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September 30, 2021
Crisis demands fast and effective solutions in an ever-changing playing field. When schools began closing rapidly in early 2020, no one could have predicted how they would adapt, or how students would succeed amid unprecedented challenges.
The three commonly seen methods of instruction that bubbled to the surface were: fully remote distance learning, a hybrid between remote and limited in-class learning and outdoor in-person learning. We interviewed three schools that each approached education differently during the first year of the pandemic: Catalyst Public School in Bremerton, Silverwood School in Poulsbo and Lincoln Park Elementary School in Douglass Park, Oregon. Each school, regardless of the teaching method, succeeded in maintaining safety, fostering student success and boosting enrollment the following year by employing timeless management and instruction techniques.
ENGAGE THE COMMUNITY
The cornerstone to success for every school interviewed was community engagement. Creating early standards for communication and procedures for teachers, families, students, as well as getting buy-in from each, was paramount to success. This included everything from how and when students would return to the classroom, how assignments would transfer back and forth and even how families marinated safety protocols at home. While each school approached this differently, the same objective emerged: clear and regular communication between teachers, and families allowing for deft adaptability as needed.
Apart from video conferencing platforms, many schools and districts adopted communication apps to bridge communication delay and develop a network of accountability between faculty, students and parents.
Catalyst is a community charter school located in Bremerton. It quickly selected an app called EdLight as an educational platform to facilitate communication. This app allows the school to publish critical class-wide or school-wide messages from the school to parents on a secure connection. Additionally, it connects students and teachers to send and receive assignments and feedback immediately.
When moving to hybrid learning, Catalyst continued to use EdLight to maintain an assignment collection and as the standard communication platform. The app allows students to take photographs of their assignments and upload them immediately to the platform. The instructor can digitally review and comment on assignments that are immediately accessible to students. As classes split between in-person and digital learning, a tool for seamless connection with students became invaluable.
Silverwood School is an independent outdoor school, located in Poulsbo. It was dedicated to maintaining in-person learning throughout the pandemic. Limited by technology, it employed a different approach to engage its community. Silverwood hired a 0.5 FTE liaison that assisted each teacher and staff to regularly check in with families and ensure students and families had the resources they needed. The liaison provided much needed support and would even deliver or pick up supplies if needed. According to Lisa Heaman, the head of school at Silverwood, “Hiring the liaison early on was one of the best decisions we made. It made everything run much smoother.” For the 2021-22 school year, Silverwood has adopted a digital communication platform, much like Catalyst, for faculty to family engagement.
MODIFY YOUR SPACE
Have you ever draped a blanket over a window to reduce glare, or opened a door with your elbow because your hands were full? Modifying your physical environment based on immediate need provides valuable information to inform how a space may not be meeting its potential. During the pandemic, examining how schools modified their physical space to meet safety protocol has provided critical feedback for how to better design instructional spaces for future use.
Digital engagement can have just as much of a physical impact on students, families and faculty as a school building. For remote learners, all three schools issued tablet devices that were consistent, and all connected to the same video-conferencing platform. For Catalyst, much of the digital space arrangement came from the video conferencing platform and working with students to set up their dedicated space at home. During student orientation, Catalyst and Douglass Park gave each student and family a packet of manipulatives (depending on the grade) that the student was responsible for and could use during remote classes.
When students came back, each school used the guidelines for social distancing, sanitization, mask wearing and ventilation upgrades, where possible. For Catalyst, it had recently moved into a new building and had enough space to have all students at school but keep reduced class sizes to maintain 6 feet of separation.
For Catalyst, two things it would do differently: Install operable windows in the classrooms for natural ventilation; and provide more covered outdoor space (tents in the parking lot don’t last long in the rain).
With the outdoors as your classroom, air quality isn’t usually an issue, unless it is during forest fire season. Silverwood students spend most of their time outside, but when they were inside, social distancing and safety precautions were paramount. As Heaman stated, “Early on, our mantra was, ‘everyone’s health and safety (is) our priority’.” Early on, Silverwood installed air filtration systems in every room in the school.
Additionally, it modified its classroom spaces to offer the greatest amount of flexibility. This meant that much of the furniture had to be removed so that 6 feet of social distancing could be maintained. Some teachers had students use their own yoga mats and work off the floor and on trays, other teachers used “surfboards,” a floor-seated desk students can pick up and move easily inside or outside. When they weren’t using either, a soft seat on the grass or tree stumps worked just as well.
Accountability sustained each school to stick to its safety procedures, ensure academic rigor and foster student success. Creating a culture of accountability among staff, students and families resulted in zero COVID-19 cases at each school.
For remote learning, the challenge of fostering regular participation from students became one of the biggest struggles. Amanda Gardner from Catalyst said, “I noticed that students who had done an academic year before became much more passive during remote learning. Luckily that went away when (the students) returned this year and they were very excited to start school again.” During full remote learning, one positive way schools ensured they were staying on track was by inviting other school instructors to sit in on virtual classes and offer feedback.
Teachers used different icebreakers and digital techniques to get students to keep their cameras on and stay engaged during live teaching sessions. Both schools that offered remote learning stated live teaching sessions were much more successful in engaging the student than assignments sent back and forth with no or limited teaching sessions.
For remote learners, success relied heavily on the instructor and families to stay on top of communication to ensure students remained engaged.
Hybrid split-class learning brought the benefit of smaller class sizes but with the challenge of contact tracing and remote learning. The accountability for hybrid learning combined the physical challenges of safety and sanitation with the pedagogical accountability of remote learning.
Heaman described how creating a culture of accountability among the faculty helped maintain the rigor of the school even when everyone felt fatigued. For Silverwood, creating a culture of accountability early on for the facility, families and students is what sustained them throughout the year with no COVID-19 cases on campus.
In developing the safety plan for Silverwood, Heaman thought through in detail every step a student would take through their day at school. From that they limited the amount of material that would pass from teacher to student, making it simpler to trace who touched what.
Three different learning methods offer valuable insight to how schools adapted to maintain safety and academic success during the first year of the pandemic. Each school successfully engaged families, students and faculty to create a community united to keep everyone safe and help students succeed. Each school modified its physical and digital space in various ways as it quickly adapted to new scientific research and emerging data.
Fostering a culture of accountability was vital in maintaining academic rigor and health safety. As we move forward into more unknown territory for education, the lessons learned during this last year of school will aid in planning for the future of education for years to come.
Travis Hauan is an architectural designer and associate at Rice Fergus Miller. He works in the firm’s housing, community and education studios.