Over the last nine months, Covid-19 has left the world in a state of disarray, fear, loss and uncertainty. As every facet of daily life was forced to shut down or adapt in some way, it began to feel as if a return to normalcy would never be possible. How could we ever go back to schools or socialize with our peers safely? At times, it felt like we’d be trapped inside forever. At some point over the last few months, the idea of returning to normalcy became more and more of a fantasy, with the goal now being to make the best of the situation at hand. Ten months into this pandemic, schools that recently reopened are once again being faced with closures. John F. Kennedy Catholic Preparatory School, however, is still working like a well-oiled machine, and has delivered on its mission to keep students in the school environment they so greatly need.
On March 13, Kennedy Catholic held in-person classes for the last time of the 2019-2020 academic year. For the next three months, students completed their coursework in a completely virtual setting. While grades did not slip and measures to maintain academic integrity were implemented, there was clearly a gap between remote and in-person learning.
Paul “P.J.” Wu, a current senior and a member of the Student Council, told me that staying home for so long made him realize the importance of an in-person education. “There are much fewer distractions (in the building) than there are at home and being able to interact with (his) teacher and classmates makes the learning experience more interesting.”
The sentiment is echoed by Susan Willis, chairperson of the English department, who said she “looks forward to the day when all the students will be back in person.”
While three months of virtual learning worked last spring, it was clear Kennedy needed to open its doors to students in September. To successfully reopen, many measures were necessary to ensure the safety of the Kennedy community, as well as the many communities where Kennedy students live. Students travel to Kennedy from 58 districts.
In the last few months, many have argued over whether opening schools is a good idea. At Kennedy, the question wasn’t whether to open or stay remote; it was how to open safely while delivering an authentic educational experience. As soon as the doors closed in March, Father Mark Vaillancourt, the president and principal, with the assistance of Mark Girolamo, a member of the school’s board of directors, enlisted a team of doctors, security advisers, health officials and engineers to ensure that students would be able to safely travel to Somers from those 58 districts and return to school.
Girolamo, class of ’71, spearheaded the re-entry effort, saying that to reopen successfully they needed “to reverse engineer a student’s day at Kennedy…to make this a productive year.” By understanding each facet of a student’s day, the elements can be adapted to maximize safety and health.
Father Vaillancourt shared details about how the committee went about adapting the school through changes to the building. Screens are present all across the library dividing chairs and tables, some desks have been taken out of classrooms to replace cafeteria tables in the lunchrooms for social distancing, and signs directing traffic flow can be found at every turn. Attendants in masks and gloves now serve food through a window in packages. A new HVAC system is working constantly to purify the building’s air, and the cleaning team is working rigorously and constantly to sanitize the building.
In the event of a Covid-19 scare, rooms have been sectioned off to serve as dedicated quarantine zones. Anyone who enters the building is screened daily for symptoms, contact and fever. The entire building has been altered to combat Covid-19, while also suiting the needs and comforts of the students and teachers. While the school has been rewired to combat the virus from a technical standpoint, the human element has been vital to maintaining a safe environment and staying open.
It is important to get the support and compliance of the school’s nearly 700 students for any large-scale initiative to be tackled. Any plan laid out by the re-entry committee may work on paper, but for it to be effective those within the building must follow along.
Tom Foltin, Kennedy’s head of security and a member of the re-entry team, said that security “has not had to enforce many Covid restriction infractions at all” and that “the general feeling at Kennedy is to help one another, so when we put restrictions in place to protect everyone, the students stepped right up and took care of it.”
The alterations made to the building and the commitment of the community have been key components of the continued success of Kennedy’s reopening, however much can also be said about the staggered scheduling system that has been adopted. The “cohort” system breaks the student body into two even collectives, the Sister Christopher and Sister Barbara cohorts, and the members of each come to the building for five days at a time. This system has allowed for students to have a structured school week that involves a consistent in-person schedule. In the event that a student or teacher tests positive for Covid-19, only students in that cohort will potentially be affected, and the other half will be able to resume normal in-person activities the following week.
When one cohort is in the building, the members of the other are virtually present in class through the use of Canvas conferencing and Zoom meetings. Classes can continue at a typical pace without having to reteach students who are off campus for a week. Father Vaillancourt said “all curriculum goals are being met,” including for the significant portion of the student population in China. Virtual learning has allowed these students to continue to participate in class and still be active members of the Kennedy community while they await the opportunity to return to the United States.
Thus far, Kennedy is yet to have a significant Covid-19 scare. This level of success—and continued safety going forward—is a testament to the hard work being done to maintain a top tier education accompanied by an authentic experience.
Joshua Baker, a member of John F. Kennedy Catholic Preparatory School Class of 2020, now attends Northeastern University in Boston.