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Grade 1/2 students participate in an outdoor math lesson lead by their teacher Laureen Dennis Monday morning, September 13, 2021 at Royal Oak Community School in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. (Tara Walton/The Globe and Mail)Tara Walton/The Globe and Mail

After relying on tech and tablets to teach throughout the pandemic, private schools across Canada are welcoming their students with innovations, facilities upgrades and new curriculum and programs.

“Our students have been through a life-changing experience in the last 18 months, and we need to acknowledge and respect this,” says Julia Murray, head of school at Royal Oak Community School, a small independent elementary school in Niagara- on-the-Lake, Ont.

“We now take 30 minutes at the beginning of the day for ‘social and emotional learning’ — a time for kids to talk about what they see and hear in the news and around them. This sets the scene — it helps develop the critical thinking and emotional maturity they’ll need to learn and to apply their education to the issues we face in the 21st century,” Murray says.

In terms of facilities, the six-year-old school is now negotiating to secure its current site, a former local hospital it rents from the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, as a permanent home.

During the pandemic, the school upgraded the site to make it more COVID safe, installing plexiglass in some areas, insisting on masks and social distancing and encouraging as much learning time as possible to take place outdoors in the town’s picturesque greenspace.

“Getting outdoors is important for kids’ physical health, and they also learn how the natural world works and how nature is part of their community,” Murray says. Royal Oak hopes to augment its programming further by sharing its building with local arts, music and cultural institutions whose work would enrich the students’ programs, including the Shaw Theatre Festival and an Indigenous culture and heritage organization.

“Understanding the role of Indigenous people is a really important part of students’ learning now,” Murray says. Another big focus, shared by other private schools, is climate change and environmental sustainability.

Royal Oak is one of several schools that recently ran professional development programs designed by educators working with Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF), a national not-for-profit educational organization. The programs provide teachers with “toolkits” for integrating teachable moments about the pandemic and climate change into the entire, general curriculum.

Lakefield College School, near Peterborough, Ont., goes even further with an environment-related curriculum, running an entire 160-acre (65-hectare) ecofarm on a separate site called Northcote Campus.

“There’s so much potential to use the farm as an extension of the regular classroom. It was kind of a silver lining of the pandemic to give our school the chance to focus on sustainable growth with outdoor education,” says Allyson Brown, program leader at Lakefield and head of the school’s farm program, called Seed to Table.

The farm was donated to the school in 2007 and, until recently, was used for dedicated outdoor education programs and special events. This summer, Lakefield used Northcote to launch Seed to Table as a whole new arm of its curriculum.

“We use it as a learning farm to teach students how food is grown. They also learn about regenerative farming and also know more about climate change by focusing on solutions rather than doom and gloom. They learn that growing things is one part of the solution to climate change.”

Seed to Table’s curriculum also covers topics such as soil science, food security, farm management, the food business, and the history of food. Brown says the learning experiences from the farm can also apply to virtually all other subject areas in the school, including math, science, geography, history and physical education.

Educators have recognized more than ever since the pandemic began that outdoor learning is not a frill, but something essential to good learning and the well-being of students, says John Wray, head of school at the Mulgrave School in Vancouver. “It’s a matter of balancing what we try to achieve academically with good experiences, and that includes being outside,” says Wray, who oversees a school with 1,050 students from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12.

Mulgrave is trying to use its insights from the pandemic to figure out the best role for using technology to teach, he adds. “All schools have been struggling with technology. One of our key learnings during COVID has been that some students thrive with online learning while others have a lot of difficulty, and that this is not at all related to academic ability,” he explains.

“So we’re running pilot programs to give students the option to learn online and those who want direct contact in class to have this choice. They’re pilot programs because we want to see how everyone manages with two types of learning.”

Private schools that specialize in languages have also had to innovate and adjust programming during the pandemic. “We switched to online quickly, but being at home was challenging for a lot of children,” says Delphine Vieira, French and philosophy teacher at Lycée Louis Pasteur, a French private school in Calgary.

To help elementary schools make the transition back to in-person learning, the school has added a leadership program that has students in different grades mix formally for mentoring and mingling while working on their language skills.

“It’s now part of the curriculum. It creates a space for the students to build personal relationships that were missing and it’s an opportunity for community engagement,” says Vieira, who oversees the program. “The students like it because it’s different, and they can talk with each other.”

Another innovation Mulgrave has brought in is deliberately disruptive, Wray explains.

“We ‘blew up’ our library,” he says. “By this I mean that we actually took the books and spread them on shelves in all our hallways. Now when you walk through the halls at Mulgrave, you see books all over the place.”

It’s a way of reinventing both libraries and learning, Wray says. “We see incredible growth in interest in books among students in all grades. Instead of going to the school library, the school has become the library.”

Looking for more stories about private school education? Get the latest on curriculum trends, financial assistance and the pandemic’s impact here.