Private School This Fall

Upon returning from spring break, students at Briarcrest Christian School in Eads, TN didn’t skip a beat, as Briarcrest quickly began distanced-learning and educating students from home. Briarcrest President Caron Swatley thanks her administration and the school’s IT staff for accommodating such drastic changes. Remote learning, senior celebrations, and this year’s Briarcamp are discussed on this episode of the Main and Mulberry Podcast.

See the transcript below.

Anna Bell: Hello everyone. I’m Anna Bell and today I’m so thankful to have Briarcrest Christian School Headmaster, Caron Swatley with us to kind of talk with us about Briarcrest, a private school outside of Memphis, Tennessee, and how they’re operating under today’s new normal. Caron, thank you so much for being with us today.

Caron Swatley: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

AB: Yeah. Wow! It’s been such a whirlwind. I can’t imagine what all you guys have been going through. We know that schools were one of the first things that were shut down and might be one of the longest to remain closed, and I understand that Briarcrest went out for spring break and the kids didn’t come back because the school was closed. So kind of talk to me about making those decisions. What those initial weeks were like for you guys?

CS: Right. And you are correct. We were on spring break and the Monday that we were scheduled to return is when the recommendation by the Governor was made for schools to close. So we were very fortunate that our president, Mr. Merrill, had the foresight that this was a potential, you know, and really one that was a probability more than anything. So prior to spring break, we actually held meetings with our faculties and prepare them that this could be the reality at least for a while. And so we had already begun talking through some strategies that we would use and what the plan would look like. We actually had teachers from all three divisions in over spring break for us to do a more advanced planning. Therefore, on that Monday, our kids were actually in school just at home. So they never missed a beat, not a beat.

AB: That’s great! It sounds like you guys were doing everything you could to be as proactive as possible.

CS: Absolutely. We were. We also had the advantage of being a one-to-one school, well, fifth through 12th grade and then fourth grade and below. Our students are also just very well versed with using technology as a resource. And so implementing the technology, the online learning, the distant learning was really, a relatively smooth transition because of the preparation our kids have every day.

AB: I’m so glad you mentioned that because that was something I really wanted to talk about – your virtual program. Can you kind of tell us about the program and how well it worked out for you guys?

CS: Absolutely. And you are correct. It did work very well. We were literally up and running right away our fifth through 12th grade. Those students were actually having live lessons where discussions were taking place between the teacher and the students, you know, throughout the lesson. And they were doing that literally from the second day beginning that Tuesday. So therefore our kids, regardless of it being an honors class at the high school or a Bible class in middle school, they were gaining the interaction. It’s not as good as being in person, but I mean, what is enough? Right. But it was, it was good. Our kids were prepared for AP tests that just took place last week. They were prepared for their final tests that our fifth through 11th grade had or yes, fifth through 11th grade had, or having this week we still had honors programs. We still had, you know, fun celebrations of recognition for kindergarten, fifth grade, eighth grade, all of those special grades, you know, so we were really able to deliver a quality education and even for our little bitties, our twos, threes, fours and kindergarten. Right as well.

AB: That’s so wonderful! I mean, yes, kind of tells us too though, were there any challenges at first? Did you have any students who maybe didn’t have a laptop at home or internet access or anything like that? Were there any challenges with the virtual program at first?

CS: Well, there were challenges. You’re always going to have challenges with technology. We always say technology is a beautiful thing when it works. Right?

AB: When it works!

CS: Yes. But we are blessed with an IT staff. They just went above and beyond. We had members of our IT staff meet a family at Starbucks to fix a child’s computer. We had them deliver a computer to a family where they couldn’t get here. They just, their tireless work ethic and dedication to our students and families was incredible. But we also have the ability to remotely access a child’s laptop. So if the child was having trouble, all they had to do was share their screen and we were able to help them through things that are what we call operator errors versus new technological problems. So it was, it was a challenge, but it was so neat to see people selflessly serve.

AB: Yes, I know it. That is one beautiful thing that might’ve come out of all of this. There has been so many times that we’ve seen selfless acts and that’s one of them. That’s so nice to hear that you have everybody working together over there. I want to know too though about the virtual program. Is that going to be something Briarcrest will offer longterm, even after the school reopens?

CS: Well, a lot of this still remains to be seen. It depends on what the guidelines are at that particular time. Our hope is that we are back on campus in person because there’s so much to be said for those relationships that, our teachers develop with students and all. But what I can say with complete confidence is that our virtual program is one of excellence and we will simply get better with that. Should we need to, should we need to implement that in some form or fashion?

AB: Oh that’s great. And I know not only with the virtual program, with the school classes, but you guys have been using virtual technology for things like open houses and connecting with leaders. I love seeing that. Can you kind of tell us about those things as well?

CS: Oh, of course. Um, our communications director, Beth Rooks, had the idea early on when we saw that our April open house would not take place in person to do a virtual open house. And it was really neat to see, you know, the different administrators and our Admissions Director, Nancy Blaylock, you know, take videos at home and then send them in. And they were all put together and you know, to have the drone flying over the campus and to see that it’ll allow people from their own home to access our building, you know..

AB: The whole campus really.

CS: Right. And not just that, but each division we had a teacher and a student on there as well, so they were able to hear, from a personal side of what makes Briarcrest such a special place. So that was really neat. And then of course we continued on with that. Just last week, our middle school student government was sworn in virtually and Mr. Merrill, our president, and I have had some wonderful conversations with prospective families, as well as our administrators and some of the teachers. So it’s just, it’s really been a learning experience for all of us. And when we are all back on campus in August, it’s going to make our programs so much stronger because of everything that our teachers have learned.

AB: Oh, that’s so true. I know. All of us have had to get creative in one way or another. And like you said, we’ve not had a roadmap for any of this, but it’s only going to make us stronger because of these experiences, we’re learning from them, isn’t that right?

CS: That’s very true.

AB: So you mentioned a moment ago about some really special events and ways to kind of honor those that are moving on up. And so, but one thing is, it’s been a big downer for a lot of the seniors who have not been able to graduate in a typical fashion. But guys honored your seniors with a ‘Cruisin’ to Commencement’ caravan. Can you tell us about that event? That’s so sweet. I love that idea. And maybe the reaction you got from the Briarcrest class of 2020.

CS: Absolutely. ‘Cruisin’ to Commencement’ was the idea of our High School Principal, Eric Sullivan. And Eric is one of the most relational people you will ever meet. He came up with this idea and reached out to a few key people and from that point on, just ran with it. And what happened is our seniors last Saturday morning, which it was a really nice day, they all came with their cars, decorated. A lot of the cars were decorated in green and gold, but then also their college of choice. It was so neat to see that they still wanted to honor Briarcrest, but also look forward to, you know, their future.

AB: What’s ahead..

CS: Absolutely because we want our kids to have a strong alumni connection as well. So any way they came in their cars with their cars decorated, most of them had either their mom and dad with them or mom, dad and grandma or maybe sister and brother too. It was a family event as well. But as they pulled through, a route that we had through campus, they were greeted by their teachers, their coaches, their fine arts directors, retired teachers that came back and we were all lined on both sides of the route and just cheering and holding signs. Each senior had a sign with their name on it and decorated for the college that they’re going to attend and we just cheered for them. When they got to the mid point, our principal and director of student ministries, coach Ellis had a fun banter back and forth telling special things about the kid at all. And it was just such a sweet time. And then we had their picture taken by our school photographer that was sent to them. And then as they exited our, Assistant Principal and Football Coach, Brian Stewart had a big cookie that he handed out in an umbrella. So he was social distancing and, you know, just music playing. It was so sweet. So many of the parents and kids were texting and emailing, you know, faculty, teachers, administration and just saying we had no idea what to expect, but this was so much fun. As a matter of fact, several of them said this was better than graduation!

AB: Oh wow! Well you know, one thing’s for certain, nobody is ever going to forget that. You know it. That’s a memory that’s going to last a lifetime.

CS: That’s a great point. And some of them actually said that, but with that said, we are still planning to have graduation in either June or July. We are just remaining flexible to see what that needs to look like based on the guidelines

AB: We’re here are with Caron Swatley, Headmaster of Briarcrest Christian Schools. Caron has been telling us about how technology has been keeping her staff and all the students connected. And now I’d like to switch gears and kind of talk about the future for a little bit. So Ms. Caron, Briarcrest traditionally host Briarcamp that so many look forward to during the summer months. Kinda talk me through the decision making process of whether or not to host Briarcamp this year, and will you guys have Briarcamp the summer?

CS: Okay. We will have Briarcramp this summer. It is going to look different, than it has in the past. But one of the things that we are sensitive to is that, we have working parents and childcare is something that is very important to them. And if we are going to promote the opening of our economy, then we need to provide the childcare for our parents. So this year Briarcare here is going to focus on childcare, you know, more so than the extra summer camps and all that we’ve had in the past, at least for the month of June. So that’s where we’re going to head. Traditionally we have welcomed the community to attend Briarcamp each year, but in an effort to promote social distancing in a childcare setting, which does look different from what we think of as social distancing outside, we’re going to just keep our Briarcrest family together, you know for Briarcamp this summer.

AB: I understand. What are the age groups that typically attend Briarcamp? Cause like you say that a lot of these parents are going back to work, they’re going to need childcare. What are the age groups that typically attend.

CS: Two year old is where it begins and then we go through seventh grade.

AB: Right. Okay. And then kind of just talk to me, what’s the summer going to look like now that you’ve decided to move forward with Briarcamp 2020. What is the game plan for keeping the kids safe and your staff safe? I mean, will all the kids be wearing masks?

CS: You know, that’s probably a question that everybody wants to know and I will tell you that we have extensively researched, not only the CDC guidelines and the local guidelines from department of education and our health department and all, but we have also been diligent in researching several of the daycares that have remained open through all of the COVID-19 shutdown. They have remained open mainly for frontline, you know, essential workers. So we have adopted a lot of their best practices. Okay. We’ll use those. Our employees will be extensively trained. They will also be wearing mask because we know that mask are critical, you know, and, and stopping the spread and as far as our students, we are still working through exactly what that is going to look like. We want to make sure that we are being realistic in our expectations of which students can wear the mask but right now we are leaning towards a mask for students. Yes.

AB: Can you share with us any of those best practices that you were talking about? You know, honestly didn’t know that there was still a decent amount of childcare providers that were still open to help with those frontline employees that are still working throughout the shutdown. I’d love to know some of those best practices, if you’re willing to share those.

CS: Oh, absolutely. One of the biggest things that you can do in a childcare setting is to keep groups consistent. In other words, if you have a room of three year olds, then that particular room, in our case that will be limited to ten. So that particular room, look at that as a small family within our Briarcamp. So that’s your family. We’ll stay together as a family just like we have being quarantined. We stuck with our families. So that little family, that three year old family is going to travel throughout the day as a family. And so, when they go to the playground, they will be the only family on the playground. So it’s just them. So you’re minimizing risk by keeping that same family together throughout the entire day, and throughout the entire week. So there’s consistency among our students and there’s also consistency among our staff. That is one of the leading practices that CDC, DOE, these places that have remained open, that they had used that they feel is successful.

AB: That makes sense.

CS: Oh, absolutely. That, along with teaching good hygiene from the beginning, having health checks when the students are dropped off, limited to your building, there’s no other, you know, extra camps or extra people coming inside the building. Right. And just enhanced cleaning procedures, you know, that taking through not only at night but throughout the day. And then just good hygiene, washing your hands when you can because there’s nothing that beats good ole soap and water.

AB: That’s right. That’s the truth. And if anything, we’ve all learned to wash our hand through all of this, haven’t we?

CS: We have. So anyway, and then of course, plenty of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes and things like that as well. And then also just promoting, individual play, you know, when we can. And then also, so thinking about the things that the kids are allowed to play with, what are the coolest things to play with is like Playdough or kinetic sand. But unfortunately we won’t be doing those, this summer because there’s no way to sanitize that.

AB: Right.

CS: Yeah. So we have, we have really gotten in depth with the details.

AB: So, so important. And, you know Caron, I thank you so much for telling us through these things and I hope it’s going to be a wonderful summer. It sounds like you guys are doing everything possible to be proactive. So I love hearing that. But moving forward, can, what can you share with us maybe about school opening?

CS: Well, the first thing I can tell you again is that we are anticipating being on this campus. It’s in August. And we look forward to it. When we watched the teachers at ‘Cruisin through Commencement’ and saw their excitement and the joy on their faces over seeing the kids that they have not seen in two months. Except just, you know, on the computer really drove home the point that we want to do everything we can to be here for them. And again, to just minimize risk. So we are actually planning what we call Scenario A, B, and C. Okay. And our hope is that we will be back on campus, potentially dependent upon the guidelines. And what honestly happens with the Coronavirus once the heat and everything happens over the summer, we are, we are hoping that, that we will be here, if we need to be here with mask on and taking temperatures, and we will be prepared to do that if that’s what it takes to get our kids back.

AB: So kind of tell me what, what is the plan though in place if you do, you know, have to go back to virtual schooling if there is a resurgence,  fingers and toes crossed that that doesn’t happen.

CS: Well our plan will be to follow the guidelines. So it’s really dependent upon what the guidelines look like. But when you’re certainly working through, you know, what it would look like if we can still have school, but we need to limit our class size. We are prepared to work through that and still have our kids,  maximize kids’ time on campus is something that we’re certainly prepared for. And then obviously we feel like we have virtual learning to where it is in really good shape right now.

AB: So that’s always another option. Right. Do you think attendance and new students will remain consistent with previous years or are you experiencing a drop? Can you kinda talk to us about attendance?

CS: Oh, absolutely. We have had, as a matter of fact, yesterday, there were two different tours that I was able to speak with, we have had a lot of activity, a lot of parents that I believe have heard how well Briarcrest has handled this and how we, you know, like I said, our kids never missed a beat. Our kids were in school the entire year. The fourth quarter was not a wash, it was not optional. Our kids were online and they were learning and I believe that that word is out in the community. And so we are really encouraged by the amount of new activity that we have as well as the feedback from our existing families. They have been incredibly supportive.

AB: That’s so great. I’m so glad to hear it. You know, I know it’s been a struggle, but I want to thank you for your commitment to education and to all the adolescents as well, and really for all Briarcrest is illustrating during this time. So thank you. But I would like to give you the mic here. Kind of the last final question is, is there a message you might be willing to share with the community, or parents, or students right now?

CS: I think the message is clear to us, and that message is of hope that, that while it is a scary time. It is an unprecedented time. It’s one that we should realize that fear is, should not be in our vocabulary because we are not alone. We are walking right next to, the Lord and he is sovereign. And when we put our trust and our faith in him, that’s all that matters. So the message is the hope of Christ.

AB: Oh, that’s so great. That’s wonderful. We want to thank you again for your time and your insight, sharing it with us today. Ms. Caron, thank you so much. We sincerely appreciate it.

CS: Thank you.

Anna: Yes. Until next time, I’m Anna Bell, sending you all well wishes.


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