When the Covid-19 pandemic forced schools to shutter their doors, students’ lives were turned upside down as events, field trips and other in-person activities were suddenly cancelled. Independent schools hunkered down to figure out how to finish the current year as seamlessly as possible in a time of great uncertainty. “We established a global network of educators to learn from schools that were one to three months ahead of us here in Toronto,” says Garth Nichols, Havergal College’s vice principal of strategic innovation and design. “This was vital to help us understand the wellbeing needs of students, families and faculty.”
As early as January, some schools were drafting Covid-19 outbreak contingency plans. “We laid the foundation for what we believed was inevitable—the unprecedented step of moving into emergency remote mode,” says Crescent School headmaster Michael Fellin.
Before March Break was over, independent schools including Havergal and Crescent had remote and online learning plans ready to go. In the first few weeks, slower-paced learning without real-time interaction was emphasized. This gave students time to adjust to their new reality without being overwhelmed. Synchronous real-time learning that connected students with their teachers and each other was gradually integrated via teleconferencing software, including Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Soon, a stable routine was established: regular classes were held in the morning, with students doing homework assignments on their own in the afternoons. “We engaged parents through webinars and invited them to whole-school assemblies—something that was not possible with previous face-to-face experiences,” says Nichols.
At the end of the semester, as graduation ceremonies were held virtually or postponed indefinitely, independent schools celebrated a successfully completed school year. They had overcome one daunting challenge but now faced another: how to safely reopen in the fall with the possibility of a second wave looming?
Over the summer, the Ontario Ministry of Education released guidelines for the 2020-21 school year. Using those safety protocols as well as best practices acquired in the spring, school staffers were busy at work to ensure they were ready for the start of the new school year in September. “Our goal was to not only open our school safely, but to do everything possible to remain open throughout the year,” says Fellin.
Now, schools like St. Michael’s have installed hand sanitizer stations, state-of-the-art ventilation systems and signage to reduce congestion in hallways and stairwells. To further minimize contact, schools like Upper Canada College and Crescent are either limiting the number of students in dining rooms or delivering pre-packaged lunches to be eaten in classrooms. Some schools have even relaxed their dress code, exchanging ties and blazers for more easily washable casual uniforms.
To help keep students safe, all on-campus visitors, including parents, are prohibited. Crescent provides a self-screening assessment app to identify symptoms. And boarding schools like Appleby College quarantined international boarders for 14 days before the start of the year.
Cameras and microphones have been placed in classrooms to ensure that older students, who will alternate between attending class in-person and virtually, remain engaged.
This blended approach offers a combination of solitary learning and team-based projects. Nichols and Fellin both believe flexibility is crucial, especially if schools need to go back to full-time remote learning in the event of a second wave. “We also know that despite our efforts, there are some families who are not comfortable returning to campus,” says Fellin. “For these individuals, a high-quality online educational program is available.”
While schools are excited for the challenges of the new semester, they’re also aware that the hard work is nowhere near done, especially if the pandemic re-escalates. Students’ well-being was at the forefront of schools’ planning. Medical staff were bolstered by full-time school nurses, and counsellors and social workers have been available to students for Zoom sessions and phone calls throughout this difficult year.
“We recognize that it may be quite some time before we get to a new normal,” says Fellin. “So we need to continue to be adaptable and creative to find ways to best support our students.”