Data about the learning loss that students suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic is starting to come in, and the results are startling. Worldwide, studies are showing significant levels of learning loss at all grade levels. A key contributor was the disruption of classroom learning and the introduction of remote teaching.
One exception to the trend is private schools, which had the flexibility to continue in-person classroom learning once lockdown ended, albeit with protective measures in place such as distancing and masking. This week, The North Shore Weekend caught up with private school administrators across the North Shore to get their perspectives on the emotional, mental, and academic health of students.
“I think one of the advantages that independent schools had during the whole pandemic was they are smaller and were able to be really flexible and really nimble,” says Tom Flemma, Head of School at North Shore Country Day School (NSCDS) in Winnetka. “Almost all of them have been open. For us, besides safety being the highest priority, the next highest priority was to maintain and protect as much of our overall program as possible.”
Flemma says the “governing principle” at NSCDS was to keep school open as much as possible at all age levels.
“It still isn’t exactly the same as before, and every change is hard on teachers and students and administrators and parents,” Flemma says. “There have been enough changes to the way that they learn, and the way that their days are structured, that it’s still been hard on lots of people. But academically, the kids are right where they need to be.”
For Alex Sheridan, Director of Enrollment, Marketing, and Financial Aid at Lake Forest Country Day School (LFCDS), navigating the past two years has been a community effort.
“I don’t think anyone is taking the opportunity to be at LFCDS for granted. I think everyone knows the role that the community played in helping guide us through,” Sheridan says. “Every community dealt with the pandemic in its own way, but because the kids were in school, we were fortunate.”
Sheridan says learning loss was not a significant issue for current students, but the school is seeing some challenges with new students coming in—especially those who spent a lengthy time in remote learning situations.
“We recognize the applicant profile looks a little bit different now than it did two years ago and that’s not because of the applicant, it’s because of the circumstances that they’ve been in and been forced to deal with,” he says. “But there’s no specific or articulated plan beyond what we already do, which is to provide a program that’s highly individualized and highly differentiated to begin with.”
Perhaps no school was better positioned to help its students ride out the COVID-19 storm than Fusion Academy in Evanston. Fusion provides individualized learning for students with a 1:1 teacher to student ratio, a model that can be especially effective during times of disruption. For Fusion’s Head of School Chrissy Dale, she’s just as concerned about the mental and emotional health of her students.
“It’s timely because I’ve been meeting with a lot of professionals in the mental health space recently and a lot more collaboration is happening,” Dale says. “The conversation that I had with mental health professionals last week really indicated that the academic piece was a concern, and the gaps should be studied long-term with what they look like,” she says. “What was interesting was not only the social and social emotional piece impacting mental health, but just normal stages of development.”
Dale says she is seeing an influx of new students coming to Fusion in part out of parental concern for their mental and emotional health. Kids have been impacted by hours and hours sitting in a room by themselves trying to learn remotely.
“I think they are coming in because they’re more concerned about the mental health and the social-emotional needs, because that particular challenge is at the top of their list—especially if their child is struggling.,” says Dale. “Anxiety and depression are the two that are presenting the most challenges. I think they’re grateful for Fusion, to have a safe place to land and just a really strong support network of teachers and a lot of individual attention.”
Sacred Heart School in Winnetka will soon conduct its third round of testing of its students since the beginning the pandemic, and Principal Margaret Webb says she has yet to see any drop off in scores.
“Fortunately, Sacred Heart remained face-to-face through the whole height of life of the pandemic and so the learning continued,” Webb says. “We’ve seen normal and good progress in the scores this year, so I’m pleased.”
Webb says she credits the teachers and the smaller environment of the school so the teachers can provide extra time for students. That gives students who may have experienced a drop off in learning the time to catch up. And while some activities had to be suspended for social distancing reasons, she is happy to see a return to normalcy.
“The kids are back into groups learning in an environment where its exploratory and discovery and it feels good,” she says “We just held a big STEM fair where they worked in groups, collaboratively producing a product. Then we had the community come in and walk through and look at the STEM fair products. It was great to be able to show off that nothing had really skipped a beat.”
Tony Frank, Head of School at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in Deerfield, says a priority for the school was to help students feel like they were back to “normal” and to provide an environment that was conducive for that.
“We really want to help students regain that sense of the lost normal. That said, from what we’re reading and learning, we see the lingering effects,” Frank says. “I would broaden that to say it’s not just students; it’s the whole world that’s kind of being reordered—the economy, our politics, and now the international scene.”
And as much as Frank says he wants to see a return to normal, he’s not expecting a mirror of life before the pandemic.
“I think normal is being redefined everywhere and we don’t know what normal looks like anymore,” he says. “That’s very disorienting for the whole species, but certainly plays out in schools.”
Frank adds that often school is the one place where students can feel stability with the social connections they can make and the routines of classroom life.
“It’s very much like when students are struggling at home if there’s a loss or a divorce. The best thing for kids is to keep coming to school because as much normal as we can maintain from here at school, it’s good for students,” Frank says. “Families benefit from schools helping their kids maintain a sense of normal for at least part of the day.”
As with other private schools, Northridge Preparatory School in Niles has the programs in place to help incoming students who have fallen behind get caught up.
“We might find some who are a year behind where they otherwise could have been, but we were able to accommodate that in our schedule,” says Niall Fagan, Headmaster of Northridge Prep. “We’ve done some summer camps and other things to bring students up to speed.”
The issue of integrating new students might be the biggest challenge for schools as more parents look for options that meet the emotional and academic needs of their children.
“We had increased enrollments because of people not wanting their children to learn online, especially with the younger children. It’s one thing to have a high schooler learn online, but it’s another thing to have a kindergartner doing school remotely,” says Kathy Thompson, Assistant Principal at School of St. Mary in Lake Forest. “We had kids apply to school that had been online a year-and-half before they got here, and their skill sets were just not there. It’s like they missed two years of their lives.”
But Thompson says that School of St. Mary and other schools like it are uniquely positioned to help the kids who have fallen behind.
“We’ve remained pretty steady with smaller class sizes, more personal attention, and more emphasis on social-emotional wellness because that’s really important,” Thompson says. “Our hopes are that parents will see there’s another way to educate their children.”