When news reports broke six weeks ago that the coronavirus was spreading in Washington state, Joy Hurd, head of school at Lake Forest Country Day School (LFCDS), plugged into his network of administrators from other private schools in Washington and across the country to mobilize a response. The goal was to be able to make informed decisions about school closures and to determine how to transition to digital learning at his pre-K through 8th grade school if that was going to be necessary.
Schools up and down the North Shore—both private and public—had to act quickly to adapt in order to continue providing quality learning opportunities for students during Governor Pritzker’s Stay at Home order. In addition to e-learning and online tools and resources, some schools are moving toward virtual classrooms that replicate the actual classroom as much as possible. And school administrators find that communicating and educating parents on the process is just as important as getting the students acclimated.
As Illinois was reporting its first cases, Hurd pulled his faculty together on March 11 for an all-day meeting to design what he calls “a preemptive response.” That meeting, held two days before students were heading out for a two-week spring break, proved instrumental in helping the school move all of its learning to a digital environment. Because of the student break, Hurd also had the good fortune of a two-week headstart to update infrastructure and systems to make the shift.
“Before we even moved to remote learning we were able to learn from other schools about how they prepared for remote learning and what they learned from successes and missteps alike during the first few weeks of teaching in that mode,” says Hurd. “Even now I participate in multiple video calls and webinars every week with heads of independent schools in the region and from around the country.”
Hurd notes that international schools in areas prone to natural disasters have been particularly helpful in sharing information because they have already done a lot of thinking and planning about their operations during a campus closure.
LFCDS already had distance learning tools in place for its nearly 400 students. Faculty use Seesaw, a digital distance learning tool that integrates parents into the learning process. The school also has its own robust web portal and, like many organizations and companies, has significantly increased its use of the internet conferencing tool, Zoom.
“Real time connection is the most important and valuable thing. Even before this we knew learning is a social activity,” Hurd says. “How do you build on that? Collaborations are important in building motivation to learn, and human connection is key to the whole thing.”
According to Cindi Di lorio, head of school at Fusion Academy in Lake Forest, you can establish strong human connections online that facilitate quality learning. Fusion offers one-on-one instruction to an unconventional base of students who aren’t well-served by traditional public or private schools.
Fusion’s students include elite athletes who participate in youth travel teams, many of whom have schedules that don’t align with a traditional school calendar. For these students and others, Fusion has an existing technology infrastructure that allows faculty to provide their one-on-one teaching virtually. Since this infrastructure was already in place, Fusion was able to transition to an all-virtual classroom environment with limited effort.
“We just kept on doing what we’re doing, one-on-one, with no changes or drop in quality, aside from a few computer glitches at home.” Di lorio says. “Parents are reaching out to us and we’re telling them to breathe, to relax. We have better attendance than when we were in session.”
One of the unique aspects of Fusion’s learning approach is that while students receive work assignments, they don’t take them home. The campus has a “Homework Cafe” that students use during designated hours to do the work they need on their own to complete classes. Di lorio notes that the school has been able to use technology platforms to take the “Homework Cafe” virtual.
“Kids are still signing in to attend Homework Cafe, and we still have breakout rooms, with between 10 to 40 kids, like we did when they were in session,” says Di lorio. “The kids are still playing games. Everything they were doing at school can be done virtually. There’s a big difference between e-learning and virtual classrooms, and we’re trying to replicate the physical experience of the classroom as best we can.”
While most schools on the North Shore faced similar challenges in transitioning to an e-learning environment, Lake Forest Academy (LFA) started responding to the spread of the virus back in January.
With more than 100 international boarding students, including students from China, Korea, and Vietnam, staff began tracking developments and in February started to formulate a response as events unfolded.
“We had visitors coming to campus in January and we realized this was going to impact us even before there were cases in the United States,” says Assistant Head of School Chris Tennyson. “I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to the Lake County Department of Health who was advising us on what to do.”
Many LFA students participate in school-sponsored trips during spring break—trips scheduled to, among other places, France and Kenya—but those trips were canceled and the campus stayed open for students without alternative plans. It was during the spring break period, which started on March 13, that school administrators decided to transition to online learning. The original plan was to conduct online classes for two weeks, but then the decision was made to extend that through the rest of the year.
Some international students are now in mandated quarantines after returning home and the school is adjusting to offering learning online to students who are in far-flung time zones and have varying degrees of WiFi access.
“Our teachers are doing an amazing job being flexible. We have a great amount of economic diversity and some of our students don’t have access to WiFi full-time,” says Tennyson. “We are using Zoom to conduct some online classes, recording classes and posting them to the cloud, and our faculty are available—holding the equivalent of collegiate office hours.”
Tennyson says the school remains focused on the well-being of students even while they’re away at home with their families. It is holding regular webinars for parents to keep them up to date on events and help families get through this challenging time.
“We noticed a lot of international students were staying up late for class,” Tennyson says. “We told them their wellness is most important. We’re focused on care, curriculum, and community, and how we can use technology to bring people together.”
North Shore Country Day School (NSCDS) has had to tackle the challenge of providing online learning to students from elementary through high school grades. A third grade student learns a lot differently than a high school senior, and Tom Flemma, NSCDS head of school says the school is coordinating closely with parents to make sure younger students are continuing to learn.
“Synchronous learning is replicating the classroom, and smaller kids don’t have the independence to do that on their own,” Flemma says. “They need direction and guidance.”
The school is providing support for parents as they adjust to having their children learn at home and that’s resulted, Flemma says, in parents gaining a better understanding of how their children learn.
“One of the things that’s been very important is giving parents support. We already have a tightknit parent community so a lot of what we’re doing is educating parents about the benefits of online learning and giving them resources,” says Flemma. “We’re helping them understand what good teaching looks like.”
The impact of the pandemic has had a similar impact on North Shore public schools as well. Districts are responding aggressively to school closures and transitioning to the digital environment. All Illinois public school districts are required to submit an e-learning plan to the Illinois State Board of Education. The Wilmette Board of Education approved District 39’s E-Learning Plan on March 16. The plan covers technology needs for students and faculty, how lesson plans will be prepared and delivered, a method to track student attendance, and training for faculty and staff.
New Trier High School in Winnetka has set up a detailed calendar and designated each school day as a Blue, Green, or Gray day to ensure students continue to study all of the subjects they were studying when they were physically at school. The goal is to provide structures and routines that are familiar to teachers and students and to help students plan their daily assignments.
One of the big questions that school officials and other education practitioners have is how the response to the pandemic from schools might change the way secondary education is delivered in the future.
Matthew Pietrafetta is the founder and CEO of Academic Approach, a company that provides students with customized tutoring to help prepare them for the ACT and SAT tests. Just like schools, Academic Approach, which works with individual students and school districts around the country, has shifted all of its tutoring services to the online environment.
“We shut down immediately following the first school closings and are following the same recommendations. We had already been offering remote learning and we totally digitized our curriculum,” Pietrafetta says. “All of our paper tests and books are available for download, and with going to 100 percent online, we’re offering a 25 percent discount so families can stay with us.”
What is really on Pietrafetta’s mind these days, though, are the ramifications of shifting learning completely to the virtual environment. Are we learning lessons that will revolutionize educational systems in the future? Is this a big social experiment?
One of the big challenges for students during this time, Pietrafetta says, is the importance of social and emotional learning, which creates the motivation kids need to learn. It’s hard enough already for kids to get self-motivated to learn at school, but can they stay motivated while trying to learn at home?
“It’s the interest that drives learning, and students are definitely being challenged to be more independent,” says Pietrafetta. “The external motivation for learning has been relaxed so what’s left? Personal choices and decision making.”
Pietrafetta thinks one change this period of time might bring about is keeping school populations lower by cycling students in and out of buildings and shifting a significant portion of routine learning online.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see school the same way,” he says.
Hurd of LFCDS points out that one change could be faculty who were resistant to using elearning in the past becoming more accepting after experiencing it.
“For a long time there were teachers who were lovers of technology and teachers who preferred to be analogue,” he says. “Crises always accelerate change, and once the unknown becomes the known it’ll be interesting to see what carries ahead.”
What Di lorio of Fusion Academy sees on the horizon is students who might just be suffering from a bout of cabin fever.
“I think our students will be socially hungry at the end of this,” she says. “They’ll want to rush back to school.”