remaining active, dynamic, and engaging
The return-to-learning program was launched at the end of March, and teachers continue to work full-time from home to deliver their classes in real time as scheduled. The goal has been to keep learning consistent, to engage students’ curiosity, and to build the skills and knowledge they will need for success when regular classes resume. All classes are addressed remotely, including music and Phys. Ed. “For many students, these are their favourite courses,” wrote the administration in letter home to parents describing the offering, “and keeping them in the schedule is paramount to maintaining engagement.”
“The key to our success,” writes Hailey Wilson, an administrator, “has been the dedication and hard work of our teachers. At all levels, our teachers are regularly and actively preparing as they deliver an interactive and dynamic curriculum online. There is an inspiring collaboration and sense of common purpose in our efforts. There are many challenges ahead, but none that we cannot solve together.”
"It's been an amazing and heartwarming experience."
The school had been moving to accommodate the Ministry of Education's move to online courses, so much of much of the infrastructure was in place prior to the shutdown. The school is using Blackbaud as the primary content management system, so courses were already available there, and students were familiar with the system. Some teachers had also already engaged with the Flipped Classroom model, and were well-situated to hit the ground running.
Principal Jill Block writes that, “As I step into each class on my daily morning visits, I’m struck by the warm, relaxed greeting I receive. It’s been an amazing and heart-warming experience.” She notes that students even stay on line after classes are over just for the opportunity to interact with their friends. “Parent feedback has exceeded our expectations. We’ve received wonderful emails from parents - acknowledging the teacher’s efforts, their children’s positive response to the program, and how our program has enhanced the well-being and happiness of entire families!”
Existing programs make for an easy transition to remote learning
Oxford Learning had some distinct assets that made the transition to online learning efficient and quick, including small class sizes, individualized programming, and dedicated faculty. “For the students who need targeted instruction in math, English, or French, we offer private and semi-private tutoring SK - Gr 12,” writes Hanna Gernega. Existing programs of project-based learning—designed to broaden students’ knowledge and deepen their understanding of social studies, sciences, and English—were also a good fit to the move to remote instruction.
Developing a comprehensive game plan
Teachers found out on a Friday morning that the school would be closing, and by that afternoon had prepared two weeks’ worth of packages that went home with the students. Faculty knew that the move online was not just a matter of directing students to a web site, and outlined a strategy to engage the students through an entire teaching day. Ben Shapton, a grade 7 student says “our teacher makes a daily video and gives us a game plan for the day. The classes last about an hour each and I’m able to call my teacher anytime. In fact she’ll just call to ask how I’m doing. Same for my classmates.”
Teacher Kim Dorken was a driving force in engaging and organizing the technical effort at the school. She says, “with my own class we begin the day with our usual get-together, morning message, talk about our calendar, and all the literacy and math chatter we can pack into that time. The students are still seeing my face and hearing my voice, so I’m able to keep encouraging them.” Students share their tasks in small groups, and there are also videos, exercises, and check-ins to keep them engaged and motivated.
Ensuring continuity of instruction and relationships
When students were still on spring break, staff at GNS began working on a plan to implement a remote learning strategy. “It became clear, very quickly, that our faculty and staff were committed to providing innovative ways to continue to deliver high-quality education, even under exceptional circumstances,” writes Cheryl Alexander, the web/media project lead for the school. The result was GNS GO!, or Gryphons Online, a distance learning plan that would ensure continuity of learning while also maintaining strong caring relationships with each student.
“We are now actively soliciting feedback from our students, staff and families so that we can continue to refine our approach,” writes Alexander. The offerings are age-appropriate, “things look quite different at Grade 4, Grade 8 and Grade 11,” with an attention to making sure that students aren’t spending their entire day in front of a screen. In addition to course work, students take part in a physical health program and other co-curriculars.
North Star Academy students thankful to transition to full-time e-schooling
The transition to remote learning was, in a sense, two years in the making, ever since North Star had adopted a digital teaching strategy that included one-to-one devices and Google Classroom. As a result, the school was able to pivot quickly. The school met to address a related concern, namely motivation. How would our students respond, especially given the abrupt transition, starting online classes three days after schools were being closed across the province? How would our teachers rapidly incorporate diverse ways of teaching and learning to keep the students engaged?
Writes Josée Pepin, Head of School, given some quick work on the part of the faculty, “everything fell into place and we were overwhelmed with the positive feedback from students and parents.” Keeping a clear daily and weekly structure, as well as online conferencing, says Pepin, were key elements of success. The remote learning platform includes daily interactions as well as continuing to follow the existing 10-day schedules. “School has proven to be a source of security, of routine, of what is known,” writes Pepin. “Everyone is handling this collective crisis in their own way, and we want to ensure that our students know that they are not alone.” Although so much remains unknown, “students and their families have one less thing to worry about right now, as their education is being well taken care of by an incredible team of teachers, supportive parents and enthusiastic students.”
A combined effort between students, school, and home
Tish Jolley, assistant head of school at Alcuin College writes that “it has been uplifting to pop in and out of the different virtual sessions to see how the students are interacting with their teachers, and with one another, and making the most of their new circumstances.” During spring break teachers spent time exploring and experimenting with different online platforms, finding the right tools, and planning and adjusting programmes to suit the virtual learning environment. The goal was to be fully prepared for on the first day back with a slightly shortened schedule to ease students, and parents, gently into their new reality. And they were. Students report that, in addition to learning course content, they are honing their self-management skills and developing their independence as they take ownership of their learning. Jolley notes that community has rallied around, making the best of the situation.
“Our parents have been incredibly supportive in ensuring that their children have access to the necessary tools and that they have a suitable space to allow for optimum learning. We are proud of our teachers who have adapted so enthusiastically and continue to reflect on their practice and adjust and refine the learning experiences to inspire and motivate their students.”
Awakening curiosity, nurturing faith, inspiring learners
J-D Lussier, Principal at Trinity Christian School writes that “times like these require us to adapt and innovate while remaining true to who we are. We want to continue to accomplish our mission, which is to awaken curiosity, nurture faith, and inspire learners to reflect Jesus everywhere.” He notes that the goals of their remote learning plan was to be consistent with the framework the children are already familiar with in the classroom, including: making prayer a part of our daily schedule; continuing to create a joyful, engaging remote classroom and school community for students and teachers; providing daily opportunities for teachers and students to connect; having a weekly online chapel service; and engaging with our community by reflecting His light. Instructors are providing weekly schedules with required work and daily schedules with suggested tasks to meet the weekly goals. Daily face-to-face interactions are managed through Hangouts Meet and emails. Says Lussier, “while we would much rather be teaching in our classrooms, this structure has allowed us to continue to provide our students with valuable teaching and learning opportunities.”
Remaining positive and engaged
Sue Warren, an administrator at Resurrection Christian Academy writes:
"The RCA teachers started working on the plan to move from a traditional educational platform to an online platform over the second week of our March Break, preparing parents for a soft rollout of our online teaching platform on March 30th. Our teachers went into the school building during the March Break to pick up the students' curriculum, books and worksheets and hand delivered them to parents' doorsteps (using appropriate Social Distancing protocol). We are using a combination of Zoom conferencing, Google classroom, Owlwise and e-mail to communicate the curriculum to the parents and students. During the first week we spent time teaching the RCA community how to use the new online platform successfully and limited our teaching to the core subjects, mathematics, literature, language and Bible for all students. As the students became more confident with using the technology we built up the programme during week 2 to provide students with primary French, music and fitness classes. We are staying in close contact with the parents to ensure that we can continue to build the programme where needed without creating additional stress for our families. So far the response has been good, the children are loving the programme and remain positive and engaged about learning. We are so proud of the way that our teachers have pulled together to create a unique offering for our students and are working together to support the entire RCA community."
Managing synchronous and asynchronous time online; finding education with balanace at home
Kim Sillcox, an administrator at CDS, writes:
"The Country Day School's goal is to deliver our students the very best academic program we can given these unprecedented circumstances. As a school that has always strived for education with balance, we have approached remote learning from home the same way, with a strong emphasis on well being. In our Junior School JK-4 classes, students are using their Class Pages and an age-appropriate amount of video and phone messaging with their teachers each day. Lots of story time and encouragement to spend time outdoors is also an expectation.
"For Grades 5-12 students, the teachers are using Google Meets and pre-recorded videos to deliver their lessons during usual class time. Students are experiencing a healthy, well-balanced mix of synchronous real-time learning and asynchronous learning opportunities offline where they can work independently on assignments and classwork. Our Student Council and faculty members have been submitting creative videos and light-hearted photos of what [email protected] looks like, as have our parents. These have been appearing on our social media channels as a way of keeping students and parents engaged and connected. Next week's Senior School Spring Coffee House will be held online for the first time ever and the CDS community is excited to reconvene and celebrate the musical talent that we have always been known for."
Looking to non-traditional content, learning by doing
Headwaters Academy responded to the government's closure of schools by implementing Zoom live classes together with an Edmodo asynchronous classroom environment in March. Students are receiving instruction in mathematics, science, the language arts, and history daily as well as live yoga sessions. Having invested in specialized equipment, Headwaters Academy began hosting a live stream class that is non-traditional in content. Th first focused on building raised garden beds.
"As an experiential and action based school it was imperative that we get our students motivated to be outside in their yards or working in their kitchens. We know the best learning happens by doing - it took us some time, but we are figuring out how to deliver a Headwaters experience the best we can during these challenging times and getting our students beyond the screen," said school founder Mark Brown.
Kleinburg Christian Academy
A swift transition to a suite of online tools
Responding immediately to mandated school closures, Kleinburg Christian Academy (KCA) initiated a robust off-site learning program for their students. KCA teachers are investmenting time and resources transitioning curriculum designed for a classroom situation into learning tasks and modules that students access and complete at home. Video conferencing, Google platforms and Class Dojo are being utilized to communicate and teach, as well as gather and assess student learning. Given lemons, KCA is making lemonade!
The Oxford Academy
Staing active online
Since students returned home Oxford has been delivering their academic program live, one-to-one, across several time zones. Teachers have adapted their working hours to do so, but it's allowed the students to have some continuity and certainty during this difficult time. Via Oxford Academy's Synchronous Learning Platform faculty are offering a variety of online events and activities to keep the community connected. “The faculty are all in for the students and helping them continue to thrive despite this current situation,” says Helen Waldron, director of admissions. In addition to regular office hours, there is a broad list of activities, including Mr. Switaj's Cooking Corner, visits with the guidance staff to discuss future planning and college prep, and opportunities to visit with Mr. Forrest’s new puppy in the Virtual Dog House. All pets are welcome to join! Love it.
A swift transition that was a decade in the making
Montreal's Kells Academy has taken advantage of its experience with online delivery to ensure that students didn’t lose a minute of class time in the move from an in-class to a virtual environment. That transition was possible because of the infrastructure and online resources developed by the school over the past ten years. Already equipped with an iPad or laptop starting in Grade 5, students were accustomed to accessing material in digital formats along with in-class instruction. In the Kells e-learning environment, those devices are managed remotely by the school’s IT department, with applications added and updated in real time. Students and their parents have been given access to the schools’ IT specialists, who are available throughout the school day and then some. Teachers engage effectively with students, broadcasting their screen to emulate a smart board; recording videos for flipped classrooms; working with digital interactive worksheets; encouraging live participation through the Zoom platform; and leveraging all the collaboration and communication functionalities of Google Classroom. Kells students are making digital art and participating in virtual choirs and yoga sessions. Schedules have been reduced and modified, taking this new online reality into account. All reports have been positive; Kells students and parents are happy and fully engaged in learning as a community.
From instruction, to story time in the library, Amadeus has created a comprehensive offering
In the Primary school students check in with the Homeroom Teacher with zoom. The Teachers set the learning via the Seesaw App and then students complete their learning and then with photograph or video their learning and post it back to SeeSaw. The App shows the students how many activities they need to complete each day and then activities stay there until they are completed. Specialist teachers in Art, PE, and Music also post the lesson on SeeSaw and they do this according to the timetable. The school librarian is adding books to the students accounts on EPIC for the next Unit of Inquiry. He is also posting one library lesson per week per class, reading to the students online, and adding recommended reads. In the secondary school the days are broken into subject areas whereby every day has a single focus. There are movement and creativity breaks. The homework and feedback schedule is spaced in order to allow detailed feedback from teachers and facilitate a positive learning rhythm for better retention. Teacher support time is also scheduled; so help is never more than an e-mail or a video call away.
A variety of technology platforms and tools keep the students engaged
The entire school was online prior to reopening after the March Break, and students began without interruption on Monday, March 23rd. Homeroom teachers meet with their classes regularly throughout the day. Music teachers continue to instruct, hold choir rehearsals, teach theory via posted assignments and Zoom meetings. Students submit work by uploading files, scans or photos. Each student has a personal file where they submit work and each class has general subject folders where the student accesses work. There are chat rooms and message boards for class or school communication, and school assemblies are continuing as well. Last week Claremont had a Scavenger Hunt challenge where the students brought their findings to the online assembly. “We have met with an outpouring of parent gratitude and support,” says Principal Evelyn Reiss. “The students are learning in unexpected ways. Although the younger students in Grade 3 and 4 require parent support to access the internet. Older students seem very comfortable learning online but they miss the personal connection and social aspect of our school.”
Providing learning, support, and social connection
The Academy at SOAR has made a commitment to keeping schedules and routines as consistent as possible. Days begin with a check-in, with instructors meet one-on-one with students. They talk through the transition of taking skills learned at school into the home, work through goals, family communication, and balancing academic schedules in a new setting. Classes are scheduled through Zoom calls, with students also breaking into smaller breakout rooms for more individualized attention. There are daily 45-minute long PE/Health classes, keeping students moving during the day and continuing on health curriculum from the school year. Students have access to optional social events for one hour a day on weekdays and several events on the weekends. Academic support is available to the entire school community 7:30 am EDT to 5:00 pm EDT during the week. There is also access to open Zoom rooms for support over the weekends. The school is keeping open communication with students utilizing google hang out chats. It’s a comprehensive, efficient program, and satisfaction, on the part of parents and students, is understandably high.
A variety of technology platforms and tools keep the students engaged
Administration at Crescent started thinking about pandemic planning as early as January, says David Grant, Dean of Studies. The news coming out of China at that time sparked a discussion around preparedness, one that of course progressed and became more involved in the intervening weeks. Even prior to that, the school already had platforms and tools in place, those being used to augment instruction. When the pandemic broke, staff worked 24/7 to build out the offering, bringing it entirely online, and also to review the policies and procedures. During the school’s March Break, faculty and administrative staff designed the Virtual Learning Program (VLP) and had it ready to launch on March 25, two days after classes would normally have resumed. With three guiding principles – continuity, flexibility and community – Crescent’s VLP combines synchronous learning, independent study, "office hours" for extra help and one-on-one consultations with teachers. A variety of technology platforms and tools keep the students engaged with their curriculum and connected with their peers. Crescent’s VLP is intentionally designed to evolve to reflect the needs of Crescent students, parents and faculty. “As we grow together through this experience, we’ll learn as we go and continue to improve the VLP,” says Dr. Sandra Boyes, Executive Director, Professional Learning & Research and Head of Lower School at Crescent.
In person, and online, it’s all about putting great teachers in front of kids
“There’s so much research that shows you learn better when you do have relationships,” says Anne-Marie Kee, head of school at Lakefield. “The risk to online learning is we don’t know how to do the relationship piece.” That’s a challenge that all schools are facing, though Lakefield had a head start, having joined the Global Online Academy (GOA) a year ago. What might seem like a prescient moment in retrospect, GOA specializes in teaching remotely, and has been developing a suite of best practices in that regard. Many Lakefield students had done courses with GOA prior to the school closure, and had therefore gained a welcome familiarity with the technologies and the concept of learning online.
On the teaching side, one of the things instructors have found, says Kee, is the need to be very intentional about how they're structuring their time together in a virtual classroom. That means a clear, efficient delivery of content, while also being sure that the personal side of learning—those relationships—are maintained as well: that there are moments of warmth, humour, and opportuities to share the experience as well as to share ideas. Says Kee, “what all schools do [is] put great teachers in front of kids. [They] share passions, find enrichment opportunities.” The online offering at Lakefield has been developed—and will continue to grow in the coming weeks—with that awarness very much in mind.
Leading with empathy and understanding, "social distancing from our hearts"
“The most important thing we can do is keep connected,” says Susan Orr-Mongeau, an administrator at The Study in Montreal. “Social distancing from our hearts.” The pivot to online delivery was swift and efficient—classes were moved online in time for the end of the spring break—as led by Amalia Liogas of the school’s IT department. She reports that the IT team has been running non-stop in order to support the instructors.
“Our teachers are on the frontlines right now,” says Liogas, and while the primary goal is to keep them working through the curriculum, an equally important one is to bring some normalcy back to into the students' lives. Instructors have been sharing notes on how best to teach in a virtual setting. Clearly, it’s not the same as in-person instruction, and there’s been a concerted effort to really address that, and to find ways, say, of accommodating some of the things that are lost, such as all the non-verbal cues that are part of a bricks-and-mortar classroom experience. Google Meet has largely become the tool of choice for real-time interactions. Liogas notes that area schools, too, have been sharing notes. “It’s more camaraderie than competition,” which is lovely to hear, to be sure, and may well foster some ongoing partnerships.
A pivot across international borders, and delivery platforms
Neuchâtel Junior College students returned home safely on Sunday, March 15. Online classes started on Monday, March 23. Students are diligently working on second semester courses with many having already received their university offers for September. Mr. Andrew Keleher, Head of School, has been communicating with families and has had positive feedback on the success in terms of keeping students motivated and engaged.
"I virtually visited a few classrooms," says Keleher, "and was singularly impressed with the creativity and energy that was being exhibited by students and staff.” School spirit is being maintained through online assemblies, advisor group meetings and the opportunity to participate in some extra-curricular programs remotely. Having shared the unique European learning experience that NJC offers, alumni are also supporting students with words of encouragement. While students are missing their cohort and Swiss family hosts, they are nevertheless keeping close through online platforms.
Providing instruction and opportunity
At FDT in BC all classes are up and running online. There are more than 30 online classes convening daily through Zoom, and all instructors are keen to work toward a seamless transition. “We are an academy who is adjusting with changing times,” writes Cathy Cena, an administrator at FDT. That includes addressing the needs of the students and the parent community. To that end they are trying to keep all planned events on schedule, offering them online, as well as adding others. “We do not want our students missing out on opportunities.” FDT Academy provides debate, speech and Model UN group and private classes that are open to all. The response from parents and students has been incredibly positive.
Classes, rehearsals, even recess; school finds value in keeping a consistent daily schedule
Murielle Riyasat, an administrator at La Citadelle writes that by 8:40 a.m. on Monday, March 30, 2020, all students were at their posts attending virtual classes through the Google Classroom platform. The schedule is consistent, with 7 periods a day and 3 recesses, and the school day concluding at 3:30 p.m.
“It is a precious sight,” writes Riyasat, “to see the Daycare and Kindergarten students competently interacting with their teachers and doing all types of tasks and activities with their peers online or the Grade 1 or 2 students conducting science experiments or solving math problems in their notebooks online.” Even band rehearsals have been moved online. "We are so proud of our entire community and the way they have embarked on all the children’s classes. It’s quite remarkable to see."
Working online yields some unexpected benefits
Elmwood had a substantial array of online resources already in place, from teacher youtube channels, to Schoology, their proprietary online learning platform. Principal James Whitehouse had developed an online learning platform at his previous school in England, and had been addressing the same needs at Elmwood since he arrived. Thanks to that head start, development of a comprehensive virtual delivery to meet the current context was swift and efficient. Virtual classrooms were launched at the end of the spring break, and feedback from students and parents has been overwhelmingly positive.
In addition to the Schoology and conferencing apps, junior students are using Seesaw, and middle and upper grades making use of Voicethread for submission of videos and audio. It’s not optimal, of course, given the social and conceptual distances. “School was their safe space,” says Whitehouse, speaking to the sense of place students feel on site. However, there are some interesting up sides. “Kids are taking ownership of their learning,” he says, “It’s the first time the students have taken the initiative to tell teachers what works,” as well as areas of improvement. The school is working hard to deliver a complete experience, from course completion, to meaningful engagement with peers and mentors. Says Whitehouse, “humanity is about connection and community,” and that the need for the school to continue to provide those things is urgent.
Making the most of online platforms
Toronto Prep has been conducting online classes since the scheduled return from March Break on Monday the 23rd. Over the two-week March Break faculty and staff formulated and implemented a plan which enabled meaningful instruction and engagement to continue in all classes. Virtual classrooms are hosted on Zoom, with teachers available outside of those sessions for online, one-on-one instrution. The daily schedule has been adjusted to make the most of the virtual platforms, as well as to address their limitations, such as the need for shorter, more direct classroom sessions. Students are also posting queries on Edsby and Google Classroom, and teachers respond there as well. The school noted in a letter to parents that they will be re-evaluating the schedule as they go, making any necessary adjustments to ensure that meaningful instruction is continued and that students are able to continue to meet all course expectations and requirements.
Supporting learners and parents equally
Sherwood Heights effectively moved the whole school to a virtual online platform using a variety of tools. They have been using EDSBY for submitted work, and Zoom conferences to engage students in classroom discussion. “It has been quite the transition but the students have been very receptive,” writes Adam Mustafa. “They’ve been enjoying distance learning.” He notes that there was an initial round of technical support questions as families and teachers transitioned. “Naturally it does take a lot more time out of the day for parents to help their children, especially younger students, but our community has been quite understanding to the fact that these measures are in place due to the crisis situation at hand.”
In order to support them, staff have been calling families to ensure that all students are engaged and active. “We want to strike a balance between keeping busy and not overwhelming the students, as this is also a transition period for them and their families who are all dealing with the circumstances as best they can.”
Maintaining continuity in instruction and assessment
The response at Randolph-Macon Academy was swift, decisive, and effective. As recounted in a brilliant post, when the school closed on March 13, the faculty was given two work days to prep classes in order to begin online the following Wednesday. And, indeed, they made that deadline and then some. Apart from the means of delivery, all else, including assignments, assessments, and schedules, remained effectively unchanged.
“I believe that having a consistent daily structure and online instruction has created some normalcy for both the students and myself,” says teacher Andrew Harriman. Says a parent, “It's not one assignment at the beginning of the week and submit at the end of the week. The teachers are there every day … monitoring progress.” School life and wellness has also been addressed, for example with PE students meeting online to discuss health and wellness and given access to a shared fitness app to provide active workouts. “Connectivity has been extremely beneficial for them,” says Harriman. “I have enjoyed being able to stay connected as well and continue to do what I love: teaching students.” You can read the full blog post, “When Virtual Becomes Vital,” outlining the school’s strategies and approaches, including parent feedback, on the Randolph-Macon Academy website.
Affirming a commitment to helping students grow academically, spiritually, and relationally
In a letter to parents, the school administration made clear their commitment “to provide academic, emotional, and spiritual support as students adjust to their new learning context and transition back home.” When the school and dorms closed, teachers met with the tech department to begin the process of moving instruction online. The school’s Learning Management System became the hub of learning resources, with daily drop-ins with the teachers on Zoom and social media. Chapel has moved online, and many of the local community members that have served as small group leaders are also reaching out via virtual means. The Thankful Thursdays continues through Instagram stories. Per the parent letter, “every day at Briercrest Christian Academy we prioritize growing in faith through Christian Ethics class, chapel, and small group Bible studies. With the move to online learning we have had to get creative to facilitate this growth together."
Finding creative ways of keeping a sense of structure within the instructional day
All classes have been conducted online at TDChristian as of March 24, with lessons and assignments delivered daily via Edsby, the school management platform. Each day begins with an online assembly at 8:50 a.m., which includes a welcome, devotions, fun videos, and announcements. It’s a nice addition to the online offering not only as a means of maintaining a sense of community, but also by lending a structure to the school day. “We are getting better at it as we go along,” writes teacher Tim Buwalda. The online classes hit the ground running, though instructors meet regularly to share best practices. Many classes are videoconferencing through Zoom, with staff members providing tech support, guidance, resource support, and homework help remotely. There is a dedication to ensuring that most aspects of the life of the school continue and to truly make the best of the situation, namely to help students learn and grow through what will be a defining moment of their student experience.
Embracing both the challenges and opportunities of learning online
LCV High School tested their virtual classrooms on March 12 and rolled them out on the 16th, so were well ahead of the curve. The timing coincided with the completion of the second semester, with final projects to submit and cumulative exams to write. Principal Paul Cohee writes that “it was an exhilarating challenge,” one that the students enthusiastically rose to meet. The move to virtual classes, he says, "has taken the entire community to embrace the challenge and the opportunities that emerge through crisis.” The school’s third semester launches in April, and will be completed entirely online. The offering includes learning platforms as well as a variety of school life activities promoting connection, creative engagement, and fun.
Supportng #SocialSolidarity, for students and parents alike
As noted in a mailing this week, within a few hours of launching the distance learning program, in boxes at The Linden School were flooded with emails expressing appreciation for how faculty and staff had managed and rolled out the virtual learning resources. The offering is varied, featuring learning platforms as well as online events including a daily virtual dance party, weekly STEM and athletics challenges, and virtual "Java" sessions with parents. “It's been an unusual but exciting week at Linden!” reads the weekly email to the parent community. It's been a time of challenges and opportunities, and the faculty of The Linden School have clearly embraced all of it.
Recognising that parents, too, welcome support with the transition to learing online
The online offering is rich and varied, with activies, thoughts, and resources distrubuted to the parent community each week via a frankly beautiful email blog. The focus is on care and keeping busy with positive, costructive learning activities. "Today we are leaning into the soothing connection of time spent together, and the promise of brighter days ahead," wrote the school founders Sandra Bosnar-Dale & Isabelle Kunicki the week of March 30.
In addition to providing student activities—they've even sent along links to relaxation exercises—administrators launched a series of Wellness Wednesday Webinars directed specifically at the school's parent population. The one on the first Wednesday in April was with Una Malcolm, a learning specialist and literacy coach addressing practical strategies parents can use to develop literacy skills at home. It's a lovely offering, to be sure, and recognises that parents, too, welcome support as they take on the tasks associated with keeping their children active, engaged, and connected.
Supporting the learner, in academics and life
Classes have been conevening online since March 24. Principal Rosemary Evans addressed students and families noting, rightly, that “our community has a track record for innovation and resilience, persistence, and for caring for one another,” and certainly that's true. Marlene Koch, a social worker with the school, also addressed the school community in a video about being cognizant of the need to continue structure our lives, and maintaining a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and of being heard. The online support that the school has created certainly address of that: connection, structure, and academics. “I think now more than ever,” says Koch, “it’s important for all of us to show compassion to ourselves and compassion to other people.”
Building a comprehesive plan
Kenneth Gordon Maplewood begins online classes today. The staff worked hard over spring break, convening regularly online to develop lessons, approaches, and resources for virtual learning.
Making tea with classmates online via Zoom!
Stability, routine, and expectation are seen as important as curriculum
“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.
Virtual classrooms are up and running
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.
Further, Alicia Della Maestra of Blyth Academy writes that:
We had two things happen:
Blyth Academy Online: To support private and public schools across the province, Blyth Academy has made e-learning resources for over 160 high school courses available to educators at no cost. Currently, over 175 schools are making use of these resources. We continue to work with private and public providers to assist them with their transition to e-learning. This is a resource for other schools to use.
Blyth Academy Brick and Mortar Campuses: Our Blyth Academy brick-and-mortar schools have a robust academic plan in place that delivers our curriculum in a meaningful and engaging way. We are replicating our small-class sizes and individualized approach using live, virtual classrooms: days are structured similar to our regular schedule; our teachers are setting daily goals with their students and hosting office hours; attendance is recorded and made visible to parents through our Edsby platform. Parents are aware of their child(ren)’s schedule and have received regular communication from teachers and the school. I encourage you to follow our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn) to get a glimpse of how these virtual classrooms are working.
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.”
“You may be in isolation," she says "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.
Reaching 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
Establishing 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.
The grade 2s are Zooming!
Developing a hybrid model
Faculty at UCC developed a hybrid model for their distance learning program, combining live online classrooms and independent study. “Primary instruction is more asynchronous,” says Principal Sam McKinney, with students completing assigned tasks on their own with periodic check ins online. “That’s worked extraordinarily well.” In the middle and senior grades there is more online conferencing, something that is appropriate to learning as well as social cohesion. Upper school students participate in virtual assemblies through conferencing and video taped messages. The older boys are also reaching out to the younger ones online in order to give continuity to the mentorship programs.
Given the boarding population, many students have travelled back to their home countries, adding to the sense of isolation from school life. Their excitement about getting back together with their peers, says McKinney, has been profound. Says McKinney, “the strength of the community will provide the ongoing resilience to manage the situation we face.”