The past year has been like a wild ride through nature since Abundant Life Christian Academy, a small private denominational school about 15 miles northwest of Fort Lauderdale. Think the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a fast, bumpy roller coaster-like ride on a bullet train through a haunted gold mine in the dark at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.
Days before state leaders ordered COVID-19 schools closed, Principal Stacy Angier knew what was going to happen. As a member of the Broward Board of Health Commissioners, she had worked with the county’s non-profit health system to prepare her community for closure.
Taking steps to prepare its students, families and staff for virtual education was nonetheless a challenge. The intrepid Angier did it all in three days.
A year later, as the 2020-2021 school year draws to a close, she breathes a sigh of relief. Despite a drop in enrollment which threatened the existence of some private schools and permanent closures Out of 209 of the country’s 6,000 Catholic schools, Abundant Life remains intact.
“We survived,” Angier said. “Most of our kids are back to school and we’re going to get there.”
Angier reopened Abundant Life for in-person teaching in August while continuing to pursue online learning for those who wanted it. Masks, desktop screens, daily deep cleaning, social distancing and $ 320,000 in federal aid made possible, with state scholarship programs run by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.
Angier has also been closely monitoring the latest COVID information from Broward Health.
About 60% of students chose to teach in person. That number has recently jumped to 80% as families have started to feel more comfortable sending their children back to school. Abundant Life’s total workforce stands at 457, roughly the same as in the 2019-2020 school year.
Looking ahead, Angier said she expects to see more interest from families whose children attend district schools, thanks to the recent expansion state scholarship programs and educated parents.
Angier said positive COVID tests were limited to 26, thanks to safety protocols that included isolating and sending home anyone who appeared to be the slightest of bad weather. It has come to be known informally among students and staff as the “three sneeze” rule.
“A student told me that a teacher sneezed three times and asked him if he should send them home,” recalls Angier. “When you can minimize the exposure of unwell children and adults, keeping people at home sick really helps everyone.”
She said the school had no flu cases, which she attributed to the strict enforcement of the rules.
Despite the challenges, Angier and his staff have managed to maintain a sense of community. They hosted an in-person National Honor Society induction ceremony for students and parents. They also allowed school sports to continue as much as possible.
At the end of the football season, the team presented Angier with a backpack signed by all of the team members as a thank you for letting them play.
“We tried to keep things as normal as possible,” she says.
Learning among those who were online turned out to be the biggest challenge. Angier said teachers closely monitor virtual students to make sure they turn in homework and meet benchmarks. Those who were not were asked to return to campus.
“The ones who have been home all year, unless they have a really focused parent… didn’t do as well as we wanted to,” she said.
To address learning losses, Abundant Life is offering a three-week summer program in July that will be open to all students. Aigner expects students who learn at home, especially those with less adult supervision, to benefit the most.
“These kids see the most learning losses, so we try to target that to get it right,” she says. “Some of these children have lost a year.”
Slowly things returned to where they were, although the school will continue certain practices, such as encouraging children to eat lunch in the outdoor picnic areas.
This week, Angier and 36 eighth grade students, with accompanying adults, celebrated the end of a stressful year with a school trip. The trip was not part of his original plan; it moved on after the eighth grade teachers came to see her and told her the students were worried and disappointed that they had not been on a school trip all year.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked the children. “You’re planning a trip and we’ll see what we can do.”
They chose Walt Disney World, “the happiest place in the world”.
Angier said hotel staff worked to make it special, allowing children to swim one evening until 10 a.m. A Michigan couple by the pool asked if it was a school trip. Angier said yes.
“Looks like they’re all family,” the woman replied.