Chiaravalle teachers Rebeccah Hartz and Paige Haden outside the school.

For a young child, the first day of school is part exciting, part overwhelming. Nothing reduces those fears like the smiling face of a welcoming teacher.

But now, add in the coronavirus. The teachers are wearing masks. Where’s the smile? Well, at Chiaravalle Montessori in Evanston, teachers like Paige Haden wear photo buttons, which show their smiling faces.

Haden teaches first through third graders in the mixed-grade Montessori system. “Part of what makes a child feel at home and comfortable,” she explains, “is a smile and body language.” Haden says she also “smiles with her eyes,” but having a button show the entire smile is “really special.”

Chiaravalle and another Montessori school, Beacon Academy, are the last schools in Evanston to open this fall, although they opened very differently. Those differences show the many issues schools face in this year of COVID, and how they choose to respond.

While both Chiaravalle and Beacon are Montessori schools, with the same core educational philosophy, they serve different constituencies. Chiaravalle’s students are 16 months old through grade 8. Chiaravalle opened Tuesday with both in-person and remote classes. Beacon is a high school, which opened Monday with e-learning only.

“We were planning to be hybrid up until a couple of weeks ago,” says Marja Brandon, Beacon’s head of school, with both online and in-person classes for Beacon’s Montessori and International Baccalaureate students. But with COVID positivity rates rising in suburban Cook County, the school switched to remote learning only.

Still, Brandon says, “we’re going to have a great year because we choose to have a great year. We’re not going to let COVID define it.”

Sixteen-year-old Kalman Slater is a junior at Beacon, a school with just over 200 students. Slater likes the small classes, even if they are online. “I don’t think remote learning is perfect in any way,” he says, but he understands the COVID reality and is confident in Beacon’s plan to deal with it. Interacting with friends, even on Zoom, is a plus. “We will be seeing each other’s faces. It helps with social emotional healing. It’s really nice to see everybody,” he says.

Jeanette Schar is the parent of a Beacon Academy senior, 17-year-old Lilly. Schar says students will do well with remote learning because “the ability to adapt is inherently in the lifeblood of our school.”

Back at Chiaravalle, they are adapting as well, even if it is being done differently.

Haden is no stranger there. She’s a Chiaravalle alum, toddler through eighth grade, and is now back to start her career. “So many teachers remember me when I was four years old,” she says of her current colleagues.

Chiaravalle usually has 350 students, but that number is down by about fifty because of social distancing requirements in the classrooms. The majority of families have chosen in-person school, although about 35 have their children learning remotely.

To make in-person learning safer, each classroom at Chiaravalle is divided into two pods. Normally, Haden would have about 25 students. Now, she has only eleven. That means less interaction with other kids, and makes contact tracing easier should a child or teacher contract the virus. “It’s foolish to assume we’ll have zero cases,” Haden says, considering the outside world. But she “fully supports in-person classes, especially at this age group” of young children. “I feel very confident” in the school’s health and safety plan, she says.

Marketing Director Beth Caldwell says Chiaravalle administrators “read the Illinois Department of Health and Illinois State Board of Education guidelines every day,” to make sure they can safely offer in-person schooling. Having that in-person option, particularly for pre-school, is especially important for parents who need to work. Remote education just won’t cut it with a 16-month old.

Still, Chairavalle is ready to go all-remote if necessary, depending on the status of the coronavirus. “I expect to ping-pong back and forth throughout the year,” Caldwell says.

As for Haden, the photo button she wears is a message not only to the children, but to herself. “This is me, it’s me. This is a safe space. It looks a little different, but we’ll get through this.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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