Hamilton Christian Academy, a small non-denominational school south of Hamilton that was closed March 15 by governor’s orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, has about three-fourths of its student body back in class.
The school officially reopened its doors on April 29th and students have been trickling back since then.
Administrator Stephanie Beck said that when Governor Steve Bullock gave his list for reopening schools HCA cautiously went into action.
“We did go through the governor’s considerations,” Beck said. “We went through the COVID Task Force (public health, medical professionals and the county sanitarian), the pastor of the church, the school board, the staff, we talked to the parents in a town hall meeting — we talked to all of those before we made the decision to reopen.”
Beck said the decision was not taken lightly but she realized that the size of the school made it possible. HCA has 70 students registered this year. Nearly three-fourths of the students returned for onsite education and the others are continuing distance learning with packets and technology.
“We’ve been able to keep them in the loop and support them and move them along academically,” Beck said.
HCA has four pages of guidelines, procedures and protocols in place. There is even a signature page for parents to agree to follow CDC guidelines, self-isolate and report to the school if suspected exposure to virus occurs.
“We don’t have buses, keeping kids socially distanced on a bus is pretty much impossible,” Beck said.
With fewer students the HCA classrooms have space for students to keep six feet apart, plus each classroom has an exterior entrance. Hallway use is limited, the drinking fountain is closed, sanitation procedures are in place, the playground remains unused, students do not share supplies, face masks are available and the school day is shorter.
The end of the year field trips were cancelled.
“We literally went with a tape measure into every learning space and measured six-feet,” Beck said. “We put blue tape on the floor and assigned which student sits there. Some of the kids have chosen to wear masks. There are some third and fourth grade students that are always wearing them, I think they love their masks.”
Due to the mandated closure, the private academy had to reduce staff.
“We lost some students, some families lost their income so they weren’t able to pay their tuition and so right away we took a hit,” Beck said. “We couldn’t have our main fundraiser April 2, so we were already looking tough. So I had to lay off a couple of part-time staff.”
All of the remaining staff wanted to come back and restart education on site.
“I didn’t expect that,” Beck said. “In any group there’s people who don’t feel safe or who have reservations so I was actually pleasantly surprised. We did as a leadership make a decision of one individual on the list of compromised health.”
HCA split their kindergarten to five students.
“They are doing fantastic with social distancing,” Beck said. “Especially the lower-grade kids are serious about being back at school. They are achieving and on-task. We can’t do lunch, band and our collaborative learning. It really changed the day.”
Beck said that reading skills, math and social skills are critical goals to meet before moving kids onto the next grade.
The overall feeling is positive.
“We’re excited,” she said. “Teachers were so excited. Most parents are excited. Even several of the remote learning families are saying ‘thank you so much for what you’re are providing in this situation.’”
HCA Administrative Assistant Tara Petz agreed.
“We are so excited to have the students back,” she said. “We love having them and things seem to be going pretty well.”
HCA is still working on the details for senior graduation. There are three seniors. Kindergarten graduation has been postponed.
“Kindergarten is all about the socialization at that age and we delayed until we can have a playtime,” Beck said. “We’re working on eighth-grade graduation.”
Beck said HCA is finishing the school year strong but that the closure has been harder on some kids.
“There were a couple of kids who this completely wiped out,” she said. “Whether it was the kid or the family arrangement, they have totally fallen off the radar. We don’t want to talk about it, nobody wants to, but It’s one of the hardest parts for teachers.”
Beck said that the people who are worried did not return but others took advice from medical professionals, were reassured and decided to return their children to school.
“In this unique situation the faith comes in that we have been thorough,” Beck said. “We have operated under the guidance of our authority, but I don’t think we’re doing anything just because we think God will protect us. We are making the best decisions we can make. We are open because we’re so small.”
Beth Jaccard has two children who attend the academy. Her second-grade student has attended for three years and this is the first year for her kindergartener.
“We were really excited to go back,” Jaccard said. “Our kids were really excited to go back and see their friends and teachers.”
She said that her children are following the numerous new rules to stay within the regulations and stay healthy.
“They are so happy to go back and have a bit of normalcy,” Jaccard said. “As a Christian school we are told to live without fear but we’ll also follow all the protocols and regulations.”
Beck said that on a personal level she is not worried about getting the coronavirus but honors all other considerations. HCA board meetings are held remotely or people can attend in person.
“Each week we ask if there is anything we are implementing that will really benefit our students or their parents in the future. We’re always thinking out of the box anyway so the use of technology, a few great websites or tools that they love or have discovered,” Beck said. “I think education will take away good things from this.”
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