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A Year of Resilience – Anneliese Learning in a Pandemic

It’s a powerful feeling to look back on the year we all just survived in this pandemic. Routines that were once strange or odd to adopt are now second-nature, as we’ve all adapted to this new way of coping through something most of us hadn’t yet lived to see. If you’re a parent coming to campus, your daily visits resemble something like, “grab a mask before you get out of the car, no setting foot in the classroom, keep a six-foot barrier around you as you maneuver around others on campus, smiling fiercely with your eyes to show your emotions across your covered face.” And yet how lucky we are to be doing this masked dance, in person, to have children back where they belong: amongst their peers in the classroom.

A Journey of Adaptation

It’s been quite the journey of resilience to get to this point. Looking back, on March 13, 2020, administrators for Anneliese Schools received word that all campuses would be closing due to the rise in COVID-19. Days later, the entire state of California was under a mandatory stay-at-home order. But the pivot to online learning had already begun. A month before campuses closed, administrators were anticipating the closure and began exploring solutions for remote learning, should the school have to go that route. Willowbrook Campus Grade School administrators Maria Bashaw and Maria Onesi were busy learning Google Classroom as a platform for remote learning. Fortunately through the school’s nonprofit partner SEEDS Arts and Education, Maria Bashaw had been able to establish a free Google G Suite account for the school to include more technologically advanced teaching tools in our classrooms. With that in place, Bashaw and Onesi began building the infrastructure for online learning and training every core and specialty teacher in Google Classroom. These were wheels that were in motion weeks before the mandate to close came. Once the official first remote learning date was established – March 17, 2020 – the race was on to train all teachers on the Google Classroom platform. It was an all hands on deck effort.

An empty Willowbrook playground after the school switched to remote learning in March 2020.

Finding a Way

“Teachers began to put together supply kits to send home, and Monique Song coordinated all of the materials pick-ups in March and again later in the year,” Onesi remembers. “It felt like a fever-pitched collaboration as the team focused on making this pivot as successful as possible in under a week. This new technology was uncharted territory, which required some clear guidelines to ensure that we weren’t giving up on our school mission for creativity, critical thinking, social connection, responsiveness, and responding to student and parent needs. We devised a system that would allow us to explore new ways without giving up on time-tested strategies and responsive teaching, even though we were not in the same physical space. Within two weeks, we were able to open up two classrooms to accommodate on-site support for students whose parents were essential workers.” In the early days of the stay-at-home order, administrative staff applied for a reopening waiver for Grade School as soon as possible, and this timely move put the school right on schedule to open in the fall.

In the Preschool at Willowbrook, administrator Lisa Thomas first remembers the fear expressed from parents as she worked in tandem with Aliso Campus administrator Wendy Bana to find a way to stay open. For a school that thinks outside the box with teaching and embraces the outdoors and hands-on education at a young age, what would remote learning look like to Anneliese Kleine Kinderschule (Nursery) and Preschool students? For Thomas, that meant being glued to email inbox, her phone, and press releases from the state so she could weather the constant changes emerging in the wake of the pandemic closures.

“In the middle of training teachers for Google Classroom and setting up pick-ups of materials for parents, I received a robo-call from the Sacramento office of Community Care asking if we were willing to stay open for essential workers,” she shares. “That came out of nowhere! I watched the governor’s press conference on my computer and there was a call out to all child care who were willing to stay open for essential workers to contact their regional office and let them know your status. That was the beginning of our journey to reopening and recovery! Once we figured out what it would take to reopen to child care, we asked for teacher volunteers who felt comfortable with the new COVID protocols that we would be implementing. Once we started with that in place, little by little by families who needed child care returned.”

The sound of little voices returned to campus bit by bit, and Thomas kept on the lookout so she could adapt to what came next. She applied for every possible resource, grant and drive-through pick-up of PPE that was on offer for open daycare providers. She sat on many Zoom calls with agencies guiding private providers through stay-at-home recovery, and heard on the last regional call to school directors this sobering statistic: 65% of daycare facilities have shut down during this pandemic, never to reopen again.

“Yes, it was the worst time, but it was also the best time to all pull together and be a part of a solution,” Thomas says. “In 25 plus years in Early Childhood Education, I feel the most proud of how we have been here to serve our families and make it through this crazy year. I am so proud of all the teachers who stayed with us through this journey and supported the school and the goal of live learning for our students.”

Teaching Through the Screen

As administrators showed their grit and scrappiness behind the scenes to get the remote learning infrastructure up and running and begin providing child care for families who needed to return to work, teachers remember having to switch gears from live learning with their kids to seeing them on a screen.

K2 teacher Katie Ward remembers this same week last year – St. Patrick’s Day was approaching – and her classroom was decked out with an elaborate leprechaun village.

“I remember it was a rainy Friday before quarantine, and the children and I had just finished creating our leprechaun traps with our 6th grade buddies – the STEAM project every K2 child waits for all year. The children couldn’t wait to see if their village would indeed attract a leprechaun! We left it out over the weekend, and were excited to add finishing touches Monday before St. Patrick’s Day.”

But her students never did get to come back to class and see if their traps had nabbed a leprechaun. “Hours later I was sending each family a tutorial of how to use our Google Classroom for online learning,” she shares. “The next time the children and I saw each other was on Google Meet for our first virtual class. I remember the children thought it was so funny, a little odd, and exciting to see their friends on a screen. Our first class lesson was all about learning how to move and click the cursor to mute or unmute the microphone. I remember a child asking, ‘Ms. Katie, you live in our classroom. Did the leprechaun come?’ This is when some of the children learned that I, too, have my own home away from the classroom!”

Lisa Chesanek, Second Grade Teacher at Manzanita Campus, remembers being on Zoom with her students and missing the thrill of using paint and creating art projects in-person. Having the loss of that element fresh in her mind, Chesanek treasures creating collaborative art projects with her students even more now. “Now that we are back on campus, I incorporate a variety of art materials with so many of our lessons.”

A Welcome Return

For the teachers who returned early on, being on campus, safely with students, felt like a privilege and a welcome change from the stressful news breaking around the world.

“I remember feeling lucky to be outside with the kids since we had such nice weather when we came back,” K1 Teacher Nikki Thomas shares. “Most of the kids had been stuck inside, so it was great that they were able to be outside on the playgrounds again. Many of them were so excited to see their friends.”

Thomas remembers needing to be flexible as COVID-19 protocols changed almost daily in the beginning of the pandemic, and needing to have her phone nearby in case the governor or a local official made a change in rules. Creating a safe space for the students was of utmost importance. “Some of the kids were nervous and unsure when they came back, so we had to take extra time to make sure the kids knew it was safe,” she says.

Grit, Reinvention, and Safety

Meanwhile, before any students or teachers returned, the dedicated maintenance and housekeeping staff began even more thorough daily rounds to every room and usable area on campus to ensure everything was properly disinfected and sanitized. Handwashing stations were installed throughout, stacks of PPE emerged, and plastic guards were affixed to desks and community learning tables.

Handcrafts were safely and lovingly prepared by Willowbrook teacher Elisabeth Clark and left for families in the “Handcrafts Hut” – the Willowbrook gatekeeper’s hut became a pick-up hub for craft supplies, yarn, knitting needles, project ideas and kits. These were little packages of tangible magic for students who so dearly missed their weekly dose of Anneliese-style learning.

The Schools Store at Willowbrook, often thought of as a modern general store for many to gather, changed course to keep the community afloat. As administrators were building Google Classroom infrastructure and teachers were showing their students the ins and outs of remote learning, Schools Store Manager Samantha Savage was ordering bulk foods and changing the store to a Grocery Pop-Up. Grocery stores all over Orange County were wiped out – shelves ransacked by weary customers on the brink of the pandemic onslaught – and yet the Schools Store found a way to offer pasta, rice, bread, meats, organic produce, and yes, toilet paper. The Schools Store’s Grocery Pop-Up quickly became an effective fundraising arm to keep the school open in such a desperate time, while providing the community with a safe place to purchase necessities for their families.

Keeping the Magic Alive

Through it all, our committed teachers and administrators found a way to keep the Anneliese magic alive. Music teacher Kallie Forester believes that the foresight of administrators to prepare for and anticipate the closure of live learning ultimately saved the school. “At Anneliese Schools, we are flexible and resilient,” Forester notes. “This has always been our nature, even before the pandemic, as such characteristics are necessary to an organic community.” And Forester indeed had her work cut out for her translating her music teachings to a remote format. “As a music teacher at the time, March 13, 2020 (to quote music man Don McLean) felt like it was ‘the day the music died,’” Forester remembers. “We had to learn how to do music together in a Google Classroom… a format that is not in the least bit conducive to music. There was feedback, mirror imaging, new software to train on, and a horrible underlying fear. It was impossible to all sing together, difficult to read music notation, challenging to learn the new technology, and gut-wrenching to realize that our beloved children and their families could get very sick.” Even after teachers and students made the return to campus, state mandated COVID-19 protocols have “outlawed” singing within 12 feet of another person without masks, something Forester had to adapt to – teaching music without singing. She shares, “The reframe went something like, ‘Ah, well, this generation of children will become great instrumentalists and percussionists!’”

But she and her students did their best in their now-outdoor classroom – on the same playground where recess takes place. “We have banged every drum, strummed every string, and plunked every key we can find. We have played ‘Jingle Bells’ as tears streamed down my face in 100-degree heat and played Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ in a deluge of flooding rain under our tent. We have lived out of a makeshift campsite for seven months. And the children have thrived. And their love of music has grown.”

The Power of Our Community

While all of these groups at our campuses worked to keep education paramount for our students, parents and caregivers throughout our community rose to a seemingly impossible task: serving as Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Aunt/Uncle, home school teacher, lunch chef, therapist, playmate and more to those students on the Google Classroom screens. “Our parents joined in to observe how lessons were given and supported their students wherever they could,” Onesi says. “We were always in each other’s homes, working together to keep the learning going. In so many ways, we became closer with our families, working together and showing our students what it means to solve problems, do our best, and stay positive.”

As we continue our masked dance on our campuses, we’re smiling the widest smiles behind our face coverings. Because as we look back at all we’ve overcome, and this monumental team effort for us all, we could not be more grateful for this steadfast resilience.