Changing Pilots Mid-Air
Independent schools occasionally find themselves in a position of having to manage through a leadership transition. For Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia, this period of challenge and uncertainty coincided with the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
In January of 2019, our head of school requested to trigger a 12-month departure notice clause in his contract. Realizing the difficulty of finding a new head to start in the middle of a school year, we launched a search process with the job beginning summer 2020. The board felt that our administrative team could manage the remainder of the prior school year without a head in place; we’d just ensure strong working relationships between the administrators and the board. Just a few months of business as usual, right?
Covid-19, of course, had other ideas. Fortunately, by January we had come to terms with our top candidate, who would start providing leadership and guidance from afar well before her official July 1 start date. As the pandemic was spreading, I held regular calls with several of our administrators. We chose to repurpose parent-teacher conference days as faculty professional development days for training on some of the online tools we might have to employ if we had to go to remote schooling.
On Thursday, March 12, we messaged families that children should take home all school materials the next day in case we were forced to move to remote learning. As it happened, that day our governor announced all K-12 schools in the state must close—initially for a period of two weeks, which would, of course, get extended through the end of the school year.
We were fortunate that our students, parents, faculty and administrators were very adaptable to the changing circumstances. We tried to over-communicate, with seven Covid-related emails to families within the first two weeks of March, in addition to all of our regular email communications. After two days for transitioning, we began online learning. It was not without a few hiccups, but I was stunned to see my own children learning, laughing and truly enjoying school from home via online technology. The students quickly convinced their teachers to keep the Google Classroom open during lunchtime so they could “eat together” from their own homes.
Our incoming head, Aviva Walls, started leading check-ins of our admin team from the other side of the country, even as she remained in her prior position at a Jewish high school in California. She scheduled time to meet with every teacher individually— something that would have been part of her transition plan in-person, but had to be done online. The outreach helped our exhausted faculty to feel supported.
The board also sought ways to support our professional team through the early weeks of the pandemic. There was no playbook for the situation, but we tried to talk through issues and help guide Gesher to thoughtful and reasonable policies and processes to navigate through remote instruction. We also arranged a few morale-boosting gestures, including delivery of kosher delicacies from a local bakery to the homes of every employee.
After her cross-country move in the summer, Aviva immediately started exploring whether and how Gesher might be able to return to in-person learning for the new school year. We removed walls to enlarge classrooms so that desks could be appropriately separated; invested in semi-permanent outdoor tents to maximize our classroom space; upgraded our HVAC filtering system; implemented new cleaning procedures; and crafted policies for mask-wearing, hand-washing and a family pledge to reduce potential Covid-19 exposure outside of school, among many other steps.
Within our local community, Gesher’s positive reputation—enhanced by our success with online learning in the spring—coincided with a sense of dissatisfaction with the public school systems to drive a large wave of new applicants and enrollments. We maintained our standards for admission, with a particular lens to identify families who seemed like a long-term fit, rather than those looking for just one year of relief from the public schools.
Happily, as we look ahead at the 2021-2022 school year, the trend has continued. Total enrollment is poised to grow over 40% from pre-Covid levels, with a heavy concentration of new kindergarten and first grade students—a good sign for maintaining high enrollment for years to come.
We were very fortunate to have adaptable leaders, teachers and families throughout the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic. With Aviva leading the team, the roles of lay and professional leaders are returning to something like normal, and Gesher is poised to emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position and set up for continued success.