These schools opened — and stayed opened

Many private schools made a commitment early in the pandemic to get students back to class full-time — and they’ve worked extremely hard to keep them there since the Fall of 2020

By Lucy Probert
Posted 9/24/21

When The Pennfield School in Portsmouth recently held an assembly on their front lawn celebrating the 50th anniversary of the start of classes, students and staff, all masked and spread out, were …

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These schools opened — and stayed opened

Many private schools made a commitment early in the pandemic to get students back to class full-time — and they’ve worked extremely hard to keep them there since the Fall of 2020

Posted

When The Pennfield School in Portsmouth recently held an assembly on their front lawn celebrating the 50th anniversary of the start of classes, students and staff, all masked and spread out, were excited.

“This was the first time we had all been together in one place as a school since March 13, 2020,” said Rob Kelley, Pennfield’s head of school. “It was a big deal, but also a long road getting here.”

Despite overwhelming obstacles for both teachers and administrators, Pennfield, along with many other area private schools, remained open and functioning all of last year, which, school heads agree, was well worth the tremendous effort it took to get there.

“We realized early on that teaching students by Zoom was not going to revolutionize education; kids needed direct teacher contact,” said Mr. Kelley. “We had to get our kids back into their classrooms.”

While smaller class sizes and tighter communities put private schools in a better position than public schools to reopen, many of the challenges remain the same.

“We’ve all lived through this shared experience, and I think it has changed our perspective collectively on what’s essential and important,” said Brian Cordeiro, principal at Saint Philomena School in Portsmouth. “Two years ago we were inundated with ways to add technology into the school day and kids’ lives, preparing them for what’s to come in the 21st century. In the past year and a half, we have seen how that emphasis has taken students away from in-person relationship building and healthy mental health functioning. This has made us value educational experiences differently and refocused us.”

Overcoming challenges

When The Wolf School in East Providence shut in the Spring of 2020, there was much concern among faculty and parents about how learning would continue. “We are a special education school,” said Anna Johnson, head of school at Wolf. “Our sixty-plus students have complex learning profiles and require significant occupational, speech and language therapy, so being isolated and on their computers was really hard.”

Remote learning got them through the spring, but during the summer of 2020 Ms. Johnson and her staff had one goal: Opening the school that fall. “We had to rethink and reimagine everything,” she said.  “We knew how important it was to get the kids back in school, and with our small class sizes (8-10 per class) we knew we could space them out and outfit the classrooms properly.”

All of their hard work paid off.

“The year was a challenge, but in the end a success because the kids made progress and stayed consistent in their routines, which was always our main objective.”

While reopening this fall has been for the most part smoother than last year, most schools have kept restrictions fully in place and in some cases, they’ve become even stricter. “We have loosened things in some ways, but in others we are being more conservative,” said Mr. Kelley. “Because the guideline for classroom spacing is now 3 feet apart, instead of 6, and unlike last year, students are moving throughout the school for classes instead of staying in one room, the likelihood of exposure is greater.”

But by being vigilant with measures like mandatory mask wearing indoors, contact tracing and frequent hand washing, those risks of exposure are decreased. 

Praise for the teachers

Most of the praise for successful re-openings last fall goes to the teachers, said Saint Philomena’s Brian Cordeiro. “Not only are they extraordinary educators, they’re also cleaners of desks and navigators of the emotional well-being of children and stressed-out parents.” Understandably hesitant about reopening after the shutdown, faculty members stepped up. “Nobody was trying to pretend that it wasn’t really hard,” said David Tinagero, head of school at St. Andrew’s School in Barrington. “Our staff rose up in ways I don’t think any of us could have anticipated or expected. I’m really grateful and so proud of them. It was just brilliant to see.”

Family partnerships

Close and frequent communication with parents has been more important than ever this past year, said Mr. Cordeiro. “In my role as a school administrator, it became essential that I communicate with parents about why we’re doing what we’re doing and what we needed from them. We have had little to no push back from parents, because they knew from the start what was going on.”

And parents are appreciative and grateful for the effort. “Our parents have been so supportive of our decisions,” said Ms. Johnson of The Wolf School. “They know the difficult choices we make are all done in order to keep the school open for their children.” From ordering food and coffee trucks, to bringing ice cream for the kids, parents have provided constant support in an effort to keep spirits high, and Ms. Johnson is forever thankful.

The value of fresh air

A valuable lesson learned from the past year, most agree, is the importance of unstructured free time, especially being outdoors. Saint Philomena School went from a 40-minute lunch and recess to an hour. “It gives kids that extra time to eat a little slower, play a little longer, be outside and take a break. It’s made a huge difference,” said Mr. Cordeiro. Pennfield’s Rob Kelley said having as many outdoor classes as possible is a big change for them and has added some normalcy to school life. “We all wear our masks inside, but outside they don’t have to and it’s so great just seeing their faces. Kids love being with other kids, and the social piece is really so vital.”

When winter hits, Mr. Kelley said snow days are still a go for his students. “While we are able to go remote in an extreme weather situation, if kids wake up to a day of deep snow, they should be able to enjoy that, and they will.”

After-school sports programs are also getting back to normal. At St. Andrew’s, their athletic programs are up and running this fall, adding excitement to campus life.

“If you walk by the fields at 3 or 4 p.m., there are kids out there playing soccer and lacrosse, which is something we as a school community have really missed,” said Mr. Tinagero.

Vaccines for all

St. Andrew’s, whose population is made up of half day and half boarding students, said their decision to require students, faculty and administrators to be vaccinated this fall has given them more confidence in bringing everyone back to campus.

“We thought of reopening as a layered approach from the start, and putting in place the vaccine mandate at this point was a pretty foundational layer,” Mr. Tinagero said. Masks indoors are still mandatory.

Although their international students were not able to travel to the U.S. last year and studied remotely, they have all been welcomed back to St. Andrew’s this fall.

“We have about 40 students from 15 different countries, and we are so glad to have them back on campus. It just feels amazing,” Mr. Tinagero said.

Private school support group

Many heads of private schools belong to ISARI, the Independent Schools Association of Rhode Island, which they have found to be an invaluable resource.

“We speak basically once a week, and it’s been great,” says Ms. Johnson. “We discuss what’s happening in our schools and the choices we’ve all made. It’s a super supportive group. It’s helpful to know what other schools the same size with the same issues are doing.”

Looking ahead, Ms. Johnson is optimistic. “I think we were hopeful that this year would be different, but with the new variants unfortunately we have more challenges ahead of us,” she said. “We’ll see how things evolve in the next few months, but we’ve been through this, survived and moved past the unknown, and because of that we feel better already.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.