OLA School principal talks reopening and challenges ahead

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com 

As Covid-19 numbers continue to spike in Claremont, Los Angeles County and statewide, making plans of any kind right now is rife with complications.

For students attending public schools, this is nothing new. The pandemic upended most everything back in March 2020, when all Claremont public schools went to remote, distance learning.

Some private institutions though, such as Claremont’s Our Lady of the Assumption School, had been seeing some in-person students this year before returning to entirely remote learning last week.

OLA began the 2020-2021 school year with online-only instruction. Over the following weeks, as state and county departments of health allowed for some in-person instruction, it re-opened partially, focusing primarily on children requiring special services. 

The school also applied for a state waiver to open for transitional kindergarten through second grade to accommodate students having the most difficulty working completely online, and those requiring academic intervention or social/emotional support, said OLA Principal Bernadette Boyle.

The request was approved in early-November, and OLA was on track to reopen some in-person classes for these special services students on January 19. 

But then came the surge. 

It took about nine months—from March 2020 to November 30—for L.A. County to reach 400,000 positive coronavirus cases. From December 1 to January 2, 2021, that total doubled. This past Saturday the county because the first in the United States to surpass 1 million cases.  

“At this point, that’s all on hold,” Ms. Boyle said. “We sent a message out to families [last week]  that because of the terrible situation we’re in right now, we will be closed through February.”

The school had been relatively fortunate up until the recent surge. 

“The pandemic is really touching us now,” Ms. Boyle said. “We have families and staff members who have tested positive over the [holiday] break. Before that we have had no family members infected. Our own family members are testing positive.”

Enrollment at the school is down, from a pre-pandemic projection of 410 to 312 as of two weeks ago, but the mood remains optimistic, due in no small part to its ebullient principal.

“I’m really hopeful,” Ms. Boyle said last week. “Although we’re in a really difficult time right now, I think with spring, the vaccines that are coming around, that we’ll be back stronger than ever. By early summer or late spring. I’m holding onto my optimism.” 

The financial toll of losing roughly a quarter of its students for a school that counts tuition as its  primary source of funding has of course been felt. (Though they share some facility expenses, OLA’s budget is independent of church finances, Ms. Boyle said). 

“We are operating a deficit budget,” Ms. Boyle said. “The rainy day that we’ve been saving for, I’m very sure we have arrived.”

Families and private donors have stepped up.  

“We had a number of parishioners and alumni who made donations knowing there were families in need,” she said. “That was a terrific response that we got and allowed us to have some families stay rather than withdraw. Nobody was forced to leave, and we didn’t have to ask anybody to leave.”

Indeed, some things have actually improved during the pandemic for the 66-year-old transitional kindergarten through 8th grade Catholic school.

It hasn’t yet had to lay off any staff or make any my major changes to any of its programs, Ms. Boyle said. In fact, the school has made new investments in technology, allowing every OLA student to be issued an iPad or one of its 175 recently purchased laptops. 

It has also used the downtime to make several upgrades, including installing new wash stations and water fountains, purchasing extra cleaning equipment, installing new gates and making its parking lot safer. 

It also is in the midst of installing a new security system. 

“Overall school security and public access to school buildings and schoolchildren was a major concern even before this pandemic,” Ms. Boyle said. “We’ve really been ramping up on security.” 

Though grateful for the recent upgrades, the eternally optimistic Ms. Boyle admits the pandemic business model is not a sustainable over the long term.

“So we’re really looking forward to in the next few months, inviting people to rejoin and come back to us,” she said. “And new families as well.” 

Ultimately, enrollment will need to be back at or near pre-pandemic projections “to maintain our programs robustly,” Ms. Boyle said. 

When OLA opened its school in 1955 it had 200 students. Enrollment has fluctuated over the years due to the vagaries of economic cycles, cultural shifts and other trends. Over the last decade though, its enrollment has consistently been between 360 and 400. 

“The last couple of years we have been on this uptick,” Ms. Boyle said. “But with the pandemic, all the new families that were looking to commit decided to hold off. Then a number of families  withdrew largely for financial reasons, and some moved out of state.”

Meanwhile, online, or “distance learning,” has been hard on many students, public and private. Some have adapted and are thriving, but engagement has waned for others as the pandemic rolls on and a certain amount of hopelessness sets in. But according to Ms. Boyle, OLA has managed to maintain enthusiasm. 

“I just feel overwhelming gratitude for the parents and the families and the community here, who’ve been overwhelmingly supportive of what we’re trying to do. I also want to give a shout out to our teachers, who’ve worked incredibly hard, both online and in-person simultaneously. That’s been an incredible amount of work. And the enthusiasm that they’ve shown is just remarkable. I haven’t had a single complaint or refusal. They’ve voiced concerns and then we’ve found solutions. I’m incredibly grateful to them.

“And of course a shout out to the OLA students. We all hear horror stories about students who are disengaged and struggling, and I’ve got to say we have almost 100 percent engagement with our students.

“There’s been a lot of bonding that’s taken place remotely between parents, teachers and the students, who of course are the three-legged stool. That’s what makes it rock solid.”

Ms. Boyle’s seemingly bottomless well of positivity, coupled with her steady leadership through this unprecedented disruption, has no doubt helped buoy spirits at OLA. 

She’s already looking past the current surge to a day when the school might open its doors again, cautiously of course. 

“The goal then is that when we open, we want to open and stay open,” she said. “The problem is opening and closing and opening and closing again. It’s just so disruptive. If we take the precautions now, come February when we get the vaccines we’ll be able to open and stay open. That’s really the goal.

“We’re not going to be beaten down by this. It’s not going to define everything else that’s happening here.” 


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