Ed leaders share best practices for reopening schools

Rain or shine, snow or no snow, the students of Homestead School, a private Montessori in Glen Spey, New York, will be spending a good part of their school days outside. There they will learn about vertebrates, biodiversity, writing poetry and more.

Using the campus’ 85 acres was the best and safest way school leaders determined in-person learning could continue amid a pandemic.

“We put our attention to how we could move experiential learning outdoors. We thought it was so important to get the kids back on campus,” said Nisha Gupta, head of financial affairs, head of curriculum, and a middle school teacher at Homestead School.

Gupta shared her school’s successes and challenges with face-to-face instruction on a webinar panel Wednesday hosted by the U.S. Department of Education and moderated by Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Frank Brogan. 

Gupta and the four other school system leaders who spoke on the webinar said while some or all of their students are attending classes in-person, they all offer a virtual learning component for students who can’t or don’t want to attend face-to-face. 

In a video message played during the webinar, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised schools that are finding creative ways to bring students back together on campus, while also acknowledging alternative teaching formats.

“No one suggests every single child must be behind a desk in a classroom full-time or health realities on the ground won’t cause temporary disruptions,” DeVos said. “We do know and however believe that, as the rule, schools must be open for in-person learning as an important option for families who want and need it.”

Where school doors are open for in-person instruction, there are several common themes occurring across the country, according to the school administrators participating in the department’s webinar.

Communicating with the community

Like many other schools and school systems across the country, Lake Mead Christian Academy, a K-12 private school in Henderson, Nevada, surveyed families about their preferences for learning options before the 2020-21 school year began and continued to keep the community updated as those plans became finalized.

“We stayed very connected to parents, giving them unique ways to connect with us,” said Sue Blakeley, the school’s founder and administrator.

The webinar panelists said constant communication with families and the larger community helped their school systems gain the confidence of stakeholders that schools were being thoughtful about reopening plans.

Jeremiah Newell, chief operating officer of the Mobile Area Education Foundation in Alabama, said his school system recorded short videos about the school planning process to share with parents through email, text messages and social media. The school system also ran 30- or 60-second TV spots to reach the broader community. 

“By taking the time to provide that constant messages and to do so with face and with voice so that we can humanize our conversations, not just put it out there in letters, really helped us to continue to bring our community along through the process,” Newell said.

Homestead School created videos for students and families that demonstrated school arrival and safety procedures, Gupta said. In addition, before the school year began, teachers recorded videos for their classes, showing them without their masks outside the school building and with their masks on inside the building so students could identify their teachers in both situations.

Understanding the potential and challenges of technology

In providing a variety of options for learning this school year that includes in-person, hybrid, virtual, night classes or more, school leaders were challenged with logistical and staffing barriers, school leaders say.

Access to devices and the internet for remote learning and teaching continues to be a concern. The Kershaw County School District in Camden, South Carolina, has given devices to each student and partnered with churches, restaurants and other community members to help provide free Wi-Fi to students who are learning remotely but dealing with access issues. More than 5,000 of the district’s 11,000 students are learning in-person currently, Robbins said.

“Our goal is to get back to normal operations and try to get as many of our students back in the buildings for face-to-face instruction as much as possible,” said Kershaw Superintendent Shane Robbins.

Newell said his school system is challenged with creating a seamless connection between its in-person and hybrid learning models. It also offers small-group night classes.

“Sitting on a computer all day is nowhere near the same as moving from one class to another,” he said. “We’ve had to be very thoughtful about when is the student needing to be in-person, in a synchronous arrangement and when should they be in an asynchronous arrangement. That’s been one of our areas of learning we’re working on, and we’ve made some progress there.”

Keeping plans organized

Several school administrators on the panel said their school systems relied on staff, outside experts and community participation to make sure every aspect of the education reopening process was considered. 

“I can’t imagine opening our buildings for face-to-face instruction without community support and partnerships. I just don’t think it would have been possible,” said Robbins.

Many school systems invited community members, staff and parents to participate on task forces that could focus on certain parts of the reopening plan. The Kershaw school district and the Gulfport School District in Mississippi used its strategic plans as guides for developing 2020-21 school year plans, making sure unique situations for transportation, food, instruction and more were addressed as the clock ticked down to the first day school.

School systems are even making advanced plans for when a student or teacher can no longer attend in-person instruction because of an illness or other factors. 

Glen East, superintendent of the Gulfport district, said teachers have filled backpacks with class materials and computers, so if a student or teacher needs to isolate at home, they can take a backpack and have all the materials they need for that week to continue teaching or learning. The materials in the backpacks are updated once a week with the next week’s learning materials.

“We wanted to make sure everyone knew education would continue,” East said.

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