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OLA School's long road to a new normal

by Peter Weinberger | pweinberger@claremont-courier.com

The day at Our Lady of the Assumption School started like any other. Parents waited in line to drop of their kids, all bundled up with backpacks and school supplies in hand. However, February 8 was clearly different because it marked the school’s first official day open since the pandemic began in March 2020. The day was the result of months of planning and preparation to establish a safe and secure environment for a return to in-school learning.

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What makes the school’s system unique is the absence of a one-size-fits-all philosophy. During the planning phase, parents were asked whether they preferred in-home or in-school teaching for their children. Just over 60 percent (64 students) ended up returning to school, but that didn’t mean in-home students would be left behind.

Principal Bernadette Boyle explained how they prepared. “The teachers collaborated extensively in each grade and between grades on their daily schedules and on content. Curriculum was established, with resources, books and materials in all subjects that allow the teachers to follow standards.”

On OLA’s first day back, it was easy to see the excitement from both students and teachers as some had not connected with school friends in months. In the classroom, desks were surrounded by plastic windows, with students spaced six feet apart. If anything, the arrangement helped students stay focused in their small, handmade cubbies. But what was most impressive was how OLA used technology to connect the students regardless of location.

Ms. Boyle explained how it all works. “In all grades, we are providing distance and in-person [learning] simultaneously. We’ve purchased extra equipment and furniture with the teachers using multiple screens and devices for instruction (laptops, monitors, iPads, document cameras). It’s quite a sophisticated operation through Zoom that allows them to monitor engagement switching between themselves, the students and presentations.”

This structure allows teachers to provide instruction to multiple classes and in-home students simultaneously. “Right now in first grade where we have two classes, we chose to team teach; while one leads the instruction, the others support each other by engaging in-person and distance students. One focuses on math, the other on English Language Arts, which is modeled on how we successfully taught kindergarten for many years,” said Ms. Boyle.

Another key component in keeping everyone as safe as possible was avoiding doing too much at one time. School ends at noon, no meals or lunch are served, yet students get plenty of water and bathroom breaks, all in an effort to minimize close contact. After the students return home, online-only classes begin again at 1:15 p.m., as the teachers resume teaching small groups for all students.

OLA instructors have also collaborated with other Catholic school teachers from Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Diego counties. As a result, they have received sound advice on how to organize and adjust schedules to best fit student needs. OLA also adopted familiar learning management systems such as Canvas and Seesaw to stabilize the ways teachers and students interact.

Of course, much of the process is expensive, especially since all students need an iPad or laptop to participate, in addition to modifying classrooms to incorporate all the technology.

In the end, Ms. Boyle has “enormous gratitude to the teachers and staff at OLA, who have been so responsive and continued to work together closely throughout the pandemic.”

Most of us agree that when to retrun to the classroom has been a hot-button issue. Opinions vary greatly. A current COURIER poll of 358 respondents was split evenly between whether to return to school or wait until health officials approve opening again. The good news is that L.A. County is making solid progress in lowering new case numbers.

Whether you agree or disagree that it’s time to bring students back—with adequate limits and restrictions—OLA is prepared for the opening of school.

COMING NEXT WEEK

Like CUSD, Webb Schools is waiting for new guidelines from L.A. County before opening.

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