How private schools are navigating the pandemic

New approaches are creating new ways for students to thrive
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Over the past couple of years, COVID-19 has upended almost every aspect of life, and the way private schools operate has been no exception. Although the pandemic caused massive disruption, it also sparked creativity and ingenuity. Private schools have developed an array of new ways for students to learn, stay engaged and thrive.

New technology

From video conferencing to peer-to-peer communication tools, private schools have leveraged technology in ways they hadn’t before. “Across grade levels, students practised creating and communicating through blog posts, digital newspapers, and digital art and design,” says Heather Henricks, vice-principal, learning, research and innovation, at St. Clement’s School in Toronto. “Classes embraced digital resources to provide alternate styles of investigation, including virtual labs and simulations.”

Early in the pandemic, many private schools, like Unionville Montessori School (UMS) in Markham, Ont., also adopted hybrid learning models. “We offered students the opportunity to be in-person or brought into the classroom through Zoom and, later, Google Meet,” says UMS elementary principal, Dave Treherne. “Students always remained with their cohort, so if they returned from online to in-person, they were with their peers and friends.”

New reach

All that new technology has allowed private schools to broaden the scope of their education. No longer confined within a classroom’s four walls, pandemic-related virtual learning has opened up the world–literally. “Teachers could extend the classroom to a wide variety of experts and experiences,” Henricks says. “Guest speakers, including many alumni, called in from across Canada and around the world.” Parents and families can likewise “attend” classes or school events when students log in.

Private schools have not only embraced this new global reach, but adopted it as part of their permanent teaching and recruitment models going forward. “We’re now completely set up to invite educators, guest speakers and students from other parts of the country or world into our school,” says Treherne.

New discoveries

The feelings of isolation that were universal when the pandemic began have given way to new opportunities for private-school students to connect. Henricks describes an initiative for her school’s Grade 3 students to become pandemic pen pals with local senior citizens. “Everyone involved became quite enamoured with the project, eagerly awaiting a response to their last piece of correspondence,” she says, citing the project’s educational and psycho-social mutual benefits.

Many private schools also discovered the appeal and unexpected efficacy of finding new locations to hold class, on and off campus. “Teachers were encouraged to take their classes outside and made excellent use of our outdoor spaces and the local neighbourhood,” Henricks says. “Our Grade 12 Latin class recreated the Roman Forum on our roof using chalk.”

At UMS, students and staff found that, despite adversity, comfort, community and success could still be had. “Students managed the experience [of the pandemic] knowing friends would be seen each day, teachers would be consistent throughout the year and day-to-day school life would be as ‘normal’ as possible under the conditions,” Treherne says. “They adapted quickly and performed well.”