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How One of Westchester County’s Biggest Private Schools Successfully Reopened in the Wake of COVID-19

Over the last nine months, COVID-19 has left the world in a state of disarray, fear, loss, and uncertainty. As every facet of everyday life was forced to shut down or adapt in some way, it began to feel as if a return to normalcy would never be possible. How could we ever go back to schools or socialize with our peers safely? At times, it felt like we’d be trapped inside forever. At some point over the last few months, the idea of returning to normalcy became more and more of a fantasy, with the goal now being to make the best of the situation at hand. Nine months into this pandemic, schools which recently reopened are once again being faced with closures at alarming rates. John F. Kennedy Catholic Preparatory School, however, is still working like a well-oiled machine, and so far, has delivered on its mission to keep its students in the school environment that they so greatly need and missed.

On March 13, Kennedy Catholic held in person classes for the last time of the 2019-2020 school year. For the next three months, students finished out the third marking period and the entirety of the fourth in a completely virtual setting. While grades did not slip and measures to maintain academic integrity were implanted, there was clearly a gap between remote and in person learning. Paul “P.J.” Wu, a current senior and a member of this year’s Student Council, told me how by staying home for so many months, he realized the importance of an in-person education. For him, “there are much less distractions [in the building] than there are at home and being able to interact with [his] teacher and classmates makes the learning experience more interesting”. The sentiment is echoed by Chairperson of the English Department Ms. Susan Willis, who “looks forward to the day when all the students will be back in person”. While three months of virtual learning worked from March to June of last year, it was clear that Kennedy needed to open its doors to students in September. 

The Re-Opening Plan

In order to successfully reopen, many measures needed to be put into place to ensure the safety of not only the Kennedy community, but the many communities that Kennedy students come from. Students travel to Kennedy from 58 districts, which greatly increases the risk of a major spread of COVID through the school and then into multiple other counties. In the last few months, many have argued if opening schools at all is a good idea. At Kennedy, the question wasn’t whether to open or stay remote, it was how to open safely while still delivering an authentic educational experience. As soon as the doors closed in March, President and Principal Father Mark Vaillancourt – with the help of Board of Directors member Mark Girolamo – enlisted a team of doctors, security advisors, health officials, and engineers to ensure that students would be able to safely travel to Somers from those 58 districts and return to school. 

Girolamo, a graduate of the class of 71, spearheaded the re-entry effort, and felt that in order to reopen successfully they needed “to reverse engineer a student’s day at Kennedy… to make this a productive year”. By understanding each and every facet of a typical student’s day, these elements can be adapted under the influence of COVID. Father Vaillancourt spoke with me about how the committee went about adapting the school through changes made to the building. Divider screens are present all across the library dividing chairs and tables, desks are taken out of classrooms and replace cafeteria tables in the lunchrooms, and signs directing the flow of traffic can be found at every turn. Food is now served through a window in packages by attendants in masks and gloves. A new HVAC system is working constantly to purify the building’s air, and the cleaning team is working rigorously and constantly to sanitize the building. In the event of a COVID scare, rooms have been sectioned off as quarantine zones. Anyone who enters the building is screened daily for symptoms, contact, and fever. The entire building has been altered to combat COVID, while also suiting the wants, needs, and comforts of the students and teachers. The school has been rewired to combat the virus from a technical standpoint, however the human element has been vital to maintaining a safe environment and staying open.

The Library of the Presidents is used by students for peer-tutoring and individual studying.

In a school built around almost 700 students, it is important to get them all on board with any initiative intended to be tackled on a large scale. Any plan laid out by the re-entry committee may work on paper, but in order for it to be effective those within the building must follow along. Tom Foltin, a member of the re-entry team and Kennedy’s head of security, told me that security “has not had to enforce many COVID restriction infractions at all” and that “the general feeling at Kennedy is to help one another, so when we put restrictions in place to protect everyone, the students stepped right up and took care of it”. It is a testament to the culture of Kennedy Catholic, its sense of compassion, commitment, and community. 

The alterations made to the building and the commitment of the community have been key components of the continued success of Kennedy’s reopening, however much is to be said of the staggered scheduling system that has been adopted. The “cohort” system breaks the student body into two even collectives, the Sister Christopher and Sister Barbara cohorts, which each come to the building for five days at a time. This system has allowed for students to have a structured school week that involves a consistent in person schedule. In the event that a student or teacher test positive for COVID, only half the school will be affected, and the other half will be able to resume normal in person activities the following week it is slated to be in person. When one cohort is in the building, the members of the other are virtually present in class through the use of Canvas conferencing and Zoom meetings. Thus, classes are able to continue at a typical pace, without having to reteach students who are off campus for a week. In fact, Father Vaillancourt disclosed that “all curriculum goals are being met”, including for the huge portion of the student population in China. Virtual learning has allowed these students to still participate in class and still be active members of the Kennedy community while they await the ability to return to the United States. While the idea of not seeing half of your class and students is upsetting, the students and teachers have bought into the cohort system; and so far, it has worked. 

The school took the opportunity to update the computers in the library when they removed half of them to maintain social distancing.

Athletics Charging Forward

This past fall, Football, Soccer, and Field Hockey teams were able to return to the field. Athletic Director Dominick Tassone delved into the planning process that allowed for many athletes to play this season. Since April, Athletic Directors and Principals all across the CHSAA have come together to lay out guidelines for a safe and successful fall sports season. Coach Tassone told me that athletes “go through health screens and temperature checks in order to participate”, and that throughout the Fall season there was “great success and cooperation enforcing this policy. Parents, student-athletes, coach, and staff all bought in and together we made it through a FULL FALL SEASON without any delays”. Not only were teams able to return to play, they picked up right where they left off, with the Boys Varsity Soccer Team winning its third consecutive CHSAA Class A Championship and the boys 7 on 7 football team showing signs of greatness. In comparison to other schools, Kennedy has been able to offer not only the opportunity to play, but the opportunity to return to a semblance of normal while still performing at a high level. The Athletic Department is now focused on delivering a winter season, with indoor track transitioning outdoors and basketball and wrestling set to begin on January 4th. The championship winning volleyball team is also looking to return this March. Kennedy Athletics has taken its on-the-field persistence and used it to overcome COVID, due to the hard work of the school, Athletic Director, Principal, coaches, and players. 

Creativity and Imagination

Another key extracurricular event at Kennedy is the annual auction, a chief fundraising event that takes place within the school every winter. This year, Director of Advancement and Head Auction Coordinator; Fred Compton, had to get creative in order to host what has become Kennedy’s most prolific event. Instead of cancelling, the event has been turned into an “online event where you’re going to be able to look at the same items and bid on them remotely”. 

Mr. Compton also works closely with the newly appointed Student Council, who have already begun hosting and planning modified events such as the PowderPuff girls two-hand touch game and an upcoming modified spirit week that works in unison with the cohort system. He makes it known that while the path laid out for the Student Council – and the student body as a whole – is not an easy one, they are approaching it with rigor, focus, and determination. Even with all the plans that have been laid out, Mr. Compton is adamant that the continued success of the school’s reopening is due to the families and students who have taken the situation seriously, especially as countless other schools have been forced into closure. Other schools are not at fault because they’ve had to close; realistically it could be anyone, however much is to be said of the commitment of the Kennedy community to staying safe and remaining open. 

The First Year Experience

Transitioning into a new school is never an easy process, however for the class of 2024 it comes in an unprecedented time. The entirety of the grade has yet to attend school together, and many of the introductory events have been completely altered in order to follow COVID guidelines. Thus, it has fallen on teachers and older students to look out for new students like never before. Brian Bruder has been the Director of Admissions at Kennedy for the last seven years, as well as a freshman history teacher. In discussing how his job serving freshmen has changed, Mr. Bruder explained to me how video conference platforms such as Zoom meetings and Canvas conferencing have been used by teachers to bridge the gap between those in the building, and those at home. The cafeteria has also been set up to abide by COVID guidelines while still maintaining a safe and distant environment through the use of desks instead of round tables. Sports have allowed for freshman to branch out, however the next step Mr. Bruder wishes to take is the restarting of clubs in whatever capacity possible. Thankfully, feedback from freshmen and their parents has been overwhelmingly positive. The situation is challenging for everyone in all different ways; however, Kennedy has provided avenues and resources so that people can overcome these challenges. Whether it be academic, athletic, or socially, COVID will not hinder the Kennedy individual. 

Guidance for Graduation and Beyond

On the other end of the spectrum lies the seniors, who are currently in the midst of applying and committing to colleges. From Father Vaillancourt’s perspective, what has most driven Kennedy’s transition from High School to Preparatory school – along with faith – is a “home-grown type of recipe” that has elevated Kennedy students within the college circuit. This formula owes much to previous college counselors Christine Gerrity, Meaghan Carnevalla, and current counselor Kyle MacDonald – who has been put in an unprecedented position during his first year in this role. Mr. MacDonald and I discussed the difficulties facing this year’s seniors, who are mostly unable to go on real college visits and have had to engage with prospective universities almost entirely virtually. He has worked with Kennedy’s technology department to ensure that every student has access to any resources they need in order to undergo their college process online. With the new distinction as a preparatory school, Mr. MacDonald tells me how they are focused on “building a student body that is future-looking while staying active in the present”, he follows with the sentiment that the students that step foot within the building have the aspirations and ability to impact the world. As a preparatory school, that forward-thinking vision is applied from day one of freshman year onwards, and the current pandemic has served as a reason to adapt and improve communication more than it has served as a roadblock. 

A Growing Community

Word on Kennedy’s success has already spread, only a quarter way into the school year. Not only did registration jump with the announcement of the transition to a preparatory school, but Registrar Mr. Chico Generoso has in fact seen an uptick in transfer applications since the beginning of the school year. Not many other schools are having the type of authentic in person experience that Kennedy is, and thus students yearning for a return to normalcy are flocking to Kennedy. It is an ultimate testament to the success of the re-entry plan and its implementation that not only is the school running smoothly, but it is exceeding most other schools at such a rate that people are choosing to transfer during such a difficult time. 

This far in the year Kennedy is yet to have a legitimate COVID scare, which cannot be said for most other institutions. This level of success insofar – and continued safety going forward – is near inimitable and a testament to the hard work being done to maintain a top tier education accompanied by an authentic experience. The evolution from High School to Preparatory School could not have come at a better time, as Kennedy has taken this moment and proven its worth. In the wake of their successful reopening and reinvention, the school has taken its place in the elite educational company within New York State, by gifting its students with not just a normal education, but a high quality one that is built upon a winning formula.

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