One of the great benefits of an independent school of our size is our capability to move quickly when circumstances warrant. The swift arrival of the novel coronavirus last spring is certainly one of the most challenging situations we’ve faced. As a private school that does not depend on a central authority to develop then communicate new protocols, we were able to activate a task force immediately to consider the best ways to ensure quality instruction for the children in our charge. Our goal is to create the safest environment possible while still preserving the aspects of The Branch education we know our families value: a school of vibrant and active learning, where students are known and cherished.
A task force of lead Branch administrators met throughout the summer, consulting with multiple entities including the National Association of Independent Schools, the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest, and the Texas Education Agency to gather best-practice guidance on how to bring students back to campus safely while simultaneously serving those who opt to learn from home. We measured classrooms and plotted grids to envision ways children could stay six feet apart while learning on campus. We considered how children move between learning spaces and how to change traffic flow to reduce casual contact. We positioned, then re-positioned cameras as we considered the needs of VSL students – Virtual Synchronous Learners – who would learn online. We went through tabletop exercises to run through various scenarios, gleaning insight from scientific experts and the creative problem-solvers on our team.
The changes are considerable. For students learning on-campus, here’s how things go on a typical day:
Before leaving home, parents complete an online health screening for their child via the Magnus app on their phones. Does the child have a temperature? A cough or any other symptoms? A clear screening is required each day, with the results forwarded electronically to Branch personnel. At carpool, we do another temp check via forehead scan. Everyone on campus wears a mask except to eat or drink and for brief, outside, socially distanced mask free times, with no visitors allowed in the Hightower Middle School, or beyond the reception foyer of our main building.
Students have individual banker’s boxes to store and tote their school supplies; they know not to share crayons or pencils or other items. The banker’s boxes are made of cardboard which, scientists tell us, is a surface where virus particles tend not to survive for an extended period of time. Students also have individual six-foot tarps for outside use. They spread their tarps on the playground and our grounds, knowing that keeps them at a safe social distance. Inside our buildings, students have adapted well to the new traffic patterns in our halls, as well as the prepackaged box meals that have replaced the buffet lines. Our athletics program is on hold for now, but not our physical education classes to keep them fit and prepared for later athletics, and we’re still able to offer extended care after school, where we’re careful to follow all safety protocols.
Our at-home students – VSL’s – join us via computer, learning alongside their friends in the classroom. They are able to see the teacher guiding the lesson and each other to collaborate (at a distance). Currently, about 60% of our students are learning on campus and 40% are at home, and we regularly accommodate a family’s wish to move from one group to the other. One valuable innovation is our new partnership with Hazel Health’s Telehealth system. Should a child become ill or suffer an injury on campus, we can reach a doctor within minutes who can prescribe appropriate treatment, including over the counter medications. A staff member sits with the student in our Comfort Room for the teledoc visit. Afterward, Hazel Health emails the parents to detail the diagnosis. This is a service parents may opt in to and will help us differentiate between minor and more serious situations – giving parents clearer guidance on when a student can stay in class, and when immediate pickup might be required.
An additional change that’s harder to see: our HVAC systems have been enhanced with new air purifiers to ensure healthy air flow. And our cleaning company regularly utilizes a disinfectant spray in all indoor areas, while our maintenance people disinfect high touch surfaces both indoors and outdoors throughout the school day, especially playground equipment.
We’re delighted – but not surprised – that our students have adapted beautifully to our many new protocols. They understand how important it is to wash hands thoroughly, thanks to fourth grade teacher Emma Smith. Ms. Smith used Glogerm powder to “illuminate” the importance of good hand hygiene. As students saw the Glogerm powder light up and reveal how effective (or not) their handwashing efforts had been, they understood in a visible, tangible, potent way how invisible germs can spread.
We continue to hold virtual Town Halls with our parents to answer questions that arise and receive suggestions for things to address. We are so grateful for the kind feedback and support parents have shared. They recognize how much this hybrid learning arrangement demands from our dedicated faculty. Indeed, our teachers display their devotion daily, as they re-imagine how best to meet the needs of their students under these most unusual of circumstances. And while some faculties might scale back, ours is organizing a virtual STEAM Night event, socially distant Halloween Celebrations, a fall book fair, and even our annual Fall N2 Fitness fun run which will be held virtually. Our School Counselor has organized a parent book club and offers virtual recess time for connecting with our VSL students. Shared experiences give us the chance to show support for one another – support that helps all of us transcend the difficulties of the moment.
Extending love and being patient with one another is more important today than at any time in recent memory. Teaching not just what’s in the lesson plan but how to be flexible and adaptable as well as exceptionally kind despite the circumstances, remains our priority. And developing young leaders, who can take challenges – even huge ones – in stride is our mission. Thanks for being with us on this journey as we love, learn and lead – even in a pandemic. We are grateful for those with us on this journey…
Emily Smith, Head of School, graduate of Smith College and M.A., University of Connecticut School of Education.