Sunday, September 27, 2020

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The Country School Lays Out Preliminary Reopening Plans for Fall

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Outdoor lessons, such as this 5th grade class taking place outside, are part of The Country School’s fall reopening strategy. Photo courtesy of Teresa Sullivan

Outdoor lessons, such as this 5th grade class taking place outside, are part of The Country School’s fall reopening strategy. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Sullivan )

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This aerial view of The Country School shows where an outdoor science classroom is currently being designed on the left hand side of the building. Photo courtesy of Teresa Sullivan

This aerial view of The Country School shows where an outdoor science classroom is currently being designed on the left hand side of the building. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Sullivan )

Looking forward toward the enigma of the fall and schooling in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, administrators at The Country School (TCS) are hoping to get ahead of the curve, releasing a preliminary plan for what classes and learning will be like for the private K-8 academy’s 200 or so students next year as the school seeks to leverage some of its resources and space offered at its sprawling Madison campus.

The approximately 10 page “Reopen and Stay Open” outline released last week, which covers everything from cohorting students to new moving bookcases installed in the library, is still subject to change as guidance from the state continues to evolve, though TCS Headmaster John Fixx told The Source that the school has been hard at work to make sure necessary procedures and infrastructure are in place.

In a wide ranging conversation with The Source, Fixx and TCS English teacher and Communications staff member Teresa Sullivan spoke about the school’s hopes and concerns for the upcoming school year.

Flexibility and offering as many types of engagement and accommodations as possible are the main focuses as the school moves forward, both Sullivan and Fixx emphasized.

“There’s no way that we can have everyone on the same page...There’s no one answer, there’s no magic bullet,” Sullivan said. “It’s being on campus, it’s some kids who aren’t going on campus. It’s trying to do what we can to serve everyone.”

Like every other school in the state, both public and private, TCS is being told to prepare for both in-person and remote learning in the fall, with families allowed to opt out of traditional classes for any reason while most will be physically attending.

Additionally, students and faculty will wear masks indoors, though Fixx said there are plans to get students outside during both academic time and break time, which could allow for mask breaks.

TCS is currently constructing outdoor learning classroom spaces, which includes three “amphitheater areas” protected by sunshades and whiteboards mounted on the side of buildings, and according to Sullivan. Because TCS has been teaching outdoors for years, using lap desks and other tools to have students learn outside, Fixx said the school is “uniquely prepared.”

State guidelines recommend that schools move activities and classes outside when possible.

Though only three families so far have indicated their children will not be attending in person, TCS has put together resources to ensure those students are directly engaged in lessons, including 10 mobile cameras that can automatically track the movement of a teacher during class time.

Cohorting—keeping students in the same small groups that don’t interact with other cohorts to prevent wide contact—is a challenge with which many schools are struggling. At the elementary school level, classes can be mostly kept as a single group, but middle schoolers, who normally move from subject to subject, are more of a challenge.

Fixx said TCS will be broadly attempting to limit the movement of middle schoolers, placing cohorts in larger indoor spaces—a library, an art room—and having teachers come to them whenever possible.

At all grade levels, cohorts will remain separated for recess, lunch, or other break times, again, to prevent the degree to which any potential infection can spread.

TCS is also switching to a block schedule, where students have longer classes but less often, three times a week instead of five, according to Fixx.

From a direct health and hygiene standpoint, Sullivan said younger grades will have a re-emphasis of the basics: how to sneeze properly, handwashing procedures, and use of hand sanitizer. Both teachers and TCS’s two nurses will collaborate on these lessons, which will include songs and integration into lessons to help bring the message home, she said.

In case of a suspected case, or a student exhibiting symptoms during the school day, TCS has two designated quarantine rooms, one of those being a faculty lounge, that can be used to isolate students until they can be picked up by parents or guardians.

On the other hand, the school won’t check the temperatures of each student upon arrival to school; state is not currently requiring or even recommending that practice.

Fixx cited the trust shared among TCS members for why he is comfortable trusting parents to do their own health checks and keeping children home if they exhibit any red-flag symptoms, though he added he could “envision” the school checking temperatures depending on what happens between now and the beginning of the school year.

Teacher safety, another issue with which many schools are struggling, is something that TCS has also had to deal with. “A couple” teachers have already decided not to work at all this year, Fixx said, citing health concerns- either their own health, or that of close family members.

Those teachers will not be paid this year, but will be able to return to their jobs next year, according to Fixx.

A couple more teachers will be essentially working from home with reduced responsibilities and pay, Fixx said, in order to “minimize their risk.” The specifics of what they will be asked to do, as well as their pay scale, is a “conversation,” Fixx said, based on both the financial and health needs of the individual teachers.

Fixx said these conversations were all worked out directly between the school and the individuals. The school may end up hiring one or two more staff to fill the void, Fixx said.

Through all the necessary and difficult new adaptations, the school is also seeking to address mental health needs of students as well, according to Fixx. “Zaniness,” which may include silly dress-up days, impromptu field days, or brain teaser competitions, could all show up to help relieve some stress as both kids and adults shoulder the often heavy emotional burdens of the pandemic.

With families paying tuition and specifically choosing and trusting TCS with both the safety and education of their children, Fixx said he and the other members are keenly aware of their outsized responsibilities during the pandemic.

“We’re also in the business of educating children,” Fixx said. “I want us to be ready, I want us to look ready. I want campus to look like school could start tomorrow.”


Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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