COVID-19: A One-Year Retrospective

The first time the words “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)” appeared in Notre Dame Academy’s weekly newsletter, the Panda Press Weekly, was on March 11, 2020. In a letter from NDA president, Dr. Laura Koehl, and principal, Mr. Jack VonHandorf, parents and students were informed that, “Should such an outbreak occur, we have developed a contingency plan for what we can do to continue education while minimizing the spread of illness.” The COVID-19 situation quickly evolved and in an effort to curb the coronavirus outbreak, on March 13, 2020, Governor Andy Beshear advised schools in Kentucky to stop in-person classes for at least two weeks. 

With only a few days to prepare, NDA faculty and staff kicked into gear preparing for the change to a virtual school day. On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, Notre Dame Academy students and teachers broke new ground with the inception of Remote Learning @ NDA. This monumental shift in education was not something educators across the world planned for; it happened swiftly and abruptly, and at Notre Dame Academy it happened very successfully. Remote Learning @ NDA continued through the end of the 2019-2020 school year with NDA’s Class of 2020 attending a virtual graduation ceremony and a drive-through diploma pick-up. 

Notre Dame Academy administrators began planning for the 2020-21 school year in May of 2020 and formed a 2020-21 School Planning Team to ensure the necessary health and safety measures were in place prior to the return of students. These dedicated professionals, along with their committee members, closely followed guidelines provided to them by the CDC, NKY Health Department, the Kentucky Department of Education and the Diocese of Covington. The School Planning Team worked all summer to develop a safe and effective plan for the 2020-21 school year and put many safety measures in place. As the COVID-19 situation was constantly evolving, the team developed the Pandas Return to Campus Plan with three options for the 2020-21 school year:

  •      Plan 1 – Traditional Learning @ NDA: Full return to school with safety precautions in place
  •       Plan 2 – Blended Learning @ NDA: Combination of online and in person classes to reduce the number of students at school 
  •       Plan 3 – Remote Learning @ NDA: Full remote learning

Understanding how imperative in-person learning is to the health and well being of their students, NDA administrators made the decision to follow Plan 1 of the Pandas Return to Campus Plan in August with a full return of everyone to school with safety precautions in place. NDA families who were uncomfortable with in person learning, were able to request remote learning for their daughters. Remote Learning @ NDA was also available for students who were temporarily unable to attend in-person learning due to positive COVID-19 tests or exposure to the disease. 

Students, faculty and staff were eager to return to NDA’s campus for the 2020-21 school year. They worked hard to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in an effort to remain on Plan 1 with in-person learning. Notre Dame Academy hired a school nurse to assist the school’s efforts in keeping its students safe and two retired NDA science teachers (who are Sisters of Notre Dame) became certified contact tracers to help out as well. Following guidelines from the CDC, NKY Health Department, the Kentucky Department of Education and the Diocese of Covington, Notre Dame Academy was able to keep its students engaged in meaningful, in-person learning.

While there were many new protocols at Notre Dame Academy in order to reopen school for the 2020-21 school year, NDA’s custom COVID-19 Daily Symptom Check was quite possibly the best. This self test has been completed by NDA students, faculty and staff every morning before they enter the building since the return to school in August. Their responses to the Daily Symptom Check produce a green or red screen on their phone or iPad.  A green screen indicates that they are healthy to attend school that day and they can then show that screen to school personnel as they enter the building. If the screen is red, students know that they will need to contact the school nurse before reporting to school. Along with the self test, school personnel also take student temperatures daily.

In an abundance of caution, NDA transitioned to Plan 3 of its Pandas Return to Campus Plan with Remote Learning @ NDA on November 12 and planned to return to Plan 1 on November 23. On Thursday, November 18, Governor Beshear signed an executive order mandating all public and private schools to cease in-person instruction beginning November 23. As a result of this order, Notre Dame Academy continued with Plan 3 of its Pandas Return to Campus Plan with Remote Learning @ NDA until January 4, 2021, following Christmas break.

Since Christmas break, NDA has followed Plan 1 of the Pandas Return to Campus Plan with a full return of students, faculty and staff to school. They continue to follow COVID-19 mitigation strategies in the classroom, at athletic events and during extra curricular activities. These include:

  • Symptom Screenings & Health Precautions
  • Contact Tracing
  • Cleaning and Sanitizing Campus
  • Hand Sanitizing
  • Masks
  • Social Distancing
  • Safety Barriers

While many other schools have experienced an achievement gap due to the disruption of COVID-19, Notre Dame Academy is grateful that their students have stayed on track throughout the past year. There are many important reasons why NDA has continued to see student success during this challenging time, most importantly, the dedication of its community members to follow COVID-19 mitigation strategies to keep each other safe. 

There are many other critical components to Notre Dame Academy’s success this past year. First and foremost is the fact that NDA was well equipped from a technological point of view. NDA is a leader in educational technology and has been integrating core competencies that enable students to thrive in the 21st century for several years. In 2012, Notre Dame Academy was the first school in Northern Kentucky to fully integrate one-to-one computing in the high school classroom. The launch of NDA’s 1:1 iPad Initiative expanded different types of learning experiences in the classroom and allowed NDA to stay current with educational innovations that promote student achievement. NDA’s technological advances along with a culture of innovation were critical to the success of NDA this past year.

Another integral part of the school’s success in facing the challenges of COVID-19 has been Notre Dame Academy’s dedicated faculty and staff. Faculty members have been creative, flexible and adaptable in many ways. Most importantly, they have been able to pivot from in-person to remote learning with little warning. Although faculty members were given the opportunity to teach remotely this school year, every member of the NDA faculty made the choice to be in-person with their students. Counselors have been available for students over the past year as well offering them much needed support during difficult times. The collaboration that is such an important part of NDA’s school culture was also central to the positive outcomes this past year. The initiative, insight and strategic thinking of NDA administrators, faculty and staff have been critically important to the school’s success throughout the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

Finally, effective leadership at Notre Dame Academy has been more important than ever during this disruptive time. Under the guidance of NDA’s Board of Directors, NDA administrators responded to the needs of the time just as their sponsors, the Sisters of Notre Dame, have done for well over a century. Notre Dame Academy’s president and principal have been focused on what is best for the health and well-being of the NDA community since March 13, 2020 when they first announced the transition to Remote Learning @ NDA. Dr. Koehl started a blog as a way to stay in touch and share ideas and inspirations with the NDA community. She also formed a COVID-19 administrative team that continues to collaborate weekly ensuring that the needs of the NDA community are adequately met. Mr. VonHandorf has been diligent in providing structure for our students as they have experienced the stress of their continuously changing environment. Upon transitioning to remote learning last March, he felt strongly that NDA must bring as much normality to the school day as possible and to that end, “Mr. V” started each day of Remote Learning @ NDA just like the school begins every school day – with a morning prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Mr. VonHandorf went above and beyond to provide faculty and students with a great start to each day with this daily routine invoking some much needed humor as he traveled around the campus with his laptop and American flag. Students appreciated the fact that their principal was on campus, holding down the fort and anxiously awaiting their return. Together, Dr. Koehl and Mr. VonHandorf have led NDA this year with tremendous determination, vision and hope while rising to the daily challenges of COVID-19 and safeguarding the learning of their students.

As the world experiences the anniversary of the beginning of COVID-19 and the extraordinary ways it has impacted lives, Notre Dame Academy is counting its blessings. In March of 2020, NDA administrators knew that while they could not control the spread of the virus, they could make every effort to mitigate it and control how they would continue to meet their responsibility to educate their students. Through a great deal of hard work and sacrifice, the Notre Dame Academy community has been blessed with many positive outcomes this past year. With grateful hearts, the NDA community was able to lessen their stress and engage in meaningful learning. Students, faculty, staff and administrators supported each other and became more resilient than before. They collaborated with each other and gained many life lessons and tremendous perspective. Most importantly, the COVID-19 global pandemic strengthened the faith of the NDA community and deepened their relationships with God. Together, they lived the mission of Notre Dame Academy and made a difference in the world!