Emergency Backpacks, Outdoor Classes and Other Strategies for a Successful School Reopening

Sep 24, 2020

One of the components of the Homestead School’s reopening strategy involved the creation of a video.

Realizing that there was a lot of fear and uncertainty among families as to what the new school year would look like, staff at Homestead, a pre-K-8 Montessori school in Glen Spey, N.Y., decided to show them. Virtually.

The video took families through the newly established arrival process at school, showing them where and what their kids would do when they were dropped off. It panned to footage of someone using a fog machine to clean classroom materials. Teachers even came on screen—absent their masks—to introduce themselves and put parents and caregivers at ease. In short, it illustrated what each step of the school day would look like, under a pandemic.

“That way everybody felt like they knew what they were getting into, because it is so different than the way it was before school shut down,” said Nisha Gupta, the head of academic and financial affairs at Homestead.

Not every school shot and produced a video in anticipation of its reopening this fall. But most school leaders understand the importance of what Homestead is doing: Communication with families, and clear expectation-setting, is key to a safe and successful start to the school year.

It’s why Gupta and the other school and district leaders who spoke at a recent online event said they sent out surveys over the summer, asking families about their comfort levels and preferences for reopening—be it in-person, virtual or some blend of the two.

Attendance structures based on an EdSurge/Social Context Labs analysis of 373 plans published by U.S. K-12 school districts in mid-September 2020.

Frequent Communication Is Critical

“Communication had to be constant,” said Jeremiah Newell, the superintendent of Accell Day and Evening Academy, a tuition-free public charter school in Mobile, Ala. that serves students in grades 9-12.

Newell said that, in lieu of morning and afternoon announcements over the PA system in the school building, he and staff at his school recorded videos throughout the week during remote learning last spring, shouting out student achievements, highlighting staff successes and keeping the whole school community abreast of changes. Those communications, he said, went out to families via email, the school listserv, social media and text messages.

“Did it take time to construct those messages? Absolutely. But taking the time to do that—with our faces and voices, to humanize—really helped us to continue to bring our community along in the process,” Newell said.

Gupta and Newell are among the five educators who spoke during the U.S. Department of Education’s Sept. 23 virtual panel aimed at highlighting successful strategies and best practices around school reopening.

Backpacks at the Ready

Glen East, the superintendent of Gulfport School District in Mississippi, said his district, with about 7,000 students, opened in early August with 70 percent of students reporting in person and 30 percent choosing to start the year fully virtual.

The district’s main goal for reopening was clear: If students had to miss school and stay home for an extended period of time, whether because of an exposure to COVID-19 or a positive test result, they wanted to ensure students could continue learning at home, immediately and seamlessly.

The solution they devised for K-8 students makes use of pre-loaded backpacks. When a student finds out he or she has been exposed, or if the student starts showing symptoms, that student is sent home with one of the many backpacks the school staff stocked with all the items they need for remote learning, including a device and a mobile hotspot.

District connectivity policies based on an EdSurge/Social Context Labs analysis of the public communications of 375 U.S. K-12 school districts in mid-September.

“The very next day,” East said, “they can join virtually. They don’t miss a day.”

For kindergarteners, these backpacks may also be filled with manipulatives their teacher is using in class that week. For eighth graders, it may have items like a calculator or a protractor, depending on the math concept they are learning. The backpacks are checked and items refreshed weekly, East said.

“In this emergency world, of things that could happen to you—a positive test, symptomatic, quarantine—our system allows [students] to go home and they are present the next day in class,” he said.

In the first week of the school year, the district had to quarantine a “large number” of high schoolers, East said. “No COVID is what we’re looking for, but since our August start, 16 students have tested positive. That’s an OK situation. And none of those students missed virtual instruction because of the backpacks we’re giving out.”

Thinking Outside the Classroom

Gupta, the administrator at Homestead in New York, said her school’s embrace of the Montessori teaching style meant having to develop a reopening plan that allowed for hands-on activities, free expression and lots of moving around.

First, they removed some of the furniture from classrooms and marked the floor with dots separated six feet apart “so students could still choose where to work and stay socially distanced,” Gupta said.

They also grouped students and teachers into cohorts, each of which is isolated from the others.

Then they moved as much learning as possible outside. Homestead is situated on a campus with 85 acres of hills, fields, streams and forests, which made it a great candidate for outdoor learning (though Gupta noted that “you really don’t need all that. You just need fresh air.”)

Homestead now has two teachers for every classroom, Gupta said, so half of the class learns inside with one teacher and the other half learns outside with the second teacher.

Outside, the youngest students are learning leaf identification, the difference between living and non-living things, and the distinctions between plants, animals and minerals. They’re also incorporating counting and letters into the outdoors. If a teacher picks up a red leaf, the class can count its veins together and spell out its color—R-E-D. They’ve compared bark from different types of trees, and learned about vertebrates and invertebrates, Gupta said. Sometimes they sit in silence.

Elementary students are learning indigenous American creation stories, she added, and using the materials found in nature to create mixed-media visualizations of the stories that they hear. Middle-school students are studying the work of experts like Jane Goodall, a primatologist.

“The lessons naturally emerge from what students are interested in,” Gupta added. “We’ve been very organic.”

Classes also sometimes work on the blacktop, using chalk and the asphalt on school grounds to go through academic lessons they would have covered inside.

The school plans to continue teaching and learning outdoors as the weather changes. If it rains, students can shelter under one of the nine tepees erected on campus by a Native American elder. And when winter comes, they hope to be ready; Gupta said the school recently applied for a grant to purchase snowshoes for students.

“Our goal is just to keep the learning happening and make it be outdoors as much as possible, where kids are safest and, honestly, are happiest,” she said.


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