“It all started when we began to accept that things were not going to proceed as normal and when that seemingly remote possibility – that we would be ramping up a distance learning program from scratch – suddenly became a real possibility,” Head of School, Wendy Calise, at Countryside Day School said this week.

Here is her story and the story of how Countryside Day School is navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis:

The early days of this unprecedented episode were filled with emails and phone calls and press conferences. Our administrative team functioned incredibly well. We shared the responsibility of constantly checking websites like the Center for Disease Control, the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Cook County Department of Public Health, and the Illinois State Board of Education, just to name a few. We also kept up with all the emails and webinars that came to us from our independent school resources, like the National Association of Independent Schools and the Independent Schools Association of the Central States. If you are tired from just reading the names, you have a taste of what we were inundated with in the first days of the crisis. The phrase drinking from a fire hose had never been more meaningful to me.

The first question that kept us all up at night was if we should close or stay open. Early on, during a phone call with the school liaison from the CCDPH, the message was loud and clear: schools should stay open unless they have a confirmed case of COVID-19 in their immediate community. At the same time, schools in soon-to-be hot spots were already closing down – for weeks. What to do? What was safe? What constituted panic? It was as clear as a muddy puddle.

But we were already off and running, on to the next crisis: if we did have to close, how could we provide continuity of learning from a distance? My basic premise was if we were going to offer anything, it was going to have to have the same level of professionalism and integrity that our in-school programs offered to our students and families.

At our Wednesday staff meeting, our core faculty and administrative team hunkered down and started brainstorming. We were about to start living Countryside’s mission of helping children develop the qualities of Respect, Responsibility and Resourcefulness in a whole new way. Our youngest children at the school are sixteen months old. What could we possibly provide them? It didn’t take us long, thanks to an incredibly dedicated and wise faculty, to move beyond “We can’t,” to “Yes, we will.” Ideas started flying across the table fast and furious.

I quietly let out a breath of relief. Our teachers were handling themselves as they always did: with grace, fortitude and resourcefulness. I was a lucky leader. I was working with an incredibly smart and nimble group of people who were completely invested in serving their community at CDS. I was not alone. We would navigate our way through as a team. I was finally feeling some steadiness.

Then it got real. Cases in Illinois. School closures in Illinois. Deaths in Illinois. I had just sent an email days earlier indicating we would stay open. Nevertheless, it was time to change course. Countryside would be closed from March 15 to March 27. I leaned in to craft yet another email: “Dear Parents…”

Closing for two weeks seemed at the time like an unbelievably long stretch. I often sat back in my desk chair and thought enviably of all the larger schools with greater bandwidth and more numerable resources. How would we manage this all with a staff of thirty? I was anxious yet again.

Precious little time to dwell on that, however, because it was time to get teachers up and running on Google Classroom and Zoom. Thursday turned to Friday, and we were on our final day of school: a half day with students and the miraculous good fortune of an in-service half-day that afternoon.

At noon pickup, I decided that I needed to be outside saying hello and good-bye to students and parents that I would see again, no one knew when. And I am sure happy that I did so. I had no idea yet how long of a time away this would become. I think back often to those fast, staccato communications: “Take care.” “Stay safe.” “Be well.” “Thank you for all of your emails.” Parents were incredibly supportive. Another thing to be grateful for: our parents, what an incredible part of our community as well. Again, I realized, I am not alone. These people want to see us succeed.

The administrative team spent our afternoon Friday helping faculty, who were used to up close, in real time teaching, to start navigating on-line systems of interaction. At times we all felt overwhelmed. How could they learn these programs and develop content in such a short time? We careened back and forth between determination and despair. But by the end of the day Friday, we had our sea legs. Teachers were getting more comfortable and more confident. And when I announced that all faculty and administration would need to be back at Countryside for a full day on Monday to continue our preparations, I was met with unanimous agreement. We all went our separate ways, physically, at the end of the day on Friday, but our work was really just beginning. We were in constant communication throughout the weekend. “Let’s try this.” “Hey, I just thought of a better way.” Creativity, communication, and collaboration: just what we ask of our students every day.

As we gathered again on Monday morning, I was hit with the amazing realization that being smaller was actually a huge advantage. I no longer envied the Bigger Fish. Our tight-knit community of parents, faculty, staff and students were going to be just fine for now. In fact, it was precisely because we were smaller that we were able to assemble the incredible distance learning program that we have.

The CDS Distance Learning Program would consist of three parts, depending on ages. After all, Countryside serves students as young as sixteen months and as old as 8th grade. What we would offer for different levels was going to be wildly different.

But what we agreed we wanted at every level was live, in-person, virtual gatherings every school day. And thanks to Zoom, we have done just that. Toddlers start their mornings seeing the happy faces of their teachers and classmates on screen every day. And the same is true for our PreK, Kindergarten, Elementary, and Middle School students. Middle school students have live on-line school with their teachers and classmates from 9:30-12:30 every day. In addition, teachers prepared and posted on line videos of themselves giving classroom lessons. But that wasn’t all. They also prepared hard copies of works for some students to complete as well. Teachers set up bins loaded with bags of work for students to do, all individually labeled with their students’ names. Over the next few days, I frequently ran into parents streaming through the parking lot to pick up their children’s work from the front porch. We kept our distance but always took a minute to share well wishes.

While the teachers’ work was daunting to be sure, it’s realization required the incredible cooperation of our parents as well. Yet again, our size and shared sense of community and mission was our winning combination. The Countryside Parent Community is amazing. They ramped up their homes to be virtual classrooms. They downloaded programs, set up learning areas, helped their children get online at designated times, and on and on. In fact, they are in the life raft with us, paddling just as hard at home. Managing their own personal issues, their own job crises, but helping their children take advantage of everything Countryside offered at the same time.

What our program will look like as we learn, adjust, and rethink is uncertain. When and if we will be back in school this year is also uncertain. Our entire nation is swimming in uncertainty. In this we are clearly not alone. But what I am certain of is that the incredibly strong Countryside community will remain just that. A community. Deeply bound by a shared goal, vision, and mission. For that I am forever grateful.