How a Handful of Independent Schools Across the Bay Area Have Approached Distance Learning

Education in the age of COVID-19.

  • Category
    Health, People
  • Written by
    Lila Bock and Francesca D’Urzo

The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States ushered in a host of unprecedented challenges and changes that affected Americans in so many ways. School-aged children suddenly found themselves faced with the prospect of an education conducted entirely online. Fortunately, even in the middle of global turmoil, school teachers and administrators came together and worked tirelessly to ensure that students were still receiving a high-quality education. We checked in with local private schools to see how they adapted to new virtual learning models—and what the fall might look like.

Castilleja School graduation ceremony

Castilleja School, Palo Alto

On March 9, ahead of the March 16 Santa Clara County school closures, Castilleja held its first faculty meeting to discuss the possibility of remote learning. Josée Band, Castilleja’s Dean of Curriculum and Innovation, describes three principles that guided the decision-making process when the school was transitioning from the classroom to students’ homes. The first key choice was to “start with sticking to our schedule,” Band says. Online learning for all of Castilleja’s Middle and Upper School students was conducted synchronously through a series of online classes, organized just as it would have been at school. This decision, Band says, was made “to give structure to the day and to the students.”

The main priority, as it always has been at Castilleja, was to maintain strong relationships among Castilleja community members. Band describes how these bonds are an integral part of education, saying, “Learning happens when these connections are strong and when people feel personally invested.” In kind, teachers held daily office hours for students and utilized Zoom’s Breakout Room feature to encourage small group discussions in class. In the face of so much uncertainty, there was an underlying focus on seeking feedback and improving. To help mitigate the effects of disparity in access, Castilleja provided WiFi hotspots, noise-canceling headphones, and access to other tools to families who would feel the extra burden that accompanies remote learning. “We were very deliberate and proactive in providing support to those that needed it,” says Band.

Distance learning at Castilleja was fluid and evolving, and the administration made use of online surveys and check-ins to gather feedback from students, parents, and teachers. Anne Cameron, the Head of Middle School, echoes Band’s comments about the importance of focusing on the whole student. Distance learning at Castilleja extended far beyond the simple act of turning in assignments. Rather, says Cameron, Castilleja was attentive to how students were doing—emotionally and academically. Keeping counselors and teachers engaged in that process helped to foster a community that continued to strive in the classroom and beyond, even in the midst of the most challenging situations. As Cameron puts it, “What works when we’re on site is even more essential when we’re not on site.”

Above photos courtesy of Castilleja School

Menlo School, Atherton

When an employee came into contact with a family member who tested positive for COVID-19, Menlo School was forced to close on March 4, earlier than most other schools in the country. This closure made national headlines and put Menlo in the spotlight at an early stage of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. “The number one priority,” says Maren Jinnet, the Menlo Director of Academic Innovation, “has been and always will be the safety of our entire community. We need that to be in place to continue learning together.”

Menlo School used a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning that was all tied to the original schedule, but allowed students more flexibility in their work and screen time. The key for Menlo was to ensure a digital school experience that maintained both high academic standards and existing relationships. “Menlo is such a relational campus,” Jinnet explains. “All of our learning is centered around student-teacher relationships, student relationships, and student-advocate relationships. It’s a challenge to think about how we preserve those intimate relationships through very real constraints that derive from health and safety.”

It is indeed a challenge—one that the faculty and administration at Menlo have met. Students have taken advantage of programs that Menlo School has always offered, like office hours with teachers and advocacy meetings, where small groups of students are paired with a teacher to chat about whatever is on their mind. These programs have allowed students to continue to engage with the people who make up the Menlo community and extend beyond just their academic tasks. Through all of this, Menlo School has persevered with joy, empathy, and resilience. For Menlo, Jinnet argues, “It’s an opportunity for us to rise… it’s not about what you’re learning in a book, it’s about what the world requires of you.”


The Harker School, San Jose

Jennifer Gargano, the Assistant Head of School; Academic Affairs, describes The Harker School’s approach to distance learning, saying, “We are committed to keeping the experience as consistent for the students—just online.” At Harker, the goal is to provide stability and intellectual stimulation for their students during a time when stability is not always the norm.

Harker’s priorities aligned with other independent schools, and there was a strong focus on continued learning and intellectual engagement. But, Gargano admits, “school is so much more than classes.” Administrators and teachers took a holistic approach to online learning, viewing their roles as essential forces in the lives of students and their families. A key part of Harker distance learning, says Gargano, is “helping families juggle this very difficult time in life.” This thoughtful approach to scheduling continued inside the classroom, where Harker teachers made the best of a difficult situation.

Students at Harker got to work with alumni guest speakers, elected officials, and frontline workers and doctors, who all were able to call into class and bring their conversations to life with real-world connections. Riyaa Randhawa ’22, organized a virtual visit from her cousin, Dr. Akanksha Kumar, working in the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. She says, “Having the opportunity to hear firsthand from a frontline doctor was just too compelling for me to pass on… what she shared with me was so informative and inspiring that I felt a responsibility to bring the same experience to my curious peers.” The resilience and curiosity of Harker students translated beautifully to their new virtual environment, and school continued to be a light in the lives of Harker’s students, despite the inevitable challenges. “In a remote environment, there are a number of things that are natural losses,” Gargano explains. “But here we are. Let’s leverage what we can to make the most of this experience and bring benefits that perhaps we wouldn’t have in our general everyday life.”

Synapse School’s Getty Art Challenge

Synapse School, Menlo Park

With Synapse School’s innovative and flexible approach to teaching and learning already well established, it should come as no surprise that they have had a Director of Distance Learning since last November. When doors closed to the school on March 12, they were devastated—but prepared. Jim Eagen, the Head of School at Synapse, had appointed Isha Jain, a middle school math teacher, to be the Director of Distance Learning at Synapse, citing his anticipation of future fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. “We were primed,” reports Eagen.

Even so, it was still a challenge to maintain the very culture that sets Synapse apart. “Relationships matter most,” says Eagen. “Our school is dedicated to social-emotional learning, first and foremost… it is how we process everything.” Synapse, explains Eagen, is “a highly social learning environment,” almost like a sort of “social experiment.” Fortunately, willingness to adapt quickly and continuously seek feedback led to new ways to strengthen bonds.

Additionally, the online format and abbreviated daily schedule meant that “certain kids could really go deep into certain content,” according to Eagen. And for faculty, the online format meant shorter and more widely attended staff meetings. Teachers were encouraged to explore their subjects in new ways. Innovation Specialist/Visual Arts & Design teacher Macarena Sosnik encouraged students across grades to participate in an art challenge similar to the Getty Art Challenge, where students recreated famous masterworks of art using their imaginations. “At Synapse, we’re looking at distance learning as an opportunity,” concludes Eagen. “There’s no replacing a physical campus experience. But how can this tool [Zoom and other distance learning technologies] be used for the future?”


Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton

At Sacred Heart, students in preschool come together with high school seniors in a space designed to cultivate “a personal and active faith in God and to lay the foundation for a meaningful life” in its students. So when the time came to close doors and transition to online learning, the priority, as described on the Sacred Heart website, was always to “support students emotionally, spiritually, and socially.”

All students were encouraged to check in regularly with their teachers in addition to attending their live online classes, which met less frequently than they would have on campus in order to avoid dreaded Zoom fatigue. Younger students had Morning Meetings with their classes and teachers, and older students had access to office hours with their teachers. As always, learning specialists and school counselors were there to set up meetings to assist students who were struggling, either academically or emotionally.

Sacred Heart students leveraged their school’s support in order to thrive, even in the virtual world. Disappointed at the loss of the inaugural TEDxSacredHeartSchoolsAtherton event, which had been slated for April, a group composed of the technology department, teachers, and high school students hosted a condensed version of the event online. Thanks to their hard work, three seniors were able to present to their peers about issues ranging from the power of social media to the dangers of monocultures. Other students worked closely with the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula to give back to their community. No matter how they chose to engage with one another, students came together to further their learning online.

At press time, Sacred Hearts Schools announced distance learning for all grades this fall.

The Nueva School, Hillsborough

Soon after the March 17 Bay Area school closures, the Nueva administration announced the school’s transition to at-home online learning software, quickly adapted to and accommodating our new reality.

Nueva’s approach began with the assertion that the learning experiences teachers design when school is in regular session cannot be replicated simply through remote learning. In particular, the invaluable social interactions and mediation which occurred naturally among students and between teachers and students isn’t recreated in the same way. Teachers were encouraged to find new methods for providing timely and specific feedback to support student growth and learning.

Nueva deliberately uses the term “remote learning” rather than technology-specific labels such as “virtual learning,” “e-learning,” or “online classes.” This choice reflects their conviction that quality learning can occur at a remote location without solely relying on computers. Rather than being tied to an electronic device for their learning, Nueva’s goal is for students to read, communicate, and engage in authentic learning experiences, while continuing to be physically active.

With an overall mission to “inspire passion for lifelong learning, foster social and emotional acuity, and develop the imaginative mind,” Nueva’s commitment shines through in their approach to distance learning. With this statement in mind, Diane Rosenberg, the Head of School, says that The Nueva School’s main priority throughout is to continue shaping the students “to become engaged global citizens,” which “requires imagination, flexibility, resilience, the ability to get along with others, and a sense of humor” to create the “leaders who will build our future.”


Bellarmine College Preparatory, San Jose

On March 11, a week ahead of the Bay Area’s official school closures, the Bellarmine administration announced the school’s transition to at-home Microsoft Office learning software, with the intention of prioritizing student and staff safety by following the new California health guidelines.

Bellarmine Principal Kristina Luscher describes the transition to online learning as “effective and seamless” as the high school was already in the process of incorporating additional online learning tools and resources for the students. Bellarmine’s main priority when shifting to remote learning has always been to maintain strong student-teacher relationships, as well as to ensure inclusivity among the student body. “We as a Jesuit College Preparatory want to assure that we do not lose focus on the ideal of cura personalis or ‘the care of the whole person’ when shifting to an at-home learning model,” Luscher says. “Our priorities also include maintaining a high level of instruction while being flexible and mindful of our students’ health with everything that is happening in the world.”

Despite losing in-person instruction, Bellarmine’s commitment to ensuring academic rigor and a consistent class structure coupled with a focus on student and staff mental health have allowed for an effective transition online, where young men, per the school’s philosophy, are able to continue receiving a high-quality Jesuit education.

Above: Virtual Passover with Kehillah Jewish High School

Kehillah Jewish High School, Palo Alto

As schools across California braced for the impact of remote learning, Kehillah Jewish High School found its administration and staff, ready, willing, and able to make the shift as seamless as possible. Kehillah Zoom classes quickly took flight and their expert teaching staff and administration were able to not only immediately adapt lesson plans, but also apply their top-notch universal learning techniques virtually, continuing the connection and support of the Kehillah teacher-student relationship.

Along with maintaining a high level of instruction, the Kehillah staff has also prioritized virtually continuing extracurricular activities. The staff raised student morale through Zoom activities, such as Daily Wellness Tips from Counseling and Wellness Director Dr. Leaderman, Trivia Tuesdays with History Teacher Mr. Linden, and Fireside Chats with Dean of Students Dr. Bennett.

Distance learning also allowed the administration to discover new ways to provide daily instruction to the students, as well as incorporate the staff’s more creative ideas for promoting student inclusivity. Whether studying backyard opossums, baking a wedding cake, or delving into neuroscience for women’s studies, the staff was impressed with all the students accomplished and the teachers facilitated from the confines of home.

Families were also encouraged to share their feedback on remote learning to help gauge where improvements need to be made for the upcoming fall semester. As one family wrote, “We are so grateful to the Kehillah faculty. The teaching staff has always been outstanding, and the adaptation to distance learning has been so impressive and critical for our child and family during this difficult time. We are so glad to be part of the Kehillah family.”

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