Across the country, one of the most frequently asked questions from parents to administrators is, “Has the school settled on a plan to reopen?” The answer to that question is almost always, “It depends.” The reality is that most school leaders don’t have all the information needed yet, meaning they have to plan for a number of possible scenarios for the fall. To help, school leaders need to develop a matrix for decision-making that can also help them communicate the complexity of the scenarios for which they must prepare.
Changing Facts on the Ground
The question of reopening school is complicated by a situation that changes daily. In about 20 states the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing in the middle of June. Most of those are from a rise in cases of people really sick, including hospitalizations, and not just due to increased testing. When Israel opened their classrooms mid-May, their numbers were lower than those in most U.S. states that reopened, and yet within a few weeks, there were 130 cases in one high school alone, causing them to shut down again. Governor Polis in Colorado stated that schools will reopen in the fall, but that families should expect that “schools also may close periodically when there’s an inevitable outbreak.”
Another source of uncertainty is the lack of guidance from states. School superintendents in several states have mentioned in recent interviews that they were hoping for direction mid-June but at the time of the writing of this article, had not receive those guidelines—leaving them just six to eight weeks to have a working plan with multiple scenarios, while they are watching cases of the virus increase daily in some states. And, without knowing the physical and financial requirements of reopening that will be mandated by state guidelines, many school leaders feel they are doing their planning in the dark.
When Lacking Certainty, Seek Clarity
It has been said that where there is uncertainty, the best approach is to seek clarity. In the case of reopening school in the fall, there is compounded uncertainty for the reasons just discussed. This is all the more reason to seek clarity, by laying out the factors that will need to be considered into a decision-making matrix—and plug in the specifics as they become available in real-time.
While the remainder of this post lays out considerations for such a matrix, it’s important to state that school leaders should form a multi-constituent team, or task force, to work with the matrix on an ongoing basis through the summer and into the fall. The team should include school leaders as well as a representative(s) from the board, teachers, support staff, volunteers, parents, and any community liaison that is willing to serve (such as an attorney, medical doctor or public health expert, etc.). This task force will be able to ensure that each and every decision is considered from the perspective of the groups they represent, thereby reducing the possibility that decisions do not take into account the communication, execution, and follow-up implications that accompany them.
Finally, good decision-making is dependent on good information. This means that schools should collect regular feedback, for example via surveys, from parents and other constituents to gauge their opinions and questions around plans for re-opening. The task force should also do their “homework” on a regular basis, by checking in with state offices of education, local health departments, the school’s insurer, and public school districts from which they draw to stay on top of re-opening guidance. National resources like the Centers for Disease Control’s decision tool for school re-opening, as well as instructional resources like the National Standards for Quality Online Learning, should also be reviewed by task force members. Inputs from these and other sources should be shared at every task force meeting, so they can inform and guide good decision-making on an ongoing basis.
The goal of each school should be to develop a Continuity of Learning Plan. That has become known as the term for a working document that guides decisions about teaching and learning in the event of school closure or other significant disruption in the school program (some states even require schools to have such a plan). While the term “plan” sounds more like a blueprint, in reality, most plans are a living document with a series of considerations, guidelines, information, and resources that help schools make appropriate decisions at various points along the way. Developing a “matrix” of considerations and options to ensure continuity of learning can assist a school through the decision-making process and is flexible enough to help the school pivot due to changing conditions if needed. It allows real-time adjustments toward more restrictive and less restrictive options as the conditions change.
It is helpful to imagine developing a matrix in a spreadsheet environment, with the rows listing factors that must be considered (e.g., physical plant, academics, etc.) and the columns representing different scenarios (e.g., full re-opening, two to three partial re-opening scenarios, and return to online learning). After the school completes the matrix with their unique choices and plans, it can be used as a communication device to share the various scenarios with the families and staff so they can easily see the alternatives as conditions change.
There is no template or set of guidelines that would be right for all schools. However, the many issues that need to be considered are similar, and a number of factors will need to be considered, as follows:
- Schedule. Schools will need to assess the physical and financial requirements of reopening, according to state guidelines. If students are to be kept six feet apart, some classrooms may be limited to half of what they previously held. Numbers of teachers may need to be doubled or they may have to teach two shifts. Buses may need to run double routes. Administrators will need to be creative and consider hybrid solutions like shortening the school day to allow for two sessions a day or have the students come on alternate days. Some schools, like one Christian preschool in Washington, D.C., are having students rotate through by coming two weeks and staying at home one week, to allow for the acceptable number of children in the room at a time. K-12 schools may consider one week on, one week off or allow elementary students to come Monday, Wednesday, and middle school Tuesday, Thursday, and high school to attend on Friday only. Other options may include concurrent instruction, where a portion of each class is physically present in school, while another portion is learning at-home at the same time (either receiving synchronous or asynchronous instruction from the teacher). All of these options will cause challenges for childcare, parents’ work schedules, and private transportation.
- Staffing. A related question will be the teachers. With one set of students in seats and one set of students working at home, someone will need to plan and follow up with all the additional work given to students when they are not at school. It may take nearly twice as many teachers, no matter what plan is used. There is also the health and energy level of the teachers to consider. One poll said that 20% of the teachers were not prepared to come back to campus this fall. That may be because of health issues or the need to protect people for whom they are responsible. It also may be because they understand the double-duty they could be asked to do. Schools will need to consider the employment and legal issues involved with staff who may be unwilling or unable to return to campus.
- Physical Plant. Depending on the various re-opening scenarios, schools will need to consider transportation and busing, building access, traffic flow and timing within the building, spacing within classrooms and common spaces, technology resources, and enhanced cleaning measures throughout classrooms and the entire building. This may include greater use of outdoor or larger areas for instruction, to allow for more air circulation and spacing. It may also include considerations to reduce movement of students and staff, such as rotation of teachers (versus students) from class to class, as well as eating lunch in classrooms.
- Academics. Academic considerations must include grade levels, attendance, grading, assessment, special needs, and online/blended instruction. As with all matrix factors, academic considerations should be developed for a number of scenarios. Staggered and split schedules are usually known as “hybrid” because learning occurs both in the classroom and in seats on a rotational basis. This typically involves some parent support for younger children and the parent is seen as a “co-teacher” as they receive directions from the teacher and implement the lesson plan, to some degree in their days at home. Older students may be more independent and can function without the parent if the directions are clear and follow logically from what was taught the previous day. “Blended learning” is a combination of learning that occurs at least in part through online learning, with some element of students’ control of time, place, path, or pace. This usually means that the learning done at home is provided online, thus relieving the parent of that co-teacher role. For young children, “hybrid” and “blended” models tend to blur because the school is less likely to expect young children to spend a lot of time online. They tend to limit expectations for screen time and encourage the parents to be more involved. A “modified full schedule” is really as close to normal as schools can get with the virus still present (pre-vaccine) and the changes that it requires, though there will definitely be some modifications needed in order to keep students, families, and staff safe. Finally, a “flipped” classroom can be used in most of these environments described above. It involves the teacher recording their instruction and having the student watch it ahead of time. Then actual class time is used for the students to interact, discuss, do labs, simulations, projects, solve critical thinking problems, complete assessments, etc.
- Spiritual Formation. This includes school activities and efforts like chapel, service/outreach, and community engagement. It is important that the school have a point person (like spiritual formation director or chaplain) to oversee this area because spiritual formation could suffer and it could also thrive during this time. It could suffer because we have heard that the education should just be pared down to about half of what we normally expect of students; some teachers may be tempted to strip away everything they consider non-essential and that could include the time to reflect, think biblically about their subject, and provide for those unplanned biblical integration moments to occur. Allowing time for those might be difficult when the teacher is stressed and focused on just getting through the core material. On the other hand, when students are out of their normal element and in times of transition, they ask the big questions like, “Why is this happening?” “What is important in life?” This is the time to be there, listen, and walk through difficulty with students, families, and staff. The point person for spiritual formation should be on the task force and have their finger on the pulse of the spiritual needs of the community with a focus on how to make this a time to thrive.
- Social-Emotional. This area includes activities like clubs, sports, socializing, and school events. However, it is important to remember that social and emotional learning (SEL) happens in large and small ways. The Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning has a number of COVID-19 resources. The Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety also provides strategies for trauma-informed distance learning. ACSI also recently published a blog post on returning to school with a trauma-informed perspective. The point person for this area may be a guidance counselor or someone on staff who is well acquainted with the social-emotional needs of the students and families. They may also be someone who is in touch with the social activities of students and can motivate students to engage in extra-curricular activities in new and creative ways.
- Health and Support Services. This area includes health and wellness concerns, safety supplies (e.g., masks), nursing, special needs, student and staff stress, illness protocols, and overall wellness support. Decisions in this area will depend on the schedule chosen and the needs of the community. The CDC Guidelines include how to monitor symptoms, isolate and transport those who are sick, clean and disinfect, notify health officials, etc. The point person for this area needs to be a health care staff member from the school or from the community that understands the needs of the school and the directives of community health officials.
As the task force begins to develop or continues work on a re-opening decision matrix, it is important to remember that for each school there are unique considerations for specific buildings, situations, students, and programs. Every school will need to add these considerations through their planning process and, with the ongoing input of the task force, will have a better chance of developing, communicating, and executing a flexible plan for the fall.
A plethora of helpful planning resources are available online for free. These include:
- ACSI’s recent blog posts on serving students with special needs during the pandemic, as well as a post on prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in school plans.
- Getting Smart’s PowerPoint on Reopening Schools: How to be More Inclusive, Generative, and Engaging.
- Los Angeles County Schools’ 43-page Planning Framework for the 2020-21 School Year.
- ACSI’s planning matrix spreadsheet for schools, which can be customized and formatted. The spreadsheet is posted in ACSI Community under “Administrators” and “Members” and will be available on the ACSI Coronavirus Resource Page, under “Reopening Schools in the Fall.”
If you’ve found a helpful resource that you would like to share with colleagues, please provide a description and the link in the Comment box below.
About the Author
Dr. Erin Wilcox is the assistant vice president for Academic Services. She is responsible for accreditation and certification at ACSI. Her school experience included technology coordinator, middle school principal, and associate superintendent positions. She has taught online/blended programs at the high secondary and graduate levels and oversaw the development of the online accreditation protocol for ACSI. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.