What We Did to Safely Reopen Schools, and Encourage our Staff that is was Safe to Return
by Kaleem Caire (February 10, 2021)
Leaders in education across the country have asked us what we’ve done at One City Schools to get our team members to agree to reopen and return to in-person instruction this year. They have also asked us how we have successfully kept our schools open during the COVID-19 pandemic thus far.
Our efforts to reopen, and stay open, have been spotlighted in local news stories, and national studies and reports of late. From our detailed and thoughtful reopening plans, planning process and health protocols for our preschool and elementary school, which we developed with our school teams and health professionals during the summer of 2020, to our elementary school being the first public school in Wisconsin to provide on-site COVID testing of students and staff, to the saliva testing program we implemented being one of 10 school-based COVID testing programs nationwide that were recently profiled in a Rockefeller Foundation-funded study published by the RAND Corporation (page 65), we have worked diligently and thoughtfully to safely reopen and operate our preschool and elementary school.
Our efforts are not perfect. We continue to work every day to build and reinforce a culture of safety and wellness within our school community that includes 46 team members, 161 students and their families, and a small but important group of volunteers and service providers that are allowed to enter our buildings. However, since reopening our preschool on June 29, 2020 and our elementary school on September 1, 2020, we have quarantined three classrooms for two weeks because of a COVID diagnosis that directly impacted our schools. This included two classrooms in our preschool and one in our elementary school. Fortunately, we have not had to close either one of our schools and send everyone home. Our health protocols have worked, to date.
Below is a description of our journey to reopen our schools after all K-12 schools and childcare centers in Wisconsin were initially ordered closed by our Governor and Public Health Department in March 2020. While we have done several things to specifically support our students and families within and outside of our schools, this article primarily emphasizes what we have done to encourage and support our team members in their return to our schools.
- Staffing Remote Learning: The day Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers and Dane County’s public health department announced that schools must close, we immediately reduced our team members’ workday from 8–8.5 hours to 5-hours per day. This encompassed all instructional and non-instructional staff, including our organization’s executive and administrative teams. We made this decision because we knew our team members would struggle with being in remote communications all day, and that they would need time to adjust their lifestyles and workstyles to teaching and working from home. We also knew that several of our team members would need time and support to balance taking care of and supervising the home-based learning of their own children while teaching One City’s children remotely at the same time. Therefore, in providing guidance to our team members about their workday, we told them that their 5-hour days had to consist of the following: (a) 2 hours of remote instruction in math and reading/language arts with our students, or 2 hours working on tasks and projects if they were non-instructional staff, (b) 2 hours to engage in planning and collaboration with each other or external partners, and (c) one hour to focus on their own professional growth and development. Our team members also set their own daily work schedules, but their schedules had to align with the schedules of One City children and families they were teaching or providing support to.
- Staff Professional Development: To support their professional development, we purchased licenses for our team members to access LinkedIn Learning, Conscious Discipline, Teach Like A Champion and the Teacher Transformation Insitute Classroom online, and set weekly learning expectations for every team member. Our teachers, administrators and support staff also deepened their knowledge and skills in our education models: EL Education and Zearn Math for our elementary school and Anji Play for our preschool.
- Financial Decisions: We froze salaries to manage our resources effectively and to prepare for budget cuts or reductions that we might endure. We also made a commitment to keep all of our team members employed at their current pay and benefits levels, and to keep our subcontractors working at their expected service levels as well. For example, we continued to pay our contracted janitorial service to clean our facility even though we had no children or staff there. We did this because we wanted to ensure that the ecosystem of businesses that we rely on for our school’s operation and success were able to keep their doors open, and that their employees would be able to retain their jobs during this crisis as well. These decisions certainly brought a lot of stress, but we are glad we made them. Also, the Paycheck Program Program (PPP) helped us access funding that covered the financial losses we endured when our preschool closed and we were no longer receiving tuition from enrollment.
- Immediate Family and Staff Support: We set up our COVID-19 Family Relief Fund to provide financial support to the families of our students, if they demonstrated an economic need due to a loss in household income from the pandemic. We also supported our team members through this fund, if they had a partner or spouse who lived with them and lost a job or had their work hours reduced. We raised $130,000 and have spent $120,000 on our families (90% of the aid) and our staff (10%).
- Additional Support: We ensured all of our team members had access to a computer and could reliably get online. We also sent them Amazon gift cards and a VISA debit card so they could enjoy quality time with their families, such as ordering dinner or watching a movie at home. Our aim was to show our team members that we cared about them and their families, and that we would do all that we could to help them feel safe and supported during this public health crisis.
- All Staff Meetings: We held weekly mandatory virtual team meetings every Friday from 1:30pm — 3:30pm where ALL 38 members of our staff (at that time) participated. This enabled us to maintain effective working relationships and communications with each other, and to address issues we had to tackle as a team. This mandatory meeting gave us a forum to share timely updates on COVID-19 and how the latest developments in the virus and efforts to respond to it were impacting our families and schools. It also gave us the opportunity to check-in weekly to learn how our team members were doing personally, and to support each other. Additionally, it gave us an opportunity to engage in school-wide professional learning together, and to offer special virtual services such a training session in mindfulness that was facilitated by Chi Kim, the CEO of Pure Edge, Inc.
- Weekly Team Meetings: Our elementary, preschool, operations, external relations and family/community initiatives teams held their own meetings, as necessary, during the week. Our Executive Team met every Monday for 90 minutes, and we created a slightly larger Leadership Team as well to ensure we were involving our school social worker, nursing team, and special education and instructional team leadership in our thinking and decision-making. The Leadership Team met every Thursday for 90 minutes as well. We used these meetings to problem-solve, address concerns and tackle a few issues at a time.
- Managing Work and Team Member Engagement: To ensure our team members were completing important work assignments, and were effectively and consistently communicating their work activities and needs, we developed a Weekly Team Member Work Plan (which we still use) where EVERY team member (including me) shares what they are working on, what we are doing to grow and develop professionally, and what we need from others on our team.
- Five Weeks of Dedicated, School-Wide Planning: In May 2020, we asked our parents, and then our Board, if they would support us ending our virtual learning program for the 2019–20 school year early so we could spend 100% of our time over the summer planning for reopening our schools again in the fall. Our elementary school is a public charter school, and the only public school in Wisconsin that offers both a longer school day (8.5 hours versus 7.5 hours of school daily) and longer school year (219 days versus 180 days for district schools). Our school year was set to end on July 30, 2020. Instead, with our parents and Board’s support, we closed our school on June 12, 2020, the same day other local public schools closed for the year. We gave our staff one week off, and then spent the next five weeks working remotely to put our plans together. EVERY One City team member was involved in planning.
- Engaging Parents and our Board of Directors: We continued to hold monthly virtual meetings with our students’ parents and care givers. When we had to make major decisions, we would host special meetings with them as well, and would involve our Board members so they could hear parents’ concerns and the questions we were receiving. We wanted our Board to understand the challenges we were facing, and the reasons behind the decisions we had to make. Click here to watch one of our virtual meetings with our parents, where our school principal and medical advisor discussed with them our initial thoughts about returning to school. Several of our Board members attended meetings like this as well.
- Our Reopening Plans: On July 30, 2020, we released our reopening plans for our preschool and elementary school to the general public. Two days before this, we released it to our parents and went over the details with them and our Board during a virtual meeting. Prior to that, every Friday during the summer, all of our planning teams gave updates on their progress at our virtual All Staff meetings. We also involved the health community in our planning, to ensure we were doing our best to bring everyone back to school safely, and that our staff (and families) would feel comfortable with coming back to school.
- Listening and Responding to Team Member Concerns: We made sure not to pressure any of our team members to come back to school. For example, every Friday during our virtual all staff meetings, we asked our team members how they were feeling and what they were concerned about with regard to the Coronavirus. We wanted to know how their lives, and the lives of their families, were being impacted by the pandemic. We also asked how they were feeling about reopening our schools and what we would need to do and consider for them to feel comfortable about returning to in-person instruction in the fall. Rather than negating or diminishing their concerns, our Leadership Team sought answers and solutions to them, and in partnership with our team members. In the end, we could not answer every question nor ameliorate every concern, but because we listened and took our team members’ concerns seriously, and did all that we could to devise and put effective health and safety protocols in place, our team members (and parents) trusted us. When we reopened our preschool and elementary school on September 1, 2020, 100% of our team members enthusiastically returned to school.
- Financial Impact of Reopening: We spent more than $600,000 on COVID-related changes, products and services to safely bring our children and staff back to school, and to ensure we could provide a virtual and in-person education to our students. This was money we would not have spent if COVID did not exist. So, not only did we keep all of our staff employed and service contracts in-tact, we spent much more than we anticipated to make our return to school possible. This has included, providing $120 per week in child care tuition stipends to our team members who needed this support for their own children in order to return to work at One City.
- Addressing Positive COVID Cases: Since reopening, we have had nearly 20 cases of COVID-19 reported within our school community. However, only three cases have resulted in us having to quarantine entire classrooms of students and staff at their homes for 14 days. This has happened twice in our preschool and once in our elementary school. Additionally, there have been no findings or reports of the COVID-19 virus being transmitted on the premises of our schools, not yet anyway.
- COVID-Testing at One City Schools: In October 2020, One City became the first operator of public schools in Wisconsin to open a school-based COVID-19 testing lab. We currently run two saliva tests for COVID-19 per week on our students, staff and volunteers at our elementary school, and our staff and volunteers only at our preschool. We currently partner with UW-Madison to do the advanced PCR testing, when necessary, if we find evidence of COVID-19 infection in the saliva samples we collect. We also have dozens of BinaxNow rapid antigen test kits on-site to test students and staff who report feeling ill during the day at school.
- Additional Support for Teachers and Students: Presently, 74% are learning with us in person and 26% are learning remotely. To supplement the virtual instruction provided by our teachers and better support our remote learners at home, we recruited 27 virtual tutors to work one-on-one with our remote learners in reading/language arts and math. We also established our Sunshine Committee, which is staff-led and works to keep our team members engaged, inspired and their minds and bodies healthy. Our executive chef and sous chef, who lead our Healthy School Meals Program, prepare a delicious breakfasts, lunch and snack daily form scratch, for all of our children and team members to enjoy. Recently, we also began paying 50% of a discounted membership fee for our team members to attend The Princeton Club in Madison, a 24-hour health club, so they can keep their minds and bodies fit, and engage in small, socially-distanced fitness programs together. Our team members pay the other 50% of the fee. We also refer our team members to other health services, when needed.
As you have read, there is a lot we have done to reopen our schools and keep them open. Several of the decisions we have made and benefits we have offered have been costly. However, these investments in our children and team have been worth it. Our children are happy, healthyand enjoying learning with their peers everyday. Moreover, the positive energy and camaradarie that currently exists among our staff has never been greater than it is right now. Our team members feel good about coming to school every day, and are dedicated public servants that I am proud of and truly honored to work with.
My final point. Schools can reopen safely and stay open. They can (and should) also use this time as an opportunity to get better and do better when it comes to effectively educating all of our children. Yet, accomplishing these goals will require the following:
(1) transparent, thoughtful and detailed planning and creativity,
(2) significant financial investment and an unprecedented openness to innovation and technology,
(3) a tremendous dedication to teamwork, team unity and trust among school staff, students and families,
(4) school leaders and school boards that place the health, safety and concerns of children, families and school teams at the center of their decision-making, and
(5) community members outside of schools that are willing to dig deep, do more and support what needs to happen inside them.
These are lessons we have learned over the last 12 months. We hope our decisions, actions and experiences expressed here in this article help inform your plans and thoughts about safely reopening and returning to school, and sending your children back, too. Onward.
Kaleem Caire is the Founder and CEO of One City Schools (https://www.onecityschools.org) in Madison, Wisconsin. One City operates an independent preschool and a public charter elementary school, chartered by the University of Wisconsin System.