By Brian Stephens, Caissa Public Strategy
All sectors of society have been in constant disruption for months due to the coronavirus crisis, and in few other places have these changes been as acutely felt as in school districts.
As everyone, particularly parents and families, prepare for the new school year, what is your game plan? When it comes to planning of any type, the intention is to be prepared and proactive. But do a quick check-in. Specifically, with your back-to-school plans, are you responding to external events – or strategizing in advance of them?
Strategy is predictive, looking ahead in time – six, 12, 18 months and maybe longer – to ask and answer how the district will approach both foreseeable variables and unknown ones.
While no one has a crystal ball, choosing to proactively strategize allows us to be our most flexible when less-expected matters are thrown at us. With maximized flexibility, you can more easily follow the science and keep students, families and the community safe.
So, take a deep breath – this is a longer one.
Be as prepared as you can for all likely scenarios, particularly those that impact your ability to use your district’s physical space.
Across the country, many school districts have shifted to a hybrid model of online/remote learning and in-school teaching. But even that could become untenable. If new cases spiral out of control, some regions may have to go into lockdown.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that safe social distancing is about three-to-six feet between students. You may consider capping class sizes and/or creating cohorts, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as groups of students and staff staying together throughout the school day. A benefit of this is less disruption to in-person learning for all students at school should a student (or students) in the cohort test positive and need to isolate. More on that below.
Consider how students will be transported to and from school. Some districts may consider suspending bus or other transportation because social distancing is tougher to maintain. At that point, parents will need to serve as the transportation, which may not be possible for many families.
School districts know that school meals are as much of a lifeline that keeps many children fed during the week. If you cannot use cafeteria space due to social distancing, can you implement a grab-and-go meal system, or use district kitchens to assemble meal kits that all students, regardless of where they are learning, can take home every week?
Just how well is your remote learning infrastructure set up? With a hybrid model, an important consideration is how long it would take, and how difficult it would be to get every single student in the district set up at home if another shutdown or safer at home order was implemented and in-person learning became impossible.
Some districts planned to retain a hybrid model before an onslaught of troubling data about the virus rendered those plans impractical or unsafe. Experts advising one urban district with which Caissa works suggested that by September, it could have a per capita caseload on the scale of New York’s. Quickly, they changed their game plan. However, by knowing their blind spots, it was not a difficult transition once communicated well – and over-communicated – to parents.
Establish real-time monitoring to test the strengths of what you already have in place. Resolve issues on a smaller scale before they get out of control on a larger one (perhaps the overarching lesson of this whole crisis).
We’ve established before that your communication with parents needs to be consistent, frequent and on-point. Being open to feedback – not just propping a window but keeping the door wide open for parents – will be one of your biggest opportunities for resolution when there are hiccups.
Don’t wait for feedback, though. Check in with parents and ask, even setting up a phone bank system, if necessary.
What are both parents and students saying about virtual learning platforms? Are they facing difficulties? Can some students not complete their schoolwork at home due to lack of internet access or space? What can be done to mitigate those issues? Common but distanced outdoor space to perform work might be one answer, and the distribution of mobile hotspots to houses with an identified need is another.
What happens when someone tests positive for COVID-19? This could either be your easiest question or your toughest scenario, depending on how well you’ve strategized on the front end and the availability of levers to pull once a case has been confirmed.
A cohort model likely means that an entire school would not have to quarantine if there are one or two confirmed cases within that cohort, producing minimal disruption to those students participating in in-person learning. Even without cohorts, the CDC doesn’t feel that a single case generally means a whole school should be shut down.
Be as flexible as possible with COVID-19-positive staff and students. Make sure your attendance policies are adapted and well-understood and that they excuse virus-related absences. Online learning needs to be identical to in-person learning to prevent anyone from falling behind should a student or group of students need to switch over.
For teachers, they should be permitted to request remote work where feasible, but must outline an action plan to the principal or vice principal on how lesson plans will be handled. They, too, should be urged to report any issues encountered with online platforms, and it’s worth designating IT point-people who teachers can approach with issues in real-time.
Lastly, work within your district to combat the stigma of a positive diagnosis. Students and staff may be self-conscious or embarrassed, but it is critical that the novel coronavirus is handled matter-of-factly and as an issue concerning everyone’s health and safety. Listen to what the school communities are saying so that any misconceptions can be quickly corrected.
Breathe. Relax. Know you’ve got this, and that through working together, any challenge or contingency can be dominated.
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