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Students at Calgary's Rundle College maintain physical distance while engaging in outdoor activities.

Kaitlin Barker

Before students returned to Calgary’s Rundle College on Sept. 1, Jason Rogers, head of school, sat down with his oldest son at the dinner table and drew up a plan using Grade 9 geometry to create outdoor learning spaces. Spray-painted marks on the ground allow students to maintain two metres of physical distancing, so they can safely take off their masks and interact with each other.

“With any constraint comes the opportunity for creativity and innovation,” Mr. Rogers says. “We hadn’t realized how easy it is to use outdoor spaces as an effective low-cost way for teaching, learning and socializing.”

When the COVID-19 outbreak hit Canada in March, private schools such as Rundle College responded by quickly adapting to new ways of teaching and learning. For many that included refocusing on values, emphasizing kindness, patience and wellness in a time that was psychologically challenging for students, parents and staff. At Rundle, ‘staying connected, staying positive and staying learning’ were central.

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Spray-painted marks on the ground help students to maintain two metres of distance.

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The school’s planning started back in mid-February as Mr. Rogers recognized the need to shift to learning-at-home practices and digital technology. With classes from Kindergarten to Grade 12, including students with learning disabilities, the first challenge was how to personalize learning from afar.

“What we did was allow for that diversity to be acknowledged in the delivery of curriculum,” Mr. Rogers says. “We put our teachers in the driver’s seat and let them determine how much synchronous and asynchronous [live online] learning was required, and how they would continue to connect individually with students.”

At Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., principal Innes van Nostrand describes different phases of response to the pandemic, the first being getting their students on overseas trips home safely and then after March break, bringing the faculty back for training to shift to the remote mode. The upside was the school was technologically empowered, with all children working on online platforms, even on a face-to-face teaching model, and equipped with school-issued tablets or laptops.

Plexiglass barriers are installed in classrooms and dining halls.

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“The course material was already on platforms available online, so it was a pretty easy shift,” Mr. van Nostrand says. “The bigger challenge for us was managing our co-curricular programs and enhancing that sense of community and belonging, which is as important as academic delivery. How do we find the right way to reach out to kids who may be struggling in the remote mode? So, part of it was building community with a lot more online events.”

By early April, Appleby was planning for what they might face in the fall. One advantage was being able to confer with peers from outside Canada – other heads of school around the world at different stages of reopening – and learn from them. The result is a highly flexible model for the high school that allows shifting between five modes, ranging from full lockdown to normal operation, according to the parameters of infection rates.

“From day one we’ve talked about three concepts: patience, flexibility and compassion,” says Mr. van Nostrand. “Patience because we’re all dealing with an imperfect way of operating and trying different things, but I’ve been impressed with the degree of goodwill in our community.”

Schools are technologically empowered, with students working on online platforms, equipped with school-issued tablets or laptops.

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Collaboration with other independent schools was also key for St. Margaret’s, a Kindergarten to Grade 12 all-girls school in Victoria. Sharon Klein, head of school, says that as a single school, being able to call on the CAIS (Canadian Accredited Independent Schools) network and their resources was invaluable, especially at the start of the outbreak when people were creating things as needed on the fly.

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“You had the support of all the members across the country,” Ms. Klein says. “This fall, people have less anxiety because they’ve seen it run a little bit when we went back in B.C. for three weeks in June.”

As a small, close-knit community on a nine-hectare (22-acre) campus, Ms. Klein feels privileged to be able to fit all the students into classrooms, compared with public schools that may have to do half days because there are so many students. Having taught in the public system previously, she says the biggest difference is how quickly she can make decisions and make them happen very quickly. Another is having the resources to be able to remain fully connected with students and parents, such as being able to loan out laptops in the spring.

“Our school theme for the year was unity,” Ms. Klein says. “That theme took off throughout the year and the students just embraced it.”

What private schools are doing to keep students safe from COVID-19

Private schools have set up distancing signage and hand sanitizers.

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Private schools follow provincial guidelines and public-health measures but typically go beyond what’s required. That may include signage, Plexiglass barriers in classrooms and dining halls, improved air flow in buildings, extra staff for cleaning plus hiring school nurses and additional counsellors to help with the social and emotional challenges of the pandemic. Besides having hand sanitizers on site, Rundle College switched all of its taps to touchless taps.

Elite schools such as Appleby College have invested in higher end technology, such as big screen TVs with cameras and microphones in classrooms so that remote students can interact in real time.

The spend

Appleby College has invested about $6-million so far, borrowing from the bank, but principal Innes van Nostrand says the final tab depends on how long the pandemic goes on. He points out that about $3.5-million of that includes capital expenditures and technology of about $1.2-million. That includes 12 portable classrooms brought on-site, improved ventilation systems and additional accommodations. The school doubled the size of its health centre by adding separate isolation space for suspected COVID-19 cases. It also boosted its financial aid budget by about $500,000.

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Jason Rogers, head of school, calculates the spend at Rundle College to be between 2 to 4 per cent of their overall annual spending, an amount he says is typical for most private schools in Canada.

Head of school Sharon Klein says the biggest cost at St. Margaret’s has been for more frequent cleaning during the day, which requires additional help. One unexpected saving came from a maintenance staff member, who’s been making Plexiglass shields for the school as needed.

What’s different from public schools?

With an average of 22.5 students in Ontario secondary classes, and up to 30 at the elementary level, physically distancing students is close to impossible in public-school classrooms. Distancing is easier with the smaller class sizes of most private schools.

Additionally, there may not be the budget to update old ventilation systems in public schools or provide state-of-the-art technology to enable students who are learning remotely to stay connected to their home school teachers or classmates.

It’s also easier if everyone is one the same side. Decisions can be quickly acted on and the resources made available. At Appleby, Mr. van Nostrand reports immense goodwill in their community, with families, staff, students and alumni and its board, supporting what the school is doing regarding health and safety.

That’s not necessarily the case in the public system. Amanda Cooper, associate professor of educational policy and leadership at Queen’s University in Kingston, and parent of a second-grade public-school student, is concerned about the growing gap between the government response to COVID-19 for public schools and that of private schools.

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“Ontario public schools already have innovative and collaborative leaders and teachers,” she says. “The issue is that the government has not consulted them to drive the innovative solutions to education during a pandemic. The government failing to provide a safe start to school has catalyzed a myriad of private school solutions where risk mitigations strategies have been maximized. As a result, equity gaps are increasing.”

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