By George Barnes
Telegram & Gazette Staff
October 5, 2020
WORCESTER - Notre Dame Academy opened for classes just a few days later than normal this fall, as they finalized plans needed to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a big step for the school, but something officials felt comfortable doing. Other than a few technology blips during the first few days, everything has gone pretty well, Head of School Lisa Mancini said. There are many changes at the school this year, but the overall academic offerings the students receive and the mission and traditions are the same.
The private Roman Catholic college preparatory day school serves girls in Grades 7 through 12. Sponsored by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the school welcomes girls of all faiths with an eye toward preparing students for their role as women in the world. With all the challenges, Mancini said the school has seen an increase in enrollment this year, reversing a dip over the past five to 10 years, a trend many schools are experiencing.
Like other private and public schools, the coronavirus pandemic has caused Notre Dame to find new ways of educating its students. Last spring that meant working online with Zoom classes and assignments given to students electronically. This summer it was decided that the school would reopen for in-person classes in the fall.
Mancini said the students now have the option of taking classes in-person or online. She said a large majority of the 197 students at the school have chosen in-person learning. A dozen students have chosen to attend remotely. Each semester they can decide if they want to change to in-person classes, but are offered both options.
Students have reacted positively to the changes, Mancini said.
“I think, honestly, they were so anxious to be back in an environment other than home,” Mancini said. “They were anxious to see their friends, even if it meant wearing a mask sitting apart.”
The students were all issued masks with the school’s logo but also are allowed to wear their own, although neck gaiters are prohibited.
To have enough room to socially distance, the school has repurposed the library as a classroom. The classrooms are set up with a microphone and a video camera. When a class has students who are attending from home, it is videotaped for them. If a student is unable to attend due to health reasons, it is also taped for later viewing.
Other things have changed as well. The dining room is now the student center with seats set apart for safe distancing. Students hang out there studying and socializing. It is still used for dining for some students, although the meals, which are ordered ahead, may also be eaten in classrooms or outside during good weather in various spaces, including a parking lot set up with table seating. The school also converted its dance room to store personal protective equipment and as a place students in the Love and Action community service program can work. The students study dance in the auditorium where there is more room.
Everyone wears a mask. It is mandatory. The hall floors are covered with stickers marking off 6-foot intervals. There are two hand sanitizer stations at the front door that students are expected to use as they enter. Some of the stairways go one direction to ensure proper spacing between students. So far all has gone well. No students have been confirmed with COVID-19, and things are going so well the school has started up its fall sports program, although there is some question whether it will have any opponents to play. It has also reinstituted school clubs and set aside time for students to attend club meetings.
The chemistry lab has not yet reopened, but a $20,000 grant the schools receive from the Office of Naval Research will allow them to set up six fully-equipped lab stations and provide resources needed for a variety of programs.
For the students, the changes have been an opportunity to learn new technology and discover skills they will take with them when they graduate and go to college.
“It was complicated at the start,” said senior Elizabeth Nompleggi, a Worcester student who is planning to attend the College of Holy Cross next year. “But we found new ways to adapt.”
Nompleggi said when the school went online in the spring, she had never used Google Classroom before. It became the school’s standard for holding classes online. The students sometimes met with their teachers for virtual classes and other times they were just given projects they worked on independently.
While attending school online, Nompleggi said she learned to love working on independent studies. It has helped her with time management, and because they were not meeting directly with the teacher, students found they needed to work hard to assert themselves if they did not understand an assignment or needed help.
Over the summer, the school put together three plans for the 2020-21 school year but decided on in-person learning with the option to Zoom in for students who had health concerns or families not yet comfortable with the closer contact with other students.
Principal Susan Butler and Dean of Students Emily Haley worked with Mancini to plan the reopening. Butler said it has so far been successful.
“I’m thrilled,” she said. “We were right up and running.”
School nurse Rosanna Burke said she has been with the school 27 years, but this year offered unique challenges.
“I’m doing my best to make sure they are all safe,” she said. “They are all adapting really well but it was an adjustment in the beginning.”
The students have 80-minute classes, but halfway through the class, they get what is called a mask break. They are allowed to go outside as a group, stay 6 feet apart and remove their masks.
“The mask breaks help give them a chance to take a minute to breathe, to step back in a safe manner,” Burke said. “It is also very important that they are able to see each other and see their faces.”
Burke said it is especially important for the new students.
“It’s difficult to make friends if all you can see is a person’s eyes,” she said.
Even the Music Department has had to adapt to the new world of learning. In the music classroom the students work on music theory, but teacher Kallin Johnson said if they decide to do some singing, they have to go outside.
Mancini said for now the plan is to remain open and give the students the best education possible. If things change and problems with the pandemic return, the school would reconsider and could go back to remote learning.