Planning the Safe Reopening of Our Schools

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The extent of the challenges and unknowns involved in safely reopening our schools may seem daunting, but educational organizations and schools now involved in the process are developing helpful frameworks and innovative solutions that show what can be accomplished and how.

Representatives of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), accompanied by a team working on the plan for a Brooklyn, NY charter school, explained during a recent edWebinar, sponsored by Digital Promise, how they are proceeding and what has already resulted. High-stakes decisions and a lot of work still remain, but the progress made so far can help other educators and stakeholders proceed while also continuing to learn from each other.

The last point is one of the key takeaways from the edWebinar, as teachers, parents and other members of the community not only need and deserve to be heard during the planning process, they can actually contribute crucial insights and expertise that will facilitate and accelerate the safe reopening of schools.

Combining Public Health with High-Quality Instruction

As explained by Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, Senior Director for Education Issues at the AFT, the reopening framework developed by the AFT is considered a road map rather than a blueprint, because they don’t have all the answers yet, and many of the decisions should be based on local facilities and circumstances. A top-down, one-size-fits-all template simply cannot be effective due to the diversity of America’s communities, schools, and students.

The AFT framework focuses on when and how to reopen, but also considers when to reclose if necessary. With the ongoing safety of students and staff as the number-one priority, the framework requires the use of science and data to guide the reopening process and emphasizes the importance of meeting the needs of all students, including those who are at risk or have special needs.

Key “pillars” included in the AFT framework include continued declines in the number of new COVID-19 cases, and having the infrastructure and resources needed to test, trace, and isolate new cases, in order to prevent new outbreaks from occurring due to close contact in school settings. There also needs to be alignment of public health tools with high-quality instruction; the involvement of workers, parents and other community members in all planning; and investment in reopening so that layoffs and the need for any renovations of buildings do not undermine students’ education or safety.

Dr. Lisa Thomas, an Associate Director, Educational Issues at the AFT, focused in on some of the more specific issues that planning teams need to work through. These include not just students’ physical well-being but also their emotional health after a prolonged period of isolation, which may have included personal traumas due to the impact of the coronavirus. Staff members need targeted professional development to prepare them for the new circumstances in which they will be providing classroom instruction. Also, each school’s unique infrastructure needs to considered, especially in regard to transportation, sanitation, and technology.

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Developing Equitable and Innovative Solutions

The planning team at the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools, led by Executive Director Eric Tucker, not only engaged members of their community in the planning process, but actually produced a brief video inviting them to participate. As a result, the team gained access to the expertise and resources that some parents and other community members could provide, while also making sure that a diverse array of perspectives and concerns were considered.

In addition to the challenges of adapting to the new realities of an urban setting, the Brooklyn Lab team was also determined to implement their “equity by design” approach. This includes building relationships that make students feel recognized and cared for, enabling students to manage their own learning, and educating all students to the highest standards.

The process used by the Brooklyn Lab team began with identifying key challenges, and then continued with the brainstorming of ideas, delving into the details during focus sessions, and then developing potential solutions based on needs and best practices. One of the main challenges identified early on was that having 1,000 students maintain social distancing as they passed through a single entrance at the start of the school day would result in a line stretching longer than the Brooklyn Bridge.

A second entrance would therefore need to be activated but would not be sufficient, so another proposed solution drew on the scaffolding and “sidewalk sheds” that are often used when New York City buildings are renovated. Modular scaffolds could be adapted into an extended “front porch” in which there would be temperature checks, sanitation of hands and devices, distribution of masks and grab-and-go breakfasts, exhibits of student work, and opportunities for teaching, learning, and engagement.

Within the school, one-way halls and stairwells are under consideration, as are thin barriers that can allow more students to be in the same classroom safely without being 6 feet apart. Expanded access to sanitation facilities is also being considered, along with other new priorities such as improved ventilation and air quality.

With so many issues now needing to explored and resolved effectively, based on specific circumstances and in a relatively short period of time, a key part of the process for every school will be bringing all the stakeholders together in collaborative conversations that lead to positive outcomes.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Digital Promise.

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This article was modified and published by eSchool News.

About the Presenters

Marla Ucelli-Kashyap is Senior Director for Educational Issues at the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT), where she serves as a strategic advisor to AFT President Randi Weingarten and leads a team working on key areas of policy, practice, technical assistance, and professional development aimed at helping teachers and their unions improve education quality and their profession. Previously, she was Director of District Redesign and Leadership at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and a senior program officer at the Rockefeller Foundation. She holds a B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa graduate) from New York University and an M.P.A. from Rutgers. She has served on numerous boards and advisory groups and as a founding co-chair of Grantmakers for Education. Ucelli-Kashyap currently serves as board chair of the Learning First Alliance.

Dr. Lisa Thomas is a Senior Education Policy Analyst at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), providing research and programmatic support to the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union. Dr. Thomas manages a portfolio of topic-specific special education, behavior, and classroom management courses within AFT’s Professional Development Program, Educator Academy. She has directed several national campaigns on bullying prevention, school discipline, restorative practices, and autism and special education. In addition, Dr. Thomas represents AFT on a number of federal committees, national leadership and coalition groups, including the National Universal Design for Learning Task Force, co-communications chair; State Accountability for All Students Advisory Board; Atlantic Philanthropies Research-to-Practice Collaborative on Equity and Access; National Academy of Science and Technology; and the former federally- funded National Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Partnership.

Eric Tucker is Co-founder and Executive Director at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School (LAB). He was the director at the Federal Reserve Bank of NY. As managing director of Catalyst Strategy, Eric led school design and implementation work for clients including Ascend, Excel, and Building Excellent Schools. As CAO and Executive Director of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, Eric grew a national network serving 450 urban schools. Eric taught argumentation and debate in Providence and Chicago. Eric has a doctorate from Oxford University.

Anisa Phillip is a Special Education Coordinator at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School (LAB). She began teaching at Hudde Middle School as a literacy specialist for ExpandEDSchools. She then served as a Math Fellow at InnovateEDU and completed a teacher residency at LAB. Anisa has taught 6th- and 7th- grade ELA, writing, and history to students in a 12-1-1 setting, where she scaffolded instruction to support student needs and encourage growth. She has a B.A. from John Jay and an M.A. in education from Relay Graduate School of Education.

Tricia Forrest is a partner and project manager at Urban Projects Collaborative, LLC (UPC), with over 15 years of experience in project management, operations, and strategy. She has worked with firms dedicated to design, owner representation, and professional management services. Tricia leads UPC’s K-12 education practice and has worked on new schools and renovation projects throughout the New York region. She has a B.A. in international business, management, and finance and an M.S. in economics, global business, and finance. Tricia also is the mother to a fifth-grade student in New York City public schools.

About the Host

Barbara Pape is the policy and communications director for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise. She has 20 years’ experience in strategic communications, writing, and policy analysis, primarily in education. Previously, she served as the executive producer of the award-winning Teaching & Learning conference, sponsored by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, where she developed content and oversaw outreach and communications. As a writer, she has written for numerous publications, including Harvard University, the National Education Goals Panel (U.S. Department of Education) and Parents magazine. Barbara also served as editor and publisher of the first electronically delivered education newsletter, the Daily Report Card. She served on the Advisory Board of the Kennedy Center’s Intersection of Arts Education and Special Education Committee, serves as a judge for the Miliken-Penn Graduate School of Education Business Plan competition, and is on the Boards at the Education Writers Association and Potentia. She earned an Ed.M. at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and launched her career as a middle school language arts teacher.

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