Congressional School Blog

COVID Stories: Dan O'Neil on Working Through a Pandemic

Dan O'Neil, Director of Auxiliary Programs talks about managing the auxiliary programs during the pandemic.


For Dan O’Neil, Director of Auxiliary Programs, the pandemic moved to the US much quicker than expected. “I was attending an out-of-state conference in early March and although the conference attendees were elbow bumping instead of shaking hands, there wasn’t much mentioned about the pandemic,” he said. "A week later everything shut down."


Like many, Dan thought the shutdown would only last three weeks. “I was planning Summer Camp and was able to continue interviewing camp staff online,” he said, “then the March 23 Governor’s mandate closed schools for the rest of the academic year. We had to pause everything,” he said, “no hiring, interviewing, or spending.” 


During the shutdown, Dan and his staff took time to regroup and plan a way forward. “There were so many dynamics at play,” he said, like staffing furloughs.” It was very hard. He and his team spent the months of April and May looking at how the summer might come together keeping Camp and school families informed the best that he could. In the end, they refunded all Camp deposits and rebuilt the summer programs from scratch. “We designed Zippy’s Mini Camp, offered Virtual Camps in partnership with vendor programs, and launched the Summer Academy classes,” he said. 


IMG_3980A new tradition of evening walks for the O'Neil family
began during the pandemic lockdown.


How was life working from home for Dan? His wife Kim is Assistant Head of School and Early Childhood and Primary School Director at Congressional School. Their three daughters attend the school as well, so in the spring the whole family was home together. “I’m not normally an anxious person,” he said, “but the unknown of the situation was very difficult. We are lucky in that our girls are great, and we certainly enjoyed spending more family time together. We had lunch together every day and evening walks became a new tradition.  


When the time arrived for Zippy’s Mini Camp to open, Congressional was one of the few independent school camp programs to hold in-person camp. “We had no problem finding the camp counselors. A few opted out of working for fear of the virus, but in the end, we had more than enough counselors to run our program,” he said. Zippy’s Mini Camp enrolled 180 campers for a period of 6-weeks. “The kids were so happy to be together,” said Dan, “any fears we had going into it went away on the first day.” 


With Camp being one of the school’s first programs to open back up, it was a practice run in preparation for opening school and for organizing the Extended Hours Program. “Counselor training was 50/50 virtual and in-person,” he said. “We were nervous at first. My thought initially was not ‘would we get a COVID case, but when’. Then when I saw how much the campers and counselors needed to be together, I knew it was the right thing to do and it was a big confidence boost,” he said. In the end, Camp wrapped up with zero COVID cases!


IMG_3979Dan O'Neil and his daughters were thrilled to participate
in Zippy's Mini Camp last summer. 


After a successful summer, Dan turned his attention to the other Auxiliary programs, such as transportation, Extended Hours Program (EHP), and After School Activities. “We’ve hired more EHP counselors this year due to the grade-level cohorts and there have been some benefits to that model,” he said. “The EHP Counselors are getting to know the kids so much more because they are with them all year in small groups.” 


Another benefit to the way EHP has been organized this year is designating a space for each grade. “The kids really claim their space,” he said. “If I’d told them pre-pandemic that they would have to play on the grass behind the pool, they would have thought I was crazy. Now they love it and it is their own space.” 


Some aspects of the grade-level cohorts have proven challenging though, like the Childcare Days and After School Activities. “It is hard to coordinate these programs because you need enough kids to enroll in each grade to make it work,” said Dan. “Normally, I would run an after-school chess club with a mix of grades and they would all get together and it would work. Now we can only have limited offerings as we need to have enough enrollments to make it work,” he said. 

For Dan, moving the student lunches outside was a silver lining this year. “I’ve grown to know the kids so well from being with them every day at lunch,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that continue in some way.”




Dan O'Neil
Director of Auxiliary Programs
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