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Newtown’s Private Schools Hit ‘Play’ On Remote Learning



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Amid growing community concern around COVID-19, Newtown’s three private schools — Fraser Woods Montessori School, Housatonic Valley Waldorf School, and St Rose of Lima School — are closed, and all of the schools have plans for student learning to be continued at home.

For Fraser Woods Montessori School, however, the timing of surrounding schools being closed coincided with the school’s scheduled two-week break. Head Of School Chris Robertson shared on March 16 that his school is ready if it remains closed beyond March 30, when students were originally scheduled to return from break.

Ahead of the break, Fraser Woods Montessori School closed to students on March 13 for a faculty planning day to develop a plan “should we close for long term,” Robertson explained.

Robertson credited Fraser Woods Montessori School Dean of Faculty and Program Gina Tryforos and Director of Technology Danielle Ulacco for researching online platforms for remote learning options. Their research was presented to school faculty on March 13. The online platforms Seesaw, Zoom, and IXL were chosen.

“There was a real consensus that this was a great start, and the teachers then planned for one week [of remote learning],” Robertson said.

If implemented,the remote learning options will be for kindergarten through eighth grade. Robertson explained that remote learning for his school will include daily video messages from teachers, Montessori-focused activities parents can do with their younger children, daily academic lessons both through a device and through guided lessons from teachers that can be provided to parents. Time was spent on the idea of limiting screen-use to only specific academic lessons that correlate with the curriculum.

For Fraser Woods Montessori School middle school students, Robertson said teachers will oversee their classes using the chosen online platform and lessons will include socializing options and scheduled classes. A structure is being e-mailed to parents. All enrichment teachers are set to provide one enrichment class a week, so each day will include one enrichment class, whether that is physical education or a makerspace lesson.

Robertson said teachers are setup to be able to plan for more remote learning, beyond the first week in April, if necessary.

Parents will also be provided resources to do more creative activities with students at home. Robertson said parents may receive information describing how to take children for nature walks, for instance.

“This is an opportunity for parents to enjoy some of the nice weather we have and do things together as a family,” said Robertson.

“I’m personally so proud of the high caliber professionalism of this faculty,” Robertson said, observing that Fraser Woods Montessori School staff and faculty exhibited a willingness to “do whatever it takes” to stay connected to the students.

Housatonic Valley Waldorf School

According to Housatonic Valley Waldorf School Communications Director and Office Manager Christina Dixcy, the school made the decision to close in the afternoon of March 12.

A message — signed by “The Leadership Council, Board of Trustees, College of Teachers, and Administration” —sent home to Housatonic Valley Waldorf School families on March 12 announced the decision.

“We have been closely monitoring the increased risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus in Fairfield County as well as the responses of local schools to this risk. While there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Newtown, we have families that travel to our school from all over Connecticut as well as New York,” the letter reads. “With this in mind, we have decided to close proactively rather than waiting for a local case to appear.

“This decision was made after much consideration and is coming from a place of calm and a sense of responsibility to begin social distancing,” the letter continues. “This closure includes the cancellation of all school programs and events, and the closure of facilities. All of our buildings will be deep cleaned during the closure. School will be closed as previously scheduled for a staff work day on Friday, March 13. School will then remain closed through March 27. We recognize this time-frame will need to be reassessed as we go along. We are hopeful that we will be able to reopen on March 30, but at this point are in no way certain. During the closure, we will do our best to give parents as much information as possible, as it becomes available.”

The letter detailed a “distance learning plan” will be put in place during the closure.

“The variety of at-home work options will, by necessity, vary by grade,” the letter reads. “Your teachers will be in touch with you toward the end of next week regarding lessons for individual classes as well as parent-teacher conferences, which will likely happen via phone. Please support your children, to the extent you are able, by providing a consistent rhythm to the day and, for older students, a dedicated work area.”

The letter also informed parents that if the closure lasts longer than two weeks, the school may need to find “make-up days” at the end of the school year.

“Please let us know as soon as possible if you or someone you have been in contact with are diagnosed with the illness,” the letter concluded. “We want to be here to support you in any way we can. We understand this change in schedule will be a challenge for some families, but we feel strongly that this is the responsible decision as a school and as an employer. The health and safety of our community remains our top priority. Thank you for your patience during this unprecedented event.”

St Rose Of Lima School

St Rose of Lima School also prepared a distance learning plan.

“St Rose school’s administration, faculty, and students are well prepared to engage in distance learning while the school is closed,” a release shared on March 16 from the school reads.

Technology upgrades completed in the spring of 2019, according to the release, ensured that all “constituents have access to the best tools,” and St Rose faculty have taken part in distance learning training over the last year.

“Starting the week of March 9 teachers began sending materials home with students that will be necessary for completing lessons and assignments,” the release reads. “All students have access to Chromebooks or Ipads to complete assignments. Teachers are communicating lessons on a daily basis and monitoring student performance, questions, etc. Students and parents have complete access to teachers via e-mail and phone on weekdays.

“Students are expected to keep on task and submit completed assignments on a daily basis,” the release continues. “Given the variety of family schedules being considered, there is not a specific daily submission time as long as the assignment comes in at some point in that time frame. If students need a longer time to complete their assignment they are asked to contact the teacher directly.”

St Rose of Lima Principal Bardhyl Gjoka held two faculty meetings between March 13 and 16 to establish a “plan of action with the teachers,” according to the school. Gjoka sent home daily e-mail updates to parents about distance learning methods and invited feedback.

Gjoka sent a video message home to parents on March 15 and as time goes forward all teachers will provide lessons and check-ins with video to keep the children engaged, according to the release. For example, a kindergarten teacher may read a story followed by asking content questions.

“Administration and faculty are working diligently to make the most of this unprecedented time,” the release reads. “They are keeping in close touch with each other and following the directives of the diocese as well as the state. [Gjoka] believes that honest and open communication with the parents is critical in making distance learning as effective as it can be. He is answering e-mails and making phone calls each day and on the weekends to ensure that all is going smoothly. He has emphasized to parents that it is not their job to home school children during this time; all curriculum will be managed by the teachers who will be reachable throughout the day to both parents and students.”

Also according to the school, all St Rose students “in the spirit of the school’s commitment to serving” will be engaging in some virtual community outreaches geared toward healthcare workers and the elderly.

Fraser Woods Montessori School
Housatonic Valley Waldorf School
St Rose of Lima School —Bee Photos, Hallabeck
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