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How are schools planning to open safely in the COVID-19 age

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Since COVID-19 has upended the way that schools function, the Google for Education team has spent the last five months building products to help teachers and students navigate distance learning. Today we’ll host a virtual event called The Anywhere School, where we’ll talk about new tools that teachers, students and parents can use as we head “back to school.” Teachers across many communities are the inspiration for us and provide direct feedback on the features we build.

So we reached out to four leaders in our field to learn more about their plans for heading back to school: David Chan, Director of Instructional Technology at Evanston Township High School in Illinois (virtual learning plan); Taneesha A. Thomas, Director of Instructional Technology at Franklin Park School in Illinois (hybrid learning plan); Dr. Quentin J. Lee, Principal, Talladega County Schools in Alabama (hybrid learning plan); and Kim Lane Clark, Director of Blended Learning, Lancaster Independent School District in Texas (virtual learning plan).

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School leaders share their plans as they head back to school.

Here are some highlights from our open and honest discussion.

We know that safety of students, families, and staff is top of mind for many right now. Can you share more about how you’re incorporating wellness and safety - both physical and emotional - in your back to school plans?

Lee: Listening to the concerns of parents, students, teachers, and community stakeholders is a priority. School leaders must constantly survey the essential needs of the community in providing the service of education to students. We have talks with families to make sure they understand our rationale—and that they feel heard and seen. 

For example, I’ve hosted “Kicking It with Dr. Lee,” a forum to allow others to have a brave space to share thoughts and ask questions. The last call had approximately 85 students join in. We are also having conversations with students using a district wide created document to check in on their health and well being.  This document has allowed us to track health concerns for students.

We can also make this fun. I have created a video about CDC guidelines for back-to-school safety with a few students and a fellow teacher.  It’s gone viral with 4.2 million views and growing in just a week!

As you created your back to school plans, what were the biggest hurdles you encountered?

Clark: The constant unknowns are what keep staff up at night. All districts were in survival mode in the spring, we didn’t know what was going to happen next. But now that we have time to plan, we want to be thoughtful and strategic and make sure what we’re now doing is what’s best for students. Streamlining and communicating expectations will make things clearer for staff and parents.

Chan: The biggest challenge will be when to make the decision on transitioning from a virtual to a hybrid model and then what exactly that hybrid model will look like. We can all imagine in-person teaching and we have a better sense of what virtual learning looks like based on our spring experience. However, many of us struggle with the unknowns that a hybrid model brings, namely, how do I teach effectively when some of my students are in front of me and the rest are at home? What happens when the school needs to shut down? How do I balance my own personal life/family with my work life?

Lee: I’m most concerned about tangible resources such as meals that students will miss out on by being out of school. I’m thinking about the social and emotional needs for students who found a refuge in coming to school.

How did you select your plan, and what’s your district’s plan if you have to transition from in-person back to virtual or hybrid learning? 

Chan: When our administration presented our virtual opening plan to the board, they did something interesting. They showed images of students pre-COVID in a classroom collaborating, and having a positive experience. Then they contrasted that with images of the socially-distant desks and the impact on a classroom environment. The impact was clear and that coming back to school wouldn’t be delivering the learning experience we want for our students, so there was support for going all virtual this fall.

Thomas: If we need to close schools again, we will go fully remote. This should be a seamless process, since we’re already starting the school year doing three remote learning days a week. For the fall, we want to make sure that people understand that, given that we’ve had more time to plan, we’re holding ourselves to a higher standard throughout the school year. For example, in the spring we didn’t hold students accountable for completion of work or attending classes. Now attendance and completing work is required. We want to make sure students and teachers are prepared for what may come and we aren’t repeating the COVID-19 learning of the spring.

How are you providing remote professional learning opportunities for staff? 

Chan: At the end of the school year, we ran a one-day institute through video conferencing tools where we heard from both teachers and students about their experiences. We then engaged our teachers during the summer with an e-learning academy. We wanted to create consistency in our routines and tools to make virtual learning more approachable for families. Over the course of six units and a final project, all teachers will enter the fall with a Google Classroom created and a course expectations guide for each of their classes.

Clark: We are currently creating a three day virtual training event for all teachers and administrators. We will train teachers on how to create a virtual learning environment, logistics, and resources. Teachers will leave the training with tangible deliverables (Google Classroom, virtual Bitmoji classroom, and first day expectation posted in their LMS) that will prepare them for virtual learning. There are so many changes everywhere -in some days, it feels  like everyone is a new teacher this year. So we are trying to keep things as “normal” as possible for our teachers and students, where we can or where it makes sense, so they can have some level of comfort.

And how are you engaging with families in this process?

Thomas: We have innovation coaches creating a return-to-learn guide for teachers and parents too. A lot of parents are seeing these digital platforms for the first time and have no idea how to assist their students. What we try to emphasize with our staff is that the platform is their responsibility, not the parents. Parents aren’t a co-teacher but helping to facilitate access to the learning.

Clark: We are developing and hosting live parent trainings where parents can get the exact simulations that their children will experience during their virtual learning experience. This will help create comfort for families to better support their students.

Lee: As a school we are constantly working to remove barriers to education by supplementing resources and supplies to benefit students.  We are inviting parents to become advocates of their child’s education.  A website is being created to inform parents of their child’s process as it pertains to school. By partnering with parents as a school, we can become the support that students need to experience true success.

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