Kim O'Neil, Assistant Head of School & Director of Early Childhood and Primary School discusses planning for lockdown and in-person learning during the pandemic.
“I never thought a lockdown would happen,” laughed Mrs. O’Neil. “I thought, ’it won’t happen here,” she said. Then, on January 26 she got a text from Head of School, Dr. Gordon, requesting an action plan. “I thought, OK, but we won’t need it,” she said.
In the weeks that followed, a great deal of planning took place. Mrs. O’Neil met with teachers and purchased supplies for packets to be sent home. “I didn’t want to be wasteful in the event we didn’t close, but I went ahead and bought everything we needed thinking we could return it if necessary,” she said.
The school did end up closing on March 13 - a week earlier than anticipated, and Mrs. O’Neil with a group of teachers and staff held a last minute “packing party” to get the supply kits ready and sent home with the students that afternoon. “We had started preparing in advance,” she said. We had a Professional Day on March 9 and flipped our original agenda to work on remote learning plans and technology training.”
Once in lockdown, infants - grade 2 had asynchronous learning until spring break. “When the governor closed schools for the rest of the year, we realized that we needed to quickly shift our plans,” she said. “We added live morning meetings, teacher recorded lessons, live specials classes and ordered Chromebooks for grade 2. A small group of teachers and administrators met at school one morning and set out to deliver the Chromebooks to the 2nd grade students’ homes.”
Kim O'Neil welcomes students back on the first day of school.
Working from home was not a relaxing experience for Mrs. O’Neil. “I was crazy busy,” she said. “As a family, we made sure we had meals together, and started going on evening walks,” but overall working from home during a pandemic was not a fond memory. Work was busier than ever and my coveted nights and weekends with the family became filled with work calls, emails and meetings” she confessed.
She worked remotely until May of 2020, then returned in person to help prepare the buildings for the opening of the Infant and Toddler program on June 1. “Coming in to work made me feel normal again,” she said. “I wanted to come back and wasn’t worried about my health. We had lots of face masks and hand sanitizer. I was more worried about the school and about saving jobs,” she said.
After the opening of the Infants and Toddlers program, the summer camp opened, although on a much smaller scale than in previous years. “It was great to see my own kids in camp,” she said. “Being around other kids was great for their social-emotional wellbeing and our family dinner conversations became much more lively, filled with stories about their day and the fun things they did.”
What was the hardest part of getting ready to open again? “Putting together the playbook of how we would do it,” Mrs. O’Neil said without hesitation. “Early on, we didn’t have the expertise of Dr. Krauss, our Health Expert to lean on.”(Dr. Krauss joined the team as a consultant in July 2020). “We had to do all the research and contact all the health agencies ourselves,” she said. “We put a lot in place to keep the kids and staff safe. The playbook became the jumping off point for both camp and school opening later that year.”
When school reopened, bimodal learning was offered as an option for students in kindergarten-grade 8 who were unable to learn in-person. It was also one of the toughest parts of the school year, especially for teachers who were having to develop dual lesson plans for those in person and those at home. “Supporting my teachers through bimodal learning was hard. It added so many extra layers for the teachers,” she said.
Kim (center) and other staff members deliver a pizza lunch
to students on superhero dress up day.
When the school year began, a phased-in start was determined to be the safest approach to help teachers and students acclimate to all the new COVID-related protocols. Mrs. O’Neil decided the best people to plan the schedule were the teachers.”We tasked teachers with coming up with a phase-in schedule that worked for them,” she said. They were the ones who would be living it, so they were the best ones to create it,” she said.
Although the year has come with many challenges, looking back, what has been the best part of the year? “Opening infants and toddlers on June 1 was the best part,” said Mrs. O’Neil. “I remember one of my Early Childhood teachers told me that she had shared with a student that when they arrived on campus, for their first day, they would get their temperature checked and then be whisked away to the classroom by a superhero,” she said. “That’s where we got this year’s theme. I thought that was great, and ran with it. We dressed up in pandemic-style superhero costumes to welcome the families back, and it was great. The kiddos weren’t scared and actually got excited to see us in our capes and masks each day!”
The pandemic has affected people in different ways on a personal level. For Mrs. O’Neil, saying goodbye to her grandmother who passed away during the pandemic, (not from COVID), was tough. “Because of the pandemic, I had to say goodbye to her by video,” she said. “After 90+ years on earth, no one should have to spend their last days alone without family and friends by their side. This is just one of the many difficult things we’ve had to deal with because of this situation.”
Assistant Head of School, Director of Early Childhood and Primary School