The biggest challenge, and change, was communication with the parents.
While returning to school in-person is a change for public school students this fall, many private schools have experiences that can show what can work. Though single schools also had the flexibility a large school system would never have.
Norwood-Fontbonne Academy in Chestnut Hill closed in March 2019, but reopened for the 2020-2021 academic year. It’s a small school, with an average class size that can be half that of an equivalent public class.
“It was very exciting to be on campus and in-person,” said Shannon Craige, Director of Curriculum and Innovation. “Many of us realized how lucky we were to be able to do that, with our unique spaces.” But they stayed cautious.
“We had to streamline our structures, streamline our experiences so they could be adaptable.” The biggest challenge, and change, was communication with the parents. “The way we communicated with families, since they were true partners in the learning experience with us as teachers. So that was a big thing I think we will carry forward.”
They also had the advantage of seven buildings – two main buildings; the main house, used for art and extra space; and a series of small outer buildings used for kindergarten, Montessori, and aftercare. This meant they had additional entrances and paths to keep social distancing between class levels.
“The other really exciting thing is we were able to expand our opportunities for outdoor learning.” They took advantage of their thirteen-acre campus, adding seating for outside lessons.
They also brought their school counselor on full time; prior to this, the counsellor had been only a few hours a week. In addition to support, she taught a new series of “social and emotional learning” classes.
The school was started by the nuns of St. Joseph, originally as Norwood Campus, a boys school at 8891 Germantown Avenue, and Fontbonne, a girls campus on Sunset, a short distance around the corner.
The early part of the pandemic, at the end of the 2019 year, was as difficult as at any school that year: The graduation ceremony was drive-by and online, without the usual photos and last moments with classmates. Being back on campus still had restrictions and postponements.
Craige: “We’re keeping protocols in place from last year that we saw working well, but we also hope to have a few changes to bring some ease to our whole community – teachers, students, parents – because I think our real struggle was we were not allowed to have visitors on campus.”
Another change in the past year was the shortage of school bus service, which led to an flux of nearby students walking or biking to campus. “It was really exciting to see kids physically active before and after school,” said Craige. Those who did have to ride the bus had longer rides, as a driver shortage meant the bus company had to do multiple runs in the mornings. This meant the school had to start receiving students up to 40 minutes earlier than normal to accommodate all the trips. And some students had to wait up to 40 minutes for the rest of the day to begin.
The new year starts September 8.
Some things were postponed. 2020 was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the school, but the commemoration was rescheduled to September 26 of this year, with a fundraiser set for October 2. “We found ourselves often reflecting on that during such a unique one.”