When Crane Country Day closed its campus in mid-March due to mounting concerns over COVID-19, it wasn’t the first time the 90-year-old school took such bold action.

Bowie Haddock works in small group with Crane Country Day first-grade teacher Courtney Fleming.

Bowie Haddock works in small group with Crane Country Day first-grade teacher Courtney Fleming. (Courtesy photo)

Two years earlier the school had been forced to move 250 students to four different locations in the wake of the Montecito debris flow, so administrators at Crane understood the challenge of replicating the academic experience remotely while retaining the school’s strong sense of community.

“I realize that we’ve all had to pivot quickly due to this pandemic,” said Crane headmaster Joel Weiss. “Yet, I believe it’s the sign of a creative community when it can successfully navigate unfamiliar territory and reimagine a completely new learning environment while preserving the best aspects of that organization.” Weiss said Crane accomplished this thanks to stable leadership and good instincts.

The abrupt yet necessary transition to remote learning started just before spring break with a four-day virtual learning trial eliciting parent and student input. Teachers worked through spring recess to incorporate feedback and mitigate the kinks, enabling a relatively smooth launch when school resumed.

Using the video-conferencing platform Google Meets, Crane’s remote learning is guided by three key principles: A well-communicated, consistent structure; engaging curriculum; and varied content to include pre-recorded lessons, concurrent learning and individualized instruction.

Weiss says there’s a clear start and predictability to the day, which helps students focus. Core academic subjects are taught in the morning with afternoons reserved for completing assignments, either independently or virtually in groups, and for consulting with teachers if help is needed.

Crane’s specialists, including art, music, language, theater and physical education provide curriculum through live and taped instruction.

“Crane is focused on continuing the academic routines while recognizing the importance of students’ physical health and emotional well-being,” said Peggy Smith, head of Crane’s Upper School, which serves grades six to eight.

“Everyone is experiencing this pandemic in a different way and each student has a distinct learning profile, so it’s most important for the school to remain flexible, positive, and forgiving,” Smith said.

Peter Mack, a Crane parent and assistant headmaster at Cate School in Carpinteria, believes the school has its priorities straight:

“Crane has done a great job of putting community first, keeping students connected to each other and to their teachers, which is extremely challenging in a remote setting,” he said.

He credits the school for giving serious thought to the ratio of what students can accomplish in a classroom versus working independently, and is amazed watching his fifth-grade daughter Reagan remain engaged as she completes science experiments from home.

Weiss cites the clearly articulated expectations for parents, students and teachers to helping keep the school on track. The 6th-8th graders are expected to dress as they would in the classroom and devote
about five hours per day to schoolwork. The Lower School — grades K to 5 — receives a weekly packet of age-appropriate lessons, morning instruction in small virtual groups and afternoons with specials such as art and music.

“The ability of our school community — teachers, parents and students — to adapt to this new way of learning has been stunning,” said Gayle Sandell, Lower School head. She said parents regularly comment about how impressed they are by their own child’s ability to adapt and advance.

“We are seeing growth among our students, a different type of engagement and an increased independence that will serve them well going forward,” Sandell said.

Part of that pivot meant the school quickly equipped families with laptops and printers to ensure the success of every student. The fact that there’s flexibility built into the school day, with recorded videos
and taped content, allows students to access the material when it suits their schedule.

In addition, teachers are accessible for individualized academic attention and the school psychologist hosts open hours daily to ensure the social and emotional well-being of every student.

The school recognizes that it’s also important to monitor the well-being of teachers, who worked tirelessly to digitize the curriculum — a more labor intensive exercise than classroom instruction. The content creation is an ongoing work in process, allowing teachers to make adjustments and meet the students’ needs.

Second-grade teacher Karen Ohrn said she recently had to adjust her “poetry in a pocket” exercise to a virtual medium. Instead of students sharing their selected poems on campus they will call family and
friends and recite their stanzas.

“The hardest part for me is meeting the needs of the kids while providing a thoughtful balance for the parents,” said Ohrn. She and her assistant teacher hand-deliver weekly packets to each child’s home
so the students are prepared and better able to work independently, requiring less parental supervision.

“One of the best aspects of Crane is the relationships between students and teachers, and I really miss seeing my kids,” Ohrn said. Yet in a strange way, she said the online experience is even more personal as teachers get a glimpse inside the homes and lives of their students, and vice-versa.

“It’s really a flipped classroom where students are sharing their stuffed-animal collections with me, and I show them that I’m teaching while wearing slippers. This allows us to connect in a more personal way and it builds trust.” Ohrn said online teachers are like coaches — guiding the students, supporting, encouraging, listening, and most importantly meeting their individual needs.

It’s helped, too, that Crane has retained the majority of its hallmark programs, shifting to digital platforms for current events, famous Americans presentations, a student-driven internship program known as QED, and even the Upper School play “Peter Pan.”

“We realize that the production will look different,” said Smith, “But we also recognize the importance of keeping the Crane spirit alive.”

Perhaps the Crane spirit is most vibrant in the continuance of its iconic daily assembly. In an artfully taped new format, the assembly retains its quirkiness with a weekly theme, fun contests, birthday celebrations, musical performances, and an open forum for students to share homegrown content.

“I can’t say enough good things about Crane and the response to this pandemic,” said Crane parent Dr. Maria Barrell.

Dr. Barrell, an Ojai physician, is part of a targeted Covid-19 task force that was quickly assembled in March to respond to the growing threat. “From my perspective, Joel led the Santa Barbara elementary school community with his thoughtful, proactive approach. After Crane shuttered its doors, many others followed,” she said.

The head of school’s solicitous approach continues as Crane looks forward to honoring its graduates and considers plans for a return in the fall. Weiss is also making his way through the school roster, calling every family at the school to check in and assess their needs.

“With so much being done virtually, it’s most important to connect on a human level with our families,” Weiss said.

For admissions information, contact Erin Guerra, 805-969-7732 ext. 106 or visit www.craneschool.org.