By Daniel R. Weiss
Over the past several weeks there has been much public debate regarding when and how schools should reopen. In her article, A Response to ‘Let Leaders Lead,’ Amanda Pogany says it best, “We are opening our doors … because we believe it is best for our students … They need to be supported and nurtured emotionally and academically by our teachers, in person.”
We are now in our second week of school back on campus. I won’t lie. I was not sure it would happen and at times, I questioned whether it should happen at all. We’ve all been on an emotional roller coaster, planning and over-planning and then adjusting our plans (again and again and again). But until that moment when students were in the classrooms, learning in person with their teachers, I was still nervous.
I knew that our plans to reopen our campus were good. I knew that we had taken every precaution possible and that our protocols took matters to the extreme. I knew that our plans would mitigate risks and alleviate some concerns, but that there was nothing that we could do to eliminate concern. So we set forth with a comprehensive plan to wear masks, practice physical distancing, bring fresh air into the classrooms, purchase touchless hand sanitizing dispensers for every classroom, install water-bottle filling stations where water fountains used to be, move classrooms and teachers to limit exposure to different people, bring classes outside to every corner of the campus through the installation of six outdoor classrooms and attend to the social emotional needs of our students on day one. Planning is great when it works. We would need to see if the action mirrored the plans.
When the first cars rolled up and students exited (after having temperatures taken), I began to cry. Tears of joy and pride. Joyful that we created an atmosphere where our students could feel safe on campus and parents could feel assured that their kids were ok. Proud that our teachers, while ensuring their own safety and the safety of their students, showed incredible flexibility as educators, giving each of our students what they needed educationally and emotionally.
We knew that there would be some hiccups. What first week of school doesn’t have hiccups, even in non-pandemic years? Whether it was technology, scheduling or learning new routines, we knew we would have to be flexible.
Walking around the campus on our first day, I peeked my head into classrooms. I saw smiling eyes. Students were so happy to be back with their friends (even though they were physically distanced), happy to be in a room with a teacher, and happy to be back at school. I could see the relief that washed over them as they realized that the long and isolating spring and summer they had endured, had at least for now, come to an end.
I also got online to check in on our classes who had students learning from home simultaneously with those on campus through our Limud Meshulav (Integrated Learning) program. About 10% of our students began the year online. Students were engaged and teachers provided packets, books, and supplies for pickup at the start of the week. Together all the students were learning from our expert staff. Our teachers found new ways to teach to meet the needs of our students whether at-home or on-campus.
Outside, classes were learning at tables in our six outdoor classroom spaces. Students had Bornblum branded folding chairs in tow to make sure they had something comfortable so sit on, whether it was under one of the tents or on the field. Students ate lunch outside, with some classes picnicking and others spaced apart at our outside lunch tables.
Seeing all of this, what I realize most is that it feels like school, albeit a little different than the typical year. Experiencing this feeling is a very important first step in the emotional journey we are taking with our students and their families. We are in uncharted waters, but with flexibility, and a focus on the social and emotional sides of learning, we will help each other, and all our students, through this transition.
One of our parents said it best after the first week “the year feels very … normal. Waking up, uniform, breakfast, backpack, ride to (school), and a quick kiss before off she goes. Just as it should be.”
Our mantra for the year is: Be Flexible. Be Patient. This week I would add, Be Proud. Because we are.
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School, a K-8 school in Memphis, Tennessee. He is a Day School alum and parent of three Day School students.