Despite nationwide reports of post-pandemic academic deficits and a worsening mental health crisis among youth, many private schools in Westchester have emerged from the pandemic with higher enrollment numbers, strengthened community spirit, and valuable lessons learned.
We talked with school administrators, students, parents, and teachers to discover their secrets to success.
Iona Preparatory School
When COVID-19 hit, Iona Preparatory School, a boys’ K-12 Catholic school in New Rochelle, found themselves just one mile from the epicenter of the pandemic in Westchester County. Thanks to the foresight of Upper School Principal Anthony Casella, the school was quick to get teachers and students online in March 2020. The following September, lower-school students returned to school full-time, while upper-school students rotated back and forth between in-person and remote learning.
It wasn’t always easy.
“We had teachers in the building who were teaching there for like 20, 30 years, and they had to learn a different way to teach,” says Casella. “I am so proud of the faculty. Every single one of them stepped up and did their best.”
Like most other schools, Iona Prep saw grades and SAT scores dip slightly. Yet, Casella believes the school’s students fared relatively well.
“We covered all the material we wanted to cover. We had teachers that were doing extra help sessions at six, seven, eight at night. We didn’t demand that from teachers. They started stepping up and doing that on their own. That’s the kind of stuff that you really can’t put a price tag on.”
Iona Prep addressed the inevitable social-emotional challenges that arose during the pandemic through its personal relationships with students and families and its dedicated counseling staff, which includes six full-time school counselors and a full-time mental health counselor.
“They were able to divide and conquer,” says Casella. “They just started reaching out to students and parents, offering remote meetings, creating videos about social-emotional wellness, nutrition; it ran the gamut. In addition, students of concern got wellness check-ins throughout the year.”
Nowadays, life for students and faculty at Iona Prep has returned to “normal,” says Casella.
“When we first went back 100 percent, all of the students and the faculty were genuinely happy. It was almost eerie. There were just no problems. You’ve got to admit, at an all-boys school, there’s going to be horsing around. In the latter half of , when the masks came off, you got to see the smiles. That was another layer of reward and relief. Now, we’re back to normal, back to pre-pandemic. The kids are horsing around.”
Maria Regina High School
Maria Regina High School an all-girls Catholic school in Hartsdale, paid close attention to their students’ academic and social-emotional well-being throughout the pandemic.
“We increased support for ninth and 10th grade students,” says Maria Carozza-McCaffrey, school principal. “We built in writing labs and math labs, and more students were put into those classes. Students were given academic support as needed and then once they didn’t need it anymore, we had the flexibility to adjust their schedules.”
When it came to girls’ social-emotional development, the school called on their mental health staff which includes a full-time social worker, full-time nurse, three college advisors and an assistant principal and dean of students who are both trained counselors.
Students needing extra support were referred to the social worker and the school also hosted speakers such as a clinical psychologist to address parent and students’ concerns about anxiety. A virtual yoga program for mothers and daughters helped build community during the pandemic.
Emily Rebholz, currently an 11th grader at Maria Regina, was a freshman when COVID closed down her school. She found activities like the yoga program and virtual trivia program to be a “nice way to meet other kids, since we were split up and didn’t always get to see everyone.”
Emily’s mother, Karen Rebholz, had concerns about her daughter’s social-emotional well-being during COVID, “but I think they did a great job of pulling it all together,” says the Pelham resident.
“Educationally, there were no issues for her. I mean, she did great. Teachers are always welcoming to answer your questions, even during that time,” adds Rebholz.
Principal Carozza-McCaffrey, meanwhile, points to some of the lessons learned during the pandemic.
“If anything, in the world of education, it’s taught us to be really flexible, to really take a look at the needs of your population and to continue to redesign and reinvent yourself. It was kind of forced upon us, with the pandemic, but it’s now become good practice.”
Carozza-McCaffrey has the unique circumstance of having become principal of Maria Regina in July 2020, just four months after schools shut down.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be a principal not in the thick of COVID. So, it’s actually really nice to be able to say, ‘I’m going to go see a basketball game,’ or ‘I’m going to pop into a classroom without having to think about COVID case numbers.’ There’s definitely an ease of feeling the spirit of the school again.”
The Harvey School
At The Harvey School, a grade 6–12 coed college-preparatory school in Katonah, students and their families choose between in-person, remote, or hybrid options for the 2020–21 school year, something Head of School William Knauer believes “significantly mitigated the negative impact of remote learning.”
Nevertheless, students at Harvey were impacted by the social-emotional challenges that all students faced during the pandemic.
“From the ever-changing guidance to masking and social distancing requirements to the suspension of auxiliary programs, students lived in a cloud of loss and uncertainty over the past two and a half years, which has certainly taken a toll on their well-being,” says Knauer.
“Harvey has always been a supportive environment where the adults in the community get to know our students and look out for them,” he says. “Now that we have fully reintroduced all community meetings, clubs, after-school arts and athletics programs, and auxiliary programs, we have returned to an overall sense of normality.” But during the pandemic, the school supplemented already-existing social-emotional services by hiring an additional counselor and introducing a daily meeting in which students and teachers could “check in” with one another.
Dr. Gale Segarra Roberts and R. Gregory Roberts of White Plains saw their three children, all private school students, struggle when schools went remote. The adjustment was especially challenging for their eldest son, who transferred to The Harvey School just days before it shut down.
“It was not the easiest transition, but the teachers and staff at Harvey were wonderful about reaching out and making sure he felt like he was part of the school community,” says Segarra Roberts. In fact, she says, there were upsides to online learning.
“All three of our kids took music lessons via Zoom during the pandemic. Our oldest now really enjoys playing guitar and has even talked about pursuing a music minor in college.”
“Students lived in a cloud of loss and uncertainty over the past two and a half years, which has certainly taken a toll on their well-being.”
—William Knauer, The Harvey School
Located in Thornwood, EF Academy, a private high school with boarding- and day-school options, did their best “to identify students who were disengaged or demonstrating a decline in academic performance as early as possible,” says the school’s director of U.S. Admissions, Andrea Houser. “We then developed outreach and personalized support plans to help every student get back on track.”
Since students at EF Academy come from all over the world, they faced particular challenges during the pandemic. Although the schools’ campuses in Thornwood and the UK were open from September 2020, some overseas students weren’t able to return to campus right away.
Houser notes that online learning proved most challenging in STEM subjects.
In addition to closely monitoring students’ academic progress, school administrators and faculty paid close attention to students’ physical and mental health.
“We added mental health counselors and expanded our health-center staff while engaging a variety of external professionals to provide additional social-emotional support. Finally, we launched a new curriculum focused on teaching student resilience in the wake of the pandemic. The course helps participants understand how to navigate the types of challenges so many teens are facing.”
“We added mental health counselors and expanded our health-center staff while engaging a variety of external professionals to provide additional social-emotional support.”
—Andrea Houser, EF Academy
French American School of New York (FASNY)
When COVID hit and schools went remote, teachers and administrators at The French American School of New York, an international and bilingual school on three campuses in Mamaroneck and Larchmont, were especially concerned about their youngest students – children in nursery school through fourth grade and their families.
“We knew that they needed more of that hands-on instruction, and it’s much more difficult for parents at home to help with the virtual instruction,” says Lizzie Ryan, director of Marketing, Communications & Public Relations and a member of the school’s COVID-19 Task Force. That’s why FASNY made sure that lower-school students were the first to return to school full-time when the school reopened in September 2020. Using every possible space on the school’s three campuses made this possible.
Middle- and high-school students, who were better prepared to work independently, were divided into two cohorts and attended school on alternate days.
“The juggling of online and in-person learning was definitely hard,” says Ryan. “I think teachers come to school because they love to be with students and teach students and help mold minds. Not being able to do that, I think, was very difficult and tiring. Even when they were back in school, especially for our little ones, they couldn’t be close together, and the work wasn’t as collaborative as it was in the past. It took a lot of adjusting, but our teachers knew what they had to do and saw the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Despite the challenges, students at FASNY stayed on top of their work, says Ryan.
“We were able to keep up with our usual curriculum and adjust accordingly. Our results for the French Baccalaureate and the International Baccalaureate [programs] remained successful. Our students still went to amazing colleges.”
This year, FASNY is looking more like it had pre-pandemic. “We had successful sports seasons and we were able to bring back our high school play last year. Slowly but surely, we’ve also been bringing back more of our community events, which we were really missing during that time.”
School of the Holy Child
At School of the Holy Child, an all-girls, Catholic, independent, college-preparatory school in Rye for grades 5–12, Head of School Colleen Pettus prioritized having students in school as much as was safely possible.
“Basically, we reinvented our entire school,” says Pettus. “We used every bit of available space on campus to maximize classroom space, and we were here, up and running all throughout COVID. We had a four-day, in-person schedule, and one day was a learn-from-home schedule. That worked out very well.”
Still, Pettus admits the pandemic was difficult for the entire school community. In the end, she believes that the relationships between students, parents, and faculty members was what “carried them through.”
The 2022–23 school year “feels like the most authentic year” the community has experienced in quite some time, says Pettus. “We’re feeling a lot of joy in that.”
Pettus maintains that despite the hardships, “We learned a lot from COVID. We talked about resiliency and perseverance, and we are holding on to those words. We’ve learned lessons about using our campus differently — learning more outdoors, using our beautiful campus as a classroom, something we didn’t do enough before COVID. We have seen how Zoom provides access to people in different ways. We now hold our Parents Association meeting in a webinar format, and we get approximately 100 parents now, where it used to be maybe 35 when it was in-person. We had students come to Holy Child during that time who maybe would have never considered us. And they’ve stayed; they’re now members of our community.”
The Leffell School
Michael Kay, head of The Leffell School, a coeducational K-12 Jewish day school with campuses in Hartsdale and White Plains, was ahead of the curve when it came to getting students and teachers online. The Leffell School was also one of the first to get all students back on campus for the 2020–21 school year.
Since students returned to classrooms early on, Kay says they didn’t experience significant academic deficits. Yet, he pointed out, “Some of the ways that we like to teach had to change. We usually have kindergartners sitting around tables. Instead, we had kindergartners sitting in rows, and it’s hard to learn early literacy skills with masks. So, I think certainly there were things that were more difficult. In many cases, teachers had to entirely relearn their craft, which they did very admirably.”
Being back on campus in September 2020 didn’t mean that Leffell students were immune from the social-emotional stressors caused by the pandemic.
“Kids couldn’t go to each other’s houses for sleepovers; families couldn’t invite each other over for dinner. Our school is built on a sense of community, and we had new families in the school, but they couldn’t set foot on campus. We’ve added psychologists and social workers to all of our divisions because we have seen ramifications there.”
Like many other private schools, Leffell saw its enrollment increase during the pandemic.
“I think it was a combination of some families who had planned for public school who came to us instead and an increase in the rate of families moving from the city to the suburbs. And we’ve retained that. So, we actually have a 15 percent higher enrollment now than we did three years ago. Obviously, I don’t mean that the pandemic was good. I just think that the sense of how we handled it was.”
Public High Schools in Westchester: The Official Ranking
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Private High Schools in Westchester: By the Numbers
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Simone Ellin is a freelance writer and associate editor of Jmore. Ellin lives in the Hudson Valley with her life partner, Jordan, and Ivy, their standard poodle.