Parents know better than anyone how disruptive the coronavirus pandemic has been — and continues to be — for children. With a goal to do what is safest and most beneficial for all students, Bennett Day School, a PreK-12 independent school in Chicago’s West Town, faculty and administrators met the challenge with a measured, scientific approach.
To prepare for a return to in-person learning, Bennett Day School consulted with a CDC quarantine expert and department of health medical director early on in the pandemic to craft an adaptive and creative model. Because they knew that flexibility is critical in a rapidly evolving situation, they also gathered their team of experts in child development and education to create a plan that meets students’ needs, based on whatever educational format has been required at any given time.
“As an educational community, we have been so focused on what is happening and responding to it and we are empathetic and transparent in demonstrating our commitment, even getting help from experts and partners when we need it,” says Cameron Smith, co-founder and CEO at Bennett Day School, where his own children are students. “Our goal is to not miss a beat for our students’ learning, whether remote or in-person. Through all of this, we work to build an intrinsic love of learning, and that’s what we deliver in the midst of all that is going on.”
Prepared early for success
By developing a careful plan, Bennett Day School is successfully educating students on campus in small cohorts. But faculty members knew they needed to make important adjustments to make this seamless return possible.
Thanks in part to a recently added wing, Bennett Day School has ample space to accommodate students for physically distanced in-person learning, but over the summer, faculty also assessed the school’s HVAC system to ensure that each classroom is ventilated separately, knowing that avoiding recirculated air is especially important to keep safe against a respiratory virus.
They adjusted the calendar, adding a couple of weeks to the academic year to prepare for the possibility of a return to remote learning or adapt to public health requirements beyond their control. They adjusted their scholarship budget to provide support to families that are struggling due to the impacts of COVID-19, and they make it easy for students and their families to make the right decisions about staying home and engaging in remote learning when necessary.
Knowing what matters most
The Bennett Day School faculty took a proactive approach to the ever-present threat of a return to remote learning. To maximize the learning experience no matter the format, an educational team representing Bennett’s Upper School, Intermediate School and Early Childhood gathered with Kate Cicchelli, co-founder, principal and school parent, to create a developmental map to identify milestones in language, executive functioning, social-emotional development, community engagement and other key educational segments to determine how best to lead instruction for remote or in-person learning.
“We shared information into these patterns and clustered competencies to establish which can be best served in-person and which can be served well in remote learning,” explains Cicchelli. “In the center bucket is what can be served in both. What do we need to fluidly go back and forth, if needed?”
From this information, the team built a schedule of instruction that would work well in both formats and established expectations and routines. “We learned a lot during the emergency response about the demands on our families and faculty and how much time can children be on a screen,” she says. “A lot of the things we laid out as foundational from day one have served us incredibly well in this situation that we couldn’t have predicted.”
Open, transparent communication with families drives the efficacy of Bennett’s plan, and everyone in the educational community values each day they are able to work together in person, Cicchelli says.
As a Reggio Emilia-inspired school, Bennett Day School’s project-based educational model has highlighted the innate capabilities and sheer resilience of children who are adapting to rapid change in a largely uncertain world.
“This past year has been like none other, and Bennett Day School was founded in part to be adaptive and creative. As parents and educators, we have to model great behavior for our children,” Smith says.