Westside Neighborhood School helps students succeed during the pandemic

By Kamala Kirk

Chris Pearson, Athletics Director at Westside Neighborhood School, leads students in outdoor activities.

Schools are the cornerstones of communities and COVID-19 has impacted educational institutions around the world, resulting in the shutdown of schools and posing major challenges to teachers, students and families. As a result, children’s academic performance has been affected, along with their progress in cognitive, emotional and social developmental.

Since the onset of the pandemic last March, Westside Neighborhood School (WNS) in Playa Vista quickly pivoted and worked diligently with public health officials to address ongoing changes to health and safety regulations while supporting students’ academic needs and well-being.

“Like everyone else, we had to transition to online learning,” said Brad Zacuto, Head of School at WNS. “We hired an online learning specialist, did training all summer, and we upgraded our technology equipment infrastructure. The students have coaches they check in with virtually one-on-one at the end of the day. We also majorly invested in our school’s physical plan to prepare for the possibility of having kids back on campus and doing it safely.”

In addition to following all of the protocols that the Department of Health required, WNS invested in a new HVAC circulatory and filtration system, installed plexiglass shields on all the desks and added more sinks on campus to make hand washing more accessible. They also invested in PPE gear that teachers and staff needed in order to be safe.

“One of the things I’m proud of at WNS is that we prioritize keeping people safe,” Zacuto said. “We’re also one of the first schools to have a very robust COVID-19 testing and surveillance program. We’ve been testing teachers weekly for months now and we’re testing students weekly as well. We have not had any cases on campus yet and our success has been due in large part to the way our parents and students have partnered with us on adhering to protocols and guidelines, and the way our community has worked together in communicating with us and the surveillance testing that we’re doing.”

The private independent school, which has over 500 students from preschool through 8th grade, had to completely reorganize its classroom structure as well. A typical elementary school class has around 24 children with two fully credentialed teachers, but WNS has divided groups in half and hired additional staff to work with smaller groups of students.

In October, WNS welcomed back its kindergarteners and first-graders under an approved waiver. With the recent announcement from LADPH, third through fifth-graders are in the process of returning to full-day on-campus learning. Fridays are reserved as a professional development day for teachers and for middle school students to participate in outdoor conditioning and social emotional learning (SEL) activities, which range from art to robotics. All activities take place outdoors where students wear masks while social distancing, providing a great opportunity for them to connect with their teachers and classmates.

“When the kids came back, you could see the joy on their faces even though they were all wearing masks and keeping their distance,” Zacuto shared. “We sometimes underestimate how resilient and flexible children are. They would rather wear a mask and be at school with their friends. Of course there are compromises, but it looks and feels a lot more like school has felt in the past. We will be looking for ways to bring our sixth-graders back for more on-campus learning in March and continue with our Friday outdoor SEL days for our middle school students. We are making plans now to have our entire middle school return to campus this spring once we have permission to do so.”

WNS has also been successful at hosting virtual events for students and has offered a variety of fun and engaging activities such as a dance party with a DJ, an improv event with comedians and writers, and a virtual book fair with a panel of authors that were all WNS alumni.

“Throughout this experience, we’ve learned what works really well and we’ve discovered new opportunities to do things we might not have done otherwise,” Zacuto said. “We know we have the capacity to adapt to what we must, but we recognize that we can always do better. I think that even when we do return mostly to normal, there are some things that we have been doing, including uses of technology, that we will want to continue with moving forward.”

Zacuto added that part of what makes WNS such a great school is the faculty, which is highly collaborative, imaginative and progressive. The school’s pandemic management team is made up of teachers, administrators and staff who frequently meet to help one another resolve various issues that arise.

“We recognize the advantage we have in being a private independent school and that really fuels us to do things that we hope will help other schools as well,” Zacuto said. “I think what we’re doing here could be a model for public schools, whether it’s how to get a campus ready and safely open things for kids or developing strategies for diversity, equity and inclusion. That’s what motivates a lot of the work many of us are doing that extends beyond the walls of this school.”

For more information, visit wns-la.org