How does a vibrant, thriving all-girls high school cope with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and maintain an environment of success and engagement for its students?
By leveraging an existing crisis plan, adapting with flexibility and — most importantly — keeping the focus on the students, says Rick Piwowarski, Ph.D., President at Resurrection College Prep High School, the largest all-girls school on Chicago’s North Side.
“Our guiding principle is and always has been asking ourselves if what we are doing is in the best interest of the young woman and is it supportive of her total holistic formation,” Piwowarski explains.
Positioned for success
Long before the pandemic began, administrators at Resurrection College Prep had the foresight to develop a crisis plan that allowed the school to switch to remote learning. Early and universal adoption of technology for all students made it relatively easy to switch on this crisis plan, Piwowarski says.
“We knew we were in a great position last spring when we had a one-day turnover to a fully remote model,” he says. With ongoing modifications and the technology for remote learning already in place, Resurrection was able to continue to offer a robust curriculum, delivered in a measured and responsive manner to provide a quality educational experience. “We had in place our best practices and we took our plan and expanded it into a 45-day plan, which served as our reentry that took us to the summer.”
Summer preparation and fall return
While no one could predict the continual change to the guidelines, leadership at Resurrection worked hard over the summer to create a plan for the fall return to school, and send a clear message to students and their families about how it would look.
Though he admits tensions were high and no one knew exactly how the return to classroom learning would go in the fall, Piwowarski says that on the very first day, all the work was worth the effort.
During the current school year, students at Resurrection have been attending school in a hybrid setting. Students are grouped into two cohorts to allow approximately half of the students to participate in class on campus while the other half engage in simultaneous e-learning.
“We were excited to welcome our students but nervous because we had never done this before,” he says. “The minute the girls came in, all the tensions erased. Once we saw them and did our fake in-air high fives, we realized they were resilient.”
As with every other COVID modification, administrators at Resurrection monitored the situation and adjusted for a better outcome. “We built in a lot of flexibility,” said Piwowarski.
Maintaining student activities
During hybrid learning, Resurrection has continued with vital student activities and important school traditions because the mental health of students is a priority for parents, teachers, staff and coaches.
In October, when the school celebrated Spirit Week, online games, activities and a virtual Pep Rally kept everyone engaged. The annual Senior Tailgate took place in the school parking lot so students could participate in an important tradition while still following safety guidelines. In December, the Resurrection Pep Club hosted a variety of holiday activities, including a Gingerbread Decorating Contest, a Christmas movie viewing party, and a holiday food drive.
Clubs have also continued to meet in-person and through Zoom. Members of the Sign Language Club meet after school to practice signing, Drama Club members engage in improv, and girls in the Dance Club learn routines.
The Italian Club hosted online cooking demonstrations, students in the Understanding Disabilities Club learned about autism from a guest speaker, the SCRUBS Club hosted a session on health careers and the Women’s Empowerment Club celebrated Women’s History Month with several engaging activities.
The Theatre Department at Resurrection produced a virtual performance of And Then They Came For Me, a multimedia production which combined tapes of interviews with Anne Frank’s friends who survived the Holocaust with student actors recreating the scenes from their lives.
The school has also offered a variety of worship opportunities, including recorded liturgies and prayer services, prayers by students on social media and retreats for senior students.
A milestone for many Resurrection seniors is attending a Kairos retreat, and the first three-day Kairos retreats took place in February for seniors and one-day retreats are planned for juniors, sophomores and freshmen in the spring.
Athletics are an important part of student life at Resurrection, and though they were limited during the fall, the Resurrection Bandits participated in cross country, golf, tennis and swim. The bowling team and basketball teams had successful winter seasons while social distancing and following the guidelines of the IHSA and student-athletes are looking forward with excitement as volleyball, waterpolo, soccer, softball, lacrosse and track seasons begin this spring.
Through its response over the past 12 months and into the future, Resurrection College Prep High School stands on its success by putting its students first.
After a break for Easter, Resurrection will put into motion a phased re-entry plan with a special focus on the senior class.
“They’ve been hit the hardest and have been with us the longest,” Piwowarski explains. The school will focus on celebrating the accomplishments of the Class of 2021 in the spring, and then welcome its largest freshman class in five years in the fall.
Seeing the positive
Piwowarski tells students at Resurrection that in the long run, their experiences with the pandemic will serve to make them even more resilient adults. “I tell them that it’s easy to get bogged down, but stay on the road and focus on the events that will throw you a curveball. This is not unlike challenges they will face when they graduate and get out into the world.”
He encourages students to take it all in their stride. “Yes, we might be hyper fixated on the pandemic now, but it just shows you that you have to roll with it. Go with the flow. Nothing will be as crazy as this.”
Learn more about Resurrection College Prep High School at reshs.org.