What We Did to Safely Reopen Schools, and Encourage our Staff that is was Safe to Return

by Kaleem Caire (February 10, 2021)

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One City Master Teacher, Ms. Pamela Ferrill, doing math challenges with our young scholars.

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.

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.

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