One Catholic School’s Story of Preparedness for 2020-21

September 10, 2020

Reopening schools during COVID-19 has challenged the most capable administrators to adapt and innovate in ways never before required. Leaders at Our Lady of the Assumption School (Lynnfield, MA) spent the summer reading state and DESE directives and conferring with Archdiocese of Boston personnel and fellow school administrators. They also redesigned the school day from start to finish.

A traditional back-to-school family photo during an extraordinarily challenging year. Our Lady of the Assumption School (Lynnfield, MA) offers in-person, remote and hybrid learning.

“In making our plans and preparing the school, we had two primary goals. The first was to follow the public health and safety measures provided by the state. The well-being of the students and staff was our highest priority,” said Cindy Donovan, Principal. “The second goal was to energize, educate and guide our kids on a daily basis despite the new rules and ways of learning that would likely restrict how they moved through their day.”

The school’s Reopening Plan focuses squarely on safety, including processes for arriving and dismissing, mask and social distancing requirements and wellness checks. It also guides families through in-person, remote and hybrid learning options.

Leaders and Teachers Embracing the Community

Both Donovan and the school’s Board Chair, Len Morrison, are eager to mention the team approach required for the successful September 2 opening. They point to the dedicated involvement of Will Bachner, Vice Principal, and Amy Rogovich, Administrative Assistant, along with the faculty and custodial staff and the full support of the pastor. “We have called on all community members to set good examples for one another and to work together in order to achieve our goals for the students under these difficult circumstances,” Donovan said. 

The school’s new Board of Specified Jurisdiction launched during the pandemic and met virtually during the spring to understand the most pressing needs of the school, to encourage and support the Principal and to initiate fundraising and marketing efforts in response to the economic uncertainties. According to Morrison, “While school leadership planned for in-class instruction, on-line instruction and hybrid learning, the Board was, and remains, focused on providing the necessary resources and accountability to support the Principal. We were conscious of not further burdening the Principal whose job had become immensely more complicated.”

“The synergy between Principal and Board Chair has become crucial for Catholic institutions that have been shaken to the core in 2020. We’re excited to see Catholic elementary schools benefitting from empowered, sophisticated Boards of Specified Jurisdiction. It’s like they decided to build their house out of brick, and it’s paying off.” – Christine L. Healey, President, Healey Education Foundation

Morrison likens his approach as Board Chair to that of a facilitator whose focus is primarily people and process. “If I can engage talented individuals from within our community, who are equally passionate about OLA and Catholic education, into service on its behalf, we’ll achieve great results. We are blessed to have many talented professionals among our ‘friends and family’ who bring a variety of expertise.”

The committee structure within the Board allows these self-directed individuals who share a common purpose to thrive. Morrison focuses on the process by creating conditions for Board and committee members to be productive. This includes preparing thoughtful agendas, encouraging participation in discussions, acknowledging contributions and keeping other members informed.

The Families’ Voices

The school’s approach to reopening began with a survey of its parent community to gauge needs and concerns.

“Overwhelmingly, our parents wanted the opportunity to return their children to in-person schooling,” said Cindy Donovan, Principal. “Once the state set initial guidelines for reopening schools, we set about to do everything in our power to make that happen.” OLA also announced a 1:1 Chromebook program for students in grades 4 through 8.

OLA leadership worked in partnership with the parent-teacher organization and parent development team to raise money and supply the school with everything it needs to protect the safety of students by minimizing the risk of COVID-19 infection. Teachers maintain open lines of communication with parents in order to quickly and effectively address their needs and concerns whether a child is an in-person or remote learner.

Enrollment Growth

The new Director of Advancement and Enrollment, Jackie Brennan, joined OLA in mid-February. In March, school leaders were concerned that the economic downturn would hurt enrollment for the fall and that requests for financial aid among returning students would exceed budget. But as local public schools announced delayed start dates with limited in-class instruction, parents sought alternatives. OLA was prepared to respond to this increased level of interest with an impactful web presence and message that appealed to prospective families.

OLA has experienced an unprecedented 10% increase in enrollment over forecast, including 83 new students – most from public schools. In addition, the school has a waitlist of over 100 students.

OLA had rather seamlessly transitioned to online instruction in mid-March, well before area schools. The school then invested heavily in health/safety, process improvements, technology and teacher training during the summer months. Virtual tours, meetings and coffee chats with current parents provided opportunities to answer questions. The school’s level of preparedness was in stark contrast to many area public schools, and word got out quickly that OLA was well positioned.

Phyllis West, the Board’s Enrollment Chair, is a former school parent who stays connected and gives back beyond the days when she served on PTO and as Athletic Director.

“I’ve always believed that parents are our greatest asset for PR. I think of my own experience as a former school parent, when this community supported my children’s development and education. This was and is a place of joy for my family.” – Phyllis West, Enrollment Chair 

As one of its earliest undertakings, the Enrollment Committee organized a Facebook video campaign featuring testimonials from parents and alumni. Committee member Victoria Ronningen proposed the idea and also recorded and edited the first testimonial from current parents about OLA’s preparedness. 

Development During a Pandemic

In April and May, OLA launched two urgent appeals to current parents, grandparents and alumni to fund financial aid and PPE. These appeals attracted 125 donors and $21,000. In addition, OLA applied for, and received, two grants from the Catholic Schools Foundation to fund financial aid. Many individuals contributed their time and professional expertise to help OLA secure needed supplies and technology.

Plans are underway to launch an Annual Fund appeal in October. The school enjoys enormous goodwill for its educational outcomes and its Catholic identity. With faculty and staff who are highly valued and respected, OLA has every reason to be optimistic for the new school year.

Primed for Adaptability

OLA has planned for several scenarios, including the possibility of a student or faculty member displaying COVID-19 symptoms and the possibility of a student or faculty member testing positive for the virus. Parents have been asked to monitor their children daily and to refrain from sending them to school if they have COVID-19 related symptoms.

The school also has redesigned its nursing offices to include a larger space to receive and treat unwell students and staff and a comfort space for those deemed sufficiently unwell that sending them home may become necessary. Should a student or faculty member demonstrate certain symptoms, they will be asked to be tested and may not return to school until they have either tested negative or voluntarily self-quarantined for fourteen days.

Should any student or faculty member test positive for COVID-19, OLA will immediately institute a fully remote learning program for all students for no fewer than ten school days. While this measure is not required by the state, the school has adopted it out of an abundance of caution.

OLA’s successful remote learning program in the spring positions the school for success. “Within days of our initial closure in March, our students were attending a regular schedule of Zoom classes, which engaged them throughout the morning and early afternoon,” Donovan said. “Our performance during those exceedingly difficult early days built a high level of trust and confidence among all our community members. Should we face another mandatory extended closure, our teachers and students will immediately be prepared to engage in meaningful and productive online learning.”