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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Start at the Beginning

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

As they think about next school year, independent school leaders should still be hovering at 3,000 feet (in fog), navigating by a set of core principles. On a recent ESHA video conference, one Head said, "I've stopped using the word 'plan.' I talk about preparing to prepare." Sharpening those preparations as opening of school draws closer and managing the timing of communication is a subject for another piece. I'd like to discuss here one of the top guiding principles for Heads at schools with elementary divisions. Namely, not only should the youngest students be the first to return to campus if returning in waves makes sense, but also schools should explore how they might use any campus resources, including outdoor spaces, to provide safe, DAILY care for them. Here's why: if schools stagger groups of kids by bringing them to school on alternate days, parents of elementary students will find greater value in those alternate days taking place at school even in a summer camp-like environment than in even the most well-crafted remote learning program where kids would spend those days at home supervised by their beleaguered parents in an extended, inequitable, employment-threatening snow day sequence.

To make this scenario safe, these alternate day programs would be largely outdoors with some "specials," assisted study hall, learning resource help, counseling, and extra help woven through. This scenario provides a larger box in which to fit the school's program and also has the benefit of providing more protection to "specials" faculty who, in the old normal, see 4 or 5 times as many students per day as a typical elementary classroom teacher. It would require additional staff and a net improvement of expenses probably even at schools that might be cutting some salaries from the budget.

Some schools will simply not have the physical footprint or financial resources, or might exist in a temperate zone that makes the outdoors untenable by mid-October and not have enough fallback indoor space for inclement days (calling alternate day "camp" off because of weather is a deal breaker; forcing elementary parents to be on random, on-going "snow day" alert will drive them over the edge and out the door), or might have enough space only for a portion of the student body (lower division students should come first in line). But, if school leaders really open their minds to possible resources--the unused athletic fields, field house, dugouts, outdoor classroom pavilion, auditorium--and tap into a growing pool of available talent--gap year college kids, furloughed educators--they might discover a way to use outdoor and auxiliary indoor spaces to maximize social distancing, limit kids' time in confined spaces, provide more of the school's excellent programming in person, make a stronger case for tuition, give exhausted parents (including, importantly, faculty parents) of young children an opportunity to refocus their efforts on (keeping) their own work, and retain more students for 2021 - 2022.

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