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Private schools have risen to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, making sure that their students continue to thrive and advance their educations. Boarding school such as Brentwood College School in British Columbia, have been able to modify their practices so that students can stay in a safe bubble.MIKE MINCKLER/PHOTO COURTESY OF BRENTWOOD

This past year has been anything but normal for students. Amid writing essays and studying for exams, students have also been dealing with the uncertainties that come with a global pandemic – in some cases learning from home instead of in a classroom alongside their peers.

But private and independent schools have been making efforts to provide some sense of normalcy to the school year, and many have continued to enhance their focus on student mental health and well-being – and keep up hope through a difficult time.

At St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School (SMLS), for example, the decision was made to have all girls from preschool to Grade 12 go back to school in the fall for full days, five days a week. This was positively received by both students and parents, since it brought the girls as close to ‘normal’ as possible, says Nancy Richards, head of school for SMLS in Oakville.

Since the start of 2021, however, with a provincial lockdown in place, they’ve had to revert to remote learning.

“We’re much better able to manage change from this experience,” Richards says.

“That’s a bit of a silver lining, providing that sense of normalcy and structure for the girls no matter what situation arises. It’s been such a high priority for the school to be sure we can respond to whatever emerges, whether remote learning or adapted in-person learning.”

SMLS school administrators spent the summer redesigning the schedule so students could maintain their course selections, albeit arranged differently to follow public health guidelines.

“We had to hand-timetable all of those girls in Grades 11 and 12 to put them into individual cohorts with a similar pattern of course choices,” Richards says.

Even remotely, they continue with their Monday morning assemblies, as well as clubs and extracurriculars, even if that looks a little different in a virtual world.

“We have to be flexible in how we deliver the program,” Richards says.

“We’ve learned as a staff that we needed to put in more frequent breaks from screen time.”

One of the challenges for private schools, however, is providing added value, like SMLS’s ‘signature’ programs, including the arts, music and co-curricular clubs, as well as its global studies initiatives.

“We’ve had to be very creative to ensure they receive those experiences,” she says.

With its professional internship program, for example, students would usually be set up with work placements according to their passion or pathway. “What we were able to do is set up our program online,” Richards says, “so every girl was able to be accommodated with remote participation in a professional internship program.”

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St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School introduced friendly health and safety signage for its students, who are called Millies. The goal was to keep safety protocols top of mind for students and staff in a fun way so that it did not feel frightening, particularly for the youngest girls. The school called the signage Millies Caring for Millies.IMAGES BY WAKE UP KATE MARKETING

The Toronto-based Mabin School also learned a “tremendous amount” from pivoting to remote learning back in March, says Michelle Barchuk, the school’s director of admissions and communications.

“Some schools have replicated the school day entirely online,” she says. “We’ve made a decision not to do that. We know for our youngest learners, being on a screen [all day] is not optimal. In fact, our kindergarten program up until March was screen-free for that reason – talk about pivot. How do you still stay true to that in a situation where you need to make use of technology?”

It comes down to a sense of play and community – that’s why the school has continued to make the arts and physical education a priority.

“The students have led the way in terms of their resilience and creative thinking, and that has been incredible to witness,” Barchuk says. “Having a routine is important, not only for students but for teachers and our entire team. Maintaining a sense of play and playfulness – that’s always been a priority at the Mabin School and I would argue even more important in the time we’re in.”

Northmount School has dealt with the issue of screen time by condensing its timetable. From junior kindergarten to Grade 8, “we don’t want them on screens all day long,” says Chris Ruch, vice-principal, director of admissions, with Northmount School in North York, Ont.

They decided to keep their regular timetable but condense it into 20-minute periods, starting each day at 8:30 a.m. for online social time with their peers, when students must be dressed and at their screen. Classes are small, from eight to 10 kids.

After social time, the entire school takes part in a virtual assembly, followed by nine periods of condensed classes. There’s plenty of time in the afternoons for homework, and virtual clubs are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays – from chess club to radio-controlled car club. There are also family fitness classes where parents can join in (virtually).

“All of that has been developed with the parent association to make sure we’re on board with what parents want,” Ruch says. While it’s “nowhere close to the same as being face-to-face, we follow quite a routine structure.”

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