Preparing for the ebb and flow of schools reopening and closing

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Preparing for the ebb and flow of schools reopening and closing

When the pandemic first struck the United States in March, district and school leaders did the unthinkable and completed the school year remotely, educating and supporting students to the best of their ability despite little time to prepare for success.

For the most part, families and school communities were forgiving of the remote learning plans districts assembled with limited resources and time. But for all districts, whether they begin this school year remotely or in-person, epidemiologists explain that resurgences in the virus’s spread are expected, which will likely result in school re-closings. And this time around, communities will expect more from their school districts—making preparations for opening and reclosing crucial to districts’ successful operation and education of students.

Here are six actions districts need to take now to prepare for potential re-closures this fall. EAB’s District Leadership Forum plans to release several tools and resources to help districts support these actions over the coming weeks.

Action #1: Leverage interested parents to assist with virtual instruction and be clear about equity concerns of ‘pandemic pods’ 

In the past few weeks, the new concept of ‘pandemic pods’ has been circulating in headlines. Also referred to as microschools or learning pods, these pods are parent-organized groups of children created as a solution to support students during remote instruction.

Pods are simply parent-organized small groups of students who learn in the same space, but their structure varies. Some parents plan to pool funds to pay for private tutors and/or separate, private spaces (outside of the home) to support learning. Others plan to dedicate a parent pod leader or rotate parents to distribute childcare duties. And while some pods plan to supplement the public district’s curriculum, others are separating from districts and choosing their own curriculum, similar to the homeschool model.

As the New York Times and many other news outlets have reported, the inequity and privilege inherent in these pandemic pods are concerning. Many districts are trying to figure out how to manage these pods to avoid worsening inequities and segregation, and how to ensure students remain enrolled in the public school system to avoid the loss of funding.

Districts can take a few important steps to manage pod formation and influence families to think critically before signing their children up.

  • Announce that the district will not honor requests to assign students to the same classroom to facilitate pod grouping. EAB has a letter template that districts can use to communicate to parents their concerns with pods and their policies related to them. Access the template here.
  • Design options to capture parental investment in supporting virtual learning for more than just their own children. Read how here.

Action #2: Partner with community organizations to create a plan to support families in need of childcare during extended school closures

To support working parents, several school districts are providing childcare or partnering with community organizations to provide care during extended school closures. This spring, New York City provided childcare for essential workers and has plans to expand city-sponsored childcare to support 100,000 PK-8 students this fall. While this solution may not work for every US district, there are several replicable childcare models that districts and regions across the nation are considering:

  • Community-organized spaces: Local churches, community organizations, and the YMCA in one Tennessee county plan to coordinate and host spaces for parents to send children to participate in their virtual instruction. The YMCA is leading coordination.
  • School-organized learning hubs: This fall Harford County Public Schools in Maryland and the city of San Francisco have released plans to provide learning centers for students who need it most. Because these centers would only host a limited number of the highest-needs students (e.g., students experiencing homelessness, English language learners), they would be able to do so more safely.
  • Expanded services at childcare centers: In one Virginia county, local childcare centers are preparing to expand their offerings to host elementary-aged children while they participate in virtual classrooms.
  • Streamlined childcare licensing processes: Some districts have expanded relationships with organizations that oversee local childcare licensing to streamline the process and increase both the number of and access to licensed childcare providers in their area.

One vital element of providing childcare support during building closures is that districts must communicate why they can offer school-supported childcare but not in-person schooling. EAB plans to build a communication template to explain why childcare might be okay, when limited and socially distanced, and more attainable than in-person school for many districts.

Action #3: Develop a process and communication plan for reclosing, especially in case of an infection within the school

This school year will be filled with uncertainty and anxiety for everyone, which makes strong district communication plans crucial. The plans should be proactive and honest—even when there are still unknowns—to ensure the trust of the community.

A transparent communication approach that proactively puts forwards solutions and outlines reasons for decisions is the key to districts getting their students, families, and staff onboard with any closing or opening decisions. If the school community trusts the district to give them appropriate information, in a timely manner, they are more likely to feel safe and protected when school buildings are open and supported when they are closed.

Below, we’ve compiled a few key questions that many district communication plans are missing the opportunity to respond to, even if the answers are not yet clear.

What pandemic metrics would constitute either reopening or reclosing?

Hamilton County School District is a good example of a district using local health expert guidelines in their communication plans. Their reopening webpage references criteria provided by the county’s health department to determine which phase, and corresponding school reopening model, the district will operate in.  Not all districts have access to such clear guidelines, but district leaders can look at states and organizations that do (e.g., Harvard, Oregon, WHO) to better inform their communication approach.

What is the process if there is a positive case within the district community?

The CDC is vague in their guidance on who within a school would need to quarantine if a positive case is confirmed and what level of infection within a school would cause shutdowns. Some states, regions, and districts have laid out some information on these processes, but there is little consistency or standardization for other districts to draw from.

In New York City, for example, two cases in unrelated classrooms within the same school building could trigger a full school (but not district) shutdown. California mandates that schools close if 5% of the school population tests positive.

Districts should work closely with their county and health state departments to outline what their process and timelines would be and what level of infection would warrant full school or even district closures. If district leaders cannot communicate answers yet, they should make sure the community knows the steps they are taking to provide answers.

What health and safety protocols can my student(s) expect when they return to school?

Even though many districts will remain closed to begin the year, they should still prepare robust safety measures for when they do reopen doors. Districts should consistently share the health and safety protocols (e.g., social distancing, hygiene, sanitization, ventilation, PPE policies, health screening, contact tracing) that will be in place when buildings reopen. Proactively communicating clear plans now will help families and staff feel safer when it is time to come back.

Districts should also provide information on how they will strive to achieve strong academic rigor as well as robust social and mental wellness supports for their students and staff.

EAB will be releasing additional communication planning resources across the summer and early fall. In the meantime, check out EAB’s piece on how leaders sustain communications in an extended crisis.

Action #4: Improve your district’s ability to reach, engage, and deliver effective academic instruction to students virtually

District leaders share that their number one priority is to improve virtual instruction by ensuring student engagement and academic progress to reverse the ‘COVID slide.’

Schools need to not only reverse learning regression from this spring but also work to prevent additional regression if they are required to return to fully virtual learning. To be successful, districts should first decide what material to include to make up for lost time. Many educators are overwhelmed in trying to cover unprecedented amounts of instructional content in less time.

The good news is that educators do not need to cover everything in the previous year’s curricula to help students catch up. To aid the instructional planning process, EAB developed a Curricula Prioritization Tool to help educators identify and prioritize high-impact content and activities within their existing curricula.

Districts also must teach the material they have identified as high-priority effectively so that the COVID-19 slide of the spring is reversed and not exacerbated. Given that many districts will begin the school year remotely, EAB has been working to gather lessons learned and best practices to support districts in providing improved virtual education. Learn more in our upcoming webinar.

In the meantime, explore five lessons for virtual learning and teaching from an online K-12 school.

Action #5: Adopt a district-wide LMS and use the same LMS to train teachers on effective virtual instruction

If your district has not already adopted a district-wide LMS, you should. A single, district-wide LMS allows for a more streamlined student and family experience, providing consistency across their K12 academic career.

For example, some districts have separate LMSs for younger students and older students. For a parent who has students in both first grade and eighth grade, this would mean having to master multiple LMSs, making it much harder for them to facilitate virtual learning effectively. A single LMS reduces the amount of new technology that students must learn as they transition to the next grade level. It also can save districts money by reducing redundant technology contracts and benefiting from bulk licensure purchasing.

Many districts were forced into adopting a single LMS district-wide this spring, but teachers and students need to continue to use the LMS for it to be effective. Here are some best-LMS practices to ensure your teachers and your students are better prepared for a virtual environment.

  • Deliver teacher professional development (PD) through your LMS. Districts should model PD delivery through the same channels they want teachers to educate students. Providing PD through the district’s LMS will better equip teachers to instruct students by giving teachers firsthand knowledge on what works and what doesn’t when facilitating learning through these tools. This is also true with other technology platforms. Districts should provide experiential, active learning opportunities for teachers on these same platforms that can then be replicated with their students.
  • Require teachers to post all assignments in the LMS and keep it updated regardless of if teaching face-to-face or virtually. This allows for a smoother transition to virtual instruction as everything will already be available in the system.
  • Require teachers to use the LMS to deliver at least one virtual assignment or lesson weekly, regardless of current building status. This gives teachers and students practice learning in this format, so they will be better prepared to do so effectively if a district must transition to fully remote status.

Action #6: Create family distance learning profiles in your SIS

When school buildings closed this spring, many districts were left scrambling to get the most updated contact information to reach students, their families, and staff. This forced many districts to clean and audit student information system (SIS) data to be better prepared to quickly contact and share information to their district community around building status and other pandemic-related updates.

Moving forward, districts should create more robust family profiles by collecting information and inputting it into their SIS. This will help districts and teachers target appropriate supports to individual students during periods of virtual learning. For example, districts could use these family distance learning profiles to better target internet connectivity or device resources and prioritize who to provide childcare to during extended closures. Further, teachers could use this data to understand which students might need more frequent 1:1 tutoring to keep them engaged and on track academically.

To help districts accomplish this, EAB plans to create a survey (click here to explore a preliminary version) that districts could use to help create family distance learning profiles in the SIS. This will include information districts should collect from families such as:

  • Device availability and internet access
  • Childcare needs
  • Meal service needs
  • Other supports that might help based on experiences this spring

Be on the lookout for this resource in the coming weeks.

By focusing on these six priorities, districts can proactively prepare for potential re-closing and ensure they can meet the operational and educational expectations of their communities. Be sure to subscribe to the blog to keep up to date on the latest planning resources available to assist school districts.

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