Why we opened in person, and 5 lessons about keeping our school community healthy and safe

Posted on [rt_reading_time label="• Reading Time:" postfix="min read"]

This article was published by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute on September 21, 2020 by Aaron Daly and Eric Tucker.

Education sure looks different in a global pandemic. Some schools are opening for in-person classes. Many are teaching remotely. Some are using hybrid models. All the while, school administrators and parents are nervously keeping tabs on state watchlists to see who’s at risk and where.

Uncertainty abounds. Anxiety is running rampant. And everybody’s rightly concerned about health and safety.

At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the fact that, one way or another, school needs to happen this year. At Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools (LAB), where we both serve in senior leadership roles, we opened our school doors in August, even as much of New York City’s larger public school system remains closed. We’ve been preparing for this since March. We’ve done due diligence to help make sure our plans safeguard the health of the school community and prioritize learning for all students. And we have dramatically changed what in-person school looks like to reduce the risks of exposure to Covid-19.

Now we’re sharing those plans and asking for feedback from you, the readers.

Adopting a “meaningful options” mindset

To ensure our families have meaningful options, we are offering students two options: enhanced remote instruction or a five days per week of in-person schooling.

We recognize that, while there are plenty of good reasons for people to choose remote school, there are also compelling reasons to reopen school doors. Many kids benefit more from in-person instruction, and schools also provide basic needs for many families, including free breakfast and lunches, access to technology, specialized instruction for students living with disabilities, and socio-emotional support.

Our goal is to build a learning environment that prioritizes and protects the safety, health, and well-being of everyone in our community during this crisis. To help other schools do the same, we created a guide for going back to school during the pandemic, titled “Public School Facilities Planning in the Era of Covid-19.”

Here are five lessons from the document geared towards a healthy and safe return.

Lesson 1: Prioritize preventing the spread

Brooklyn LAB has adopted a number of strategies and structural solutions to prevent virus spread and support personal health measures. Among them are specifics about face coverings, physical distancing, hand hygiene, physical barriers, HVAC adjustments to optimize fresh air, and more. As part of our prevention efforts, we also put together a library of visual icons that encourage scholars, teachers, and staff members take important preventative measures like wear their face coverings, wash their hands, and submit for temperature checks. Think of these icons like little standalone signs without words; one glance and they tell you everything you need to know. The icon for “face coverings required,” for instance, is an image of a mask. Given the way phrases like “asynchronous” or “staggered schedule” are being thrown around, we hope these icons help achieve clarity.

Lesson 2: Prepare to contain the spread

Brooklyn LAB also devised a number of strategies to contain the spread of Covid-19, including rethinking arrival routines, redesigning pedestrian flow, establishing a contact-tracing ecosystem, and addressing shared amenities. We re-engineered drop off and arrival routines that include temperature checks and staggered entrances through a new covered pergola in front of the building. We’re calling this area our Front Porch. We also created cool-down areas in classrooms for our scholars to calm down emotionally when they’re upset and need to relax.

A big part of containing the spread happens when a student or staff member tests positive. We worked with partners, including Parabola Project, the Educating All Learners Alliance, and the Donovan Group, to create dozens of freely accessible School Communication Templates that exemplify a direct, transparent, public health-informed approach.

Lesson 3: Continue to learn

Our new approaches to facilitate learning and continually improve include reconfiguring classrooms to account for up to fifteen students at six feet apart, developing a cadre of adults who serve as scholar success coaches to guide and counsel scholars as they move through the new approach to school, and empowering staff members to be ambassadors to families and collaboratively solve problems that might include illness, financial woes, or confusion with assignments.

Lesson 4: Release plans and solicit feedback

In our process to safeguard the health and safety of our school community, our team consulted experts, listened to parents, and surveyed scholars, teachers, and staff members. Over the first few months of the 2020–2021 school year, we will continue to solicit feedback from insiders, outsiders, and public health experts. While we may not incorporate every piece of feedback we receive, we intend to listen and carefully consider suggestions, which is key to understanding our blind spots.

Lesson 5: Regularly evaluate what’s working

Another aspect of our future-proofing efforts is regular assessment and evaluation of how we’re doing. We will continue to engage the core constituents who matter most to us—the parents, teachers, staff members, and scholars—through more focus groups, town halls, and conversations. We will be in regular communication and will continually reevaluate our approach to ensure it is addressing community worries from a public health perspective.

Guides and pointers are not enough on their own. School communities need to work together to transform school in an era of Covid-19, and we are committed to supporting everyone in our school community to educate our scholars in a way that supports their health and safety and ensures they are learning and thriving. The approach we’ve created is as much about changing school norms as it is about screening temperatures and providing hand-washing stations. We also recognize that there is no one solution for every school, so our approach is to engage in practical and ongoing conversations with other school leaders and policymakers, so that we can all learn from each other.

Yes, school is happening again. But at a time when everything feels new, scary, and potentially dangerous, we are better moving forward together.