Back to the Building: Preparing For In-Person School

In this topsy turvy time, in a given week, schools can be planning to go back to in-person school, and within days have to completely rethink their next steps. As one of our partners wisely shared, “it feels like we’re making plans in the sand….waiting for a wave to come in and erase them completely.

It makes planning for in-person school reopening a moving target.

No matter where you are, schools will reopen at some point. This is the time to start thinking about preparing your staff, students, families, and yourself for being back on campus.

Here are some tips from Possip on how to prepare to return to in-person school:

 

4 Tips for Preparing Yourself for In-Person School

This is not easy for leaders and you may not feel a lot of support right now. Here are some tips:

1. Reflect on your answer to “why this is the right decision”:

If you don’t think about this and have a genuine response, your community will be hesitant to follow. Think about what you believe in, why you think this is the right choice, and how to share those thoughts in an inspiring and motivating way. This exercise will help increase your own positive feelings about returning and also help your community rally around a common reason for this transition. When you’re messaging this, it’s okay to lean into your natural leadership style. If you worry, lean into it and share worries and how you’re planning for them. If you’re optimistic, lean into it. People appreciate leaders who bring true self during difficult times.

2. Prioritize and look forward to things outside of work:

It’s important to maintain balance personally and do things for yourself. You have a lot on your shoulders, so take care of your own needs.

3. Spend time on campus before staff and students come:

This can make you more comfortable and envision procedures you’ll roll out for staff and feel safe being on campus.

4. Empower others:

If the school leader is the only one who feels responsible for keeping the school safe and to make meaning of decisions being made at a higher level, the community won’t be invested. This can happen when leaders just forward questions or concerns to the district decision-makers instead of leaning into the school community to work together and address concerns first-hand. Everyone has the ability to make specific decisions that keep themselves and others safe. Empower everyone to feel they can maximize their gifts and ideas. Come at this as a community, empower others to feel invested, and focus on the things we are able to control. Leaders can also hold structured office hours for staff to help you prepare for potential concerns to know what to address.

 

5 Tips for Preparing Staff for In-Person School

The next group is our staff members on the front lines.

1. Focus on safety & instruction:

There are so many things in a school day so try not to overwhelm with other priorities. Just keep their eyes on safety & learning.

2. Get staff invested in safety inside and outside of school:

Teachers need to rethink all of their relationship-building strategies and instincts. They can’t do things they used to. As a leader, rehearse scenarios that may come up like that and invest them in safety inside and outside of the school building. We’ve heard of situations where schools have strong safety procedures but then after school, parents saw teachers congregating at their car without masks and going out to eat, which actually led to staff spread of COVID. Give teachers space to rework cultural norms in the school and come up with alternative habits.

3. Support class safety procedures:

Leaders can do this by providing supplies & norming as a community on routines and procedures. Classroom art supplies, school-wide graphing calculator policies, PE equipment policies, and things that are usually shared should have new safety systems. Also, share photos with staff as much as possible so they can see it in action and visually understand the system.

4. Stagger students:

This may not be possible, but schools have been more successful if they can bring a small number of students back first to practice and try things out on a smaller scale.

5. Ask and appreciate teachers: 

Teachers have done so much during this time and have real concerns. We need to hear their concerns, questions, needs and respond. We do this at Possip with staff pulse checks and it’s been so powerful for leaders. And remember to appreciate! If that means getting staff lunch or maybe holding off on feedback during lesson observations for a few weeks and only giving positive praise. Do it. Appreciation and validation is key.

 

4 Tips for Preparing Students for In-Person School

Many students are eager to get back to school, but many are also nervous and anxious about what it will be like and if they’ll stay safe.

1. Provide social experiences and community-building:

The first thing to think about is providing social experiences and community-building activities for students before they arrive. This social aspect is likely all they’ll be thinking about at first, so spend time intentionally meeting that need. Facilitate socially distanced tiny park playdates, have fun back-to-school social media campaigns, and really focus on meeting student’s social-emotional health needs through the community. Have counselors or teachers available to students if needed.

2. Meet the teacher one-on-one:

Teachers can meet kids one-on-one by FaceTiming or video chatting with them the week before school starts, or even having a socially distanced family “meet the teacher” nights where each family can come in at a scheduled time.

3. Explain the WHY to students for safety protocols:

Kids will buy-in and stay safe during this transition if they understand and believe in the rationale. Be very deliberate about creating community and instilling that we have to keep each other safe. Talk about how caring for your classmates & teachers is by wearing a mask & keeping our distance. Make sure students have a mental framework ahead of starting school that caring and loving others means keeping them safe. Connect the safety protocols to care, community, and safety. Also, be clear to students that this may not be permanent so they aren’t surprised and let down if that happens.

4. Explain all new expectations and logistics to students ahead of time:

This can look like creating videos with your staff before students return for what a classroom will look like, what lunch will look like, and what dismissal will look like. Videos are really helpful for doing this and visualizing it. Here is an example from Greenville County Schools: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=243205693469345

 

6 Tips for Preparing Families

1. Clear Guidelines

Clear guidelines help parents prepare their children for in-person school. Parents want specifics around how to best prepare their students for the transition. You can create daily practice activities like having kids wear masks for a specific period of time at home. Share conversation starters of things parents can talk to their kids about at home. An example question could be “what does it look like to care for others around you at school?” Also share safety supply lists for what to pack: hand sanitizer, number of masks, cleaning wipes, etc.

2. Gather Questions

By using a system like Possip to routinely gather questions from parents you can know what is on parents’ minds. Communication has to be two-way and we need to know what families need, what they want to know about, and how we can act proactively to get families as prepared as possible.

3. Intentionally Connect

When we have relationships with people and know them as people, we want to care for them. Connecting parents with each other helps build a safe community, allows parents to meet each other’s needs naturally, and feel connected. They’ll have a “we’re in it together” mentality and feel safe about who their kids are interacting with on a day to day basis.

4. Transparent Communication

Transparent communication helps build trust and leads to a strong, united community.

This visual can help you reflect on the ways you can improve your communication with families. Do you provide clarity in all decision making processes? Do families know who is making decisions and what information they are basing them off? Are you centering your decisions around school priorities and values? Are you showing families the future? Do they understand what their students will be doing and experiencing on a day to day basis and expect moving forward? Using these four transparency components of clarity, values, community, and facts, will help prepare your families for this transition.

5. Clear Plans

Clear plans give families an idea of what they can expect when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID: Plan this out proactively and let parents know what will happen ahead of time. This calms nerves and helps to act safely at the moment this happens. Some questions to reflect on:

a. What happens if a teacher is exposed to COVID? Who is quarantining in that case? How far within the community do you go? Are you going to follow a rule like more than 15 minutes together while closer than 6 feet? Or something else to determine quarantine protocols?

b. How is a class going to get instruction if they are quarantining? Packets or virtual instruction? Who leads and plans virtual instruction?

c. Will you have rapid testing available for teachers? Will you give recommendations for testing centers for families?

d. What level of communication do parents get if there is a COVID case? Is it if there is a positive COVID case in the school or just the classroom?

d. How much lead-up time will you give parents and teachers before officially opening the building? Some districts have said students will have 2 weeks’ notice and teachers will have 1 week’s notice. Think about how much time you’ll promise to parents and staff. What about for the transition back to virtual learning? And can parents choose to go back and forth with in-person and virtual? What if families want to stay virtual?

 

All of these questions are important to think about and proactively communicate with families. Possip also has a reopening checklist on our site that has lots of additional questions to think about before you reopen so we recommend checking that out!