West Orange-area private schools prepared for new school year

Foundation Academy, The First Academy and Windermere Preparatory School have spent all summer working on their fall reopening plans.

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  • | 11:35 a.m. August 12, 2020
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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Heading back to school this year looks different. 

Families have made some tough decisions regarding whether to send their children back to school campuses or have them learn online from home.

Meanwhile, school leaders and staff have been tasked with creating the safest possible environment in which to teach and learn. It’s a challenge that has required creative solutions and guidance from administrators, medical professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Three local private schools have been planning for the 2020-21 school year for months. The First Academy and Windermere Preparatory School welcomed its students back to the classroom on Wednesday, Aug. 12, and Foundation Academy will reopen its doors to students on Monday, Aug. 17.

Each will be conducting health screenings — including temperature checks and health questionnaires — daily for staff, students and visitors. Hand-sanitizer stations will be available around each campus, and the schools are asking students not to share supplies. Social distancing will be encouraged, and frequent disinfection of high-use areas will take place.

Although there are many commonalities, each school has curated its own form of a reopening plan that details safety protocols and procedures stemming from current CDC guidelines, as well as direction from local and state health officials.



Foundation Academy seventh-grade science teacher Sarah Bosque is ready to teach.
Foundation Academy seventh-grade science teacher Sarah Bosque is ready to teach.

At Foundation Academy, preparation of a virtual-learning strategy — led by School President David Buckles, Vice President of Education Carol Grosshans and IT Director Tim Nethers — was in place before students left for spring break in March.

“For our virtual experience, we installed special equipment,” said Joe Cioffi, director of communications. “Logitech manufactures a product that can be mounted, and it follows our teachers in the classroom with a 360-degree microphone. They’re going to be delivering those classes virtually, so we’ve created a seamless learning experience.”

Students have the option to learn virtually through Foundation Academy. However, if they choose to do so, they commit in quarterly installments.

“For the first nine weeks, if they decided to do that, they’ll sit in the virtual experience and complete their education,” Cioffi said. “If things lighten up and they feel more comfortable, they’ll be able to come back to school physically the next quarter. It gives the parents some options, and it helps us maintain some order to both the physical and virtual experiences.”

The school organized a task force with representation from its three campuses, which then assembled an advisory board of pediatricians and other medical professionals. They worked together to create a draft of the reopening plan. There is a schoolwide plan, as well as campus-specific plans.

“The challenge that not just schools are facing but we’re facing in general is it’s a new virus,” Cioffi said. “Now, we’re moving into different territory where we have a little more knowledge of this virus … and we have to take the information that’s kind of changing on a daily basis into account.”

Foundation will be using an electrostatic cleaning machine and wiping down high-touch areas, and there is Plexiglas in certain areas to provide a physical barrier. Face coverings will be required where physical distancing isn’t possible; at this time, it will be optional for students and staff in areas and situations where they are able to physically distance, Cioffi said.

Additionally, students and staff will be asked to take responsibility for their personal belongings and disinfect them daily. Water fountains now have apparatuses installed that allow students to refill their own water bottles, and bathrooms have touchless faucets and latrines.

“Our goal is to keep things as normal as we possibly can in these unprecedented times, but at the same time, we’re taking every provision in the course of our operating procedures to provide the safest atmosphere that we can,” Cioffi said.



The First Academy welcomed students back to school Wednesday, Aug. 12.
The First Academy welcomed students back to school Wednesday, Aug. 12.

For the Royals, the school year kicked off Aug. 12. However, administrators have been hard at work devising plans and protocols to best protect staff and students since the end of the previous school year

Sarah Donovan, senior director at The First Academy, said the leadership team began in May by creating a medical advisory committee of parents at the school who also are medical professionals. Simultaneously, the school created its reopening task force comprising teachers, leaders, parents and school board members. They collaborated to create a plan for every aspect of campus, reopening and daily student life.

“Our goal was to be the most prepared school locally and statewide in the private Christian sector as possible, and I really think we accomplished that,” Donovan said. “We now have convened a group called the COVID Response Team. So now that we’re opening, how are we going to then respond to COVID-19 — whether it’s active or inactive — on campus?”

Each desk, workstation or lab table now has a Plexiglas desk shield. The new lunchroom has tables spaced appropriately, and there are new picnic tables and space added for outdoor classrooms, as well.

The First Academy also will use electrostatic sprayers and adapters in air-conditioning units, and carpet has been replaced with hard flooring in the lobby areas. Face masks will be required at all times on campus for students, faculty and staff. 

For students and families not yet comfortable with returning to campus, the school also is offering a hybrid-virtual learning model that allows them to log in to live classes. This allows families another option and increased flexibility.

“Having our parents as part of the planning process has allowed us to vet their needs and concerns proactively instead of reactively,” Donovan said. “Our families returning are confident and excited to get their students back to The First Academy, and those that still need time before coming in face-to-face to campus are able to enroll their students in our hybrid program. … I think that confidence comes with everything we’ve done to prepare a safe in-person campus but also everything we’re doing to make sure they have an option to stay a part of our school family and engage in the classroom virtually, too.

“We’re encouraging (families) to keep in mind health and safety protocols on and off campus,” she said. “The health of our campus really depends on their health.”



Windermere Prep also opened its doors to students on Aug. 12. 

However, its plan differs from those of its counterparts: On-campus instruction is in full swing for students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Students in middle and high school are following a blended plan.

“Grades six to 12 will open on a blended plan that will have our middle- and high-school students attending part-time on campus and part-time virtually,” said Steven Lyng, Windermere Prep’s head of school. “The blended plan for middle and high school will allow us to maintain smaller groups on those two parts of our campus.”

Administration created its own plan with guidance from both the CDC and the Florida Department of Education. Windermere Prep also is one of 66 schools worldwide included in the Nord Anglia Education family — allowing it to follow in the footsteps of its sister schools.

“Many of our sister schools have gone through successful reopenings already, which has given us a very good insight into what has worked well and what pitfalls we should avoid in our planning,” Lyng said. “We have had a very helpful collaboration with Orlando Health’s business-reopening task force. The team at Orlando Health has been fantastic in helping us interpret and understand the CDC guidelines and get a great plan in place to open the school. Their assistance has been invaluable.” 

“It has been five months since we closed the school and went to 100% virtual learning last spring. Everyone involved is ready to get students engaged and learning. We are working to accomplish that goal with health and safety as our top priority going into the 2020-21 academic year.” —Steven Lyng, Windermere Prep’s head of school

One of the highlights of the school’s most recent reopening updates is the installation of a UV-coil lighting system in each of the classrooms’ HVAC units, which helps prevent the growth of bacteria and mold on cooling coils and HVAC ductwork. The school also installed a Camfil Dual 9 MERV-9/9a, which also will assist with continuous particle removal.

Other highlights of Windermere Prep’s plan include mandatory face coverings for faculty, students, staff and visitors; capacity limits in common areas; and individual grab-and-go items from the cafeteria. As part of the screening process, students, staff and visitors will use the SafelyPass app on their mobile devices to submit self-declaration forms. The school’s monitors will grant clearance.

“Feedback has been largely positive,” Lyng said. “It has been five months since we closed the school and went to 100% virtual learning last spring. Everyone involved is ready to get students engaged and learning. We are working to accomplish that goal with health and safety as our top priority going into the 2020-21 academic year.”


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