Area private and charter schools roll out phased plans for 2020-21 school year.
Colorado private and charter schools are launching a buffet of phased plans to get students back in school, and while the plans differ in details, they each aim to provide an enriching education remotely or in a safe, socially distanced classroom.
Here’s a look at how several local schools will open this fall.
Nina Lopez, head of school at Bixby School in Boulder, said this is a “time to come together and to get clear about what matters. As the saying goes, let’s not waste a crisis.”
Bixby, a small school by design with about 60 preschool through fifth grade students, plans to provide instruction five days a week per student unless prohibited by a government mandate. “Elementary students will be grouped into cohorts of 10 students and will be assigned a bathroom,” Lopez said. The school will provide students with lap desks to tout outdoors, where much of the instruction will occur. Teachers, instead of students, will rotate between classes, and music class will focus more on theory than on the usual signing (guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest limiting singing to prevent spreading airborne COVID-19 particles).
Lopez has been surveying parents and teachers to gauge their comfort levels with in-person and virtual education. She said, “There’s clearly a preference to return to in-person instruction, and we’re fortunate that we have huge windows we can keep open and outdoor space to make this happen.” Lopez cited the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that to support student mental, social and emotional health, schools open with scrupulous safety precautions. “We are prepared to implement the best practice around minimizing or mitigating disease and feel confident with kids in-person for a full and rich curriculum,” she said.
Some students with immuno-compromised or older family members will virtually join Bixby this year, and if necessary, the entire school will move between in-person and remote learning throughout the academic year.
“There was a point last spring when I was working 14 hours a day, seven days a week,” Lopez recalled. “I was blown away at the adaptability and commitment of our teachers and feel like we emerged as a team stronger than we went in.”
Although parents of students enrolled in the Friends School of Boulder indicated via a school survey that they were pleased with the school’s remote learning program offered last spring, the Friends School remains committed to in-person learning. The Friends School’s two Boulder campuses, with preschoolers through eighth graders, will organize into small pods of students and utilize outdoor classroom space this fall. Meg Hansen, director of marketing and communications, said, “The size of our school allows us to keep our classrooms small, and our large campuses allow us to take advantage of the great outdoors as much as possible.”
Hansen continued, “While we hope to be in-person for the entire school year, our experienced teachers are ready to pivot to remote learning at any time. PPE, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, physical distancing while still building relationships, staggered arrivals, private classroom entrances and thoughtful schedules will all be part of keeping our community safe.”
Furthermore, should a government mandate require virtual learning, Friends School is prepared. Hansen said, “The spirit and creativity our teachers demonstrated in the spring with a deep and rich learning experience provided a wealth of knowledge should we need to pivot to remote learning again. If that time comes, we plan to execute a similarly robust remote program.”
Whether in-person or virtually, Friends School will emphasize the social emotion literacy for which the school is known, and this year’s curriculum will involve a “greater focus on diversity, equity and inclusion work,” as well as a “deepening of project-based learning,” Hansen said.
Sacred Heart of Jesus School
Tom Mecsey, principal of Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Boulder, has been planning for a 2020-21 in-person educational experience for students since May. He said, “We have made preparations that include daily temperature screenings for students and staff, cohorting of student groups and physical distancing.” Sacred Heart of Jesus, serving students from kindergarten through eighth grade, replaced collaborative tables with student desks, and teachers will rotate through rooms.
Middle school students will be required to wear a face covering, unless they have a medical condition that discourages the use of a mask, and elementary students will be encouraged to wear a facial covering. The school will also “take advantage of the great Colorado climate to spend as much time outdoors as possible for academic, recreational and social activities,” Mecsey said.
For families wishing to start the year with virtual learning, students will be able to participate with their in-person peers in real-time. “We have spent the summer developing alternative learning strategies should, later in the school year, medical data from the county or state warrant changes,” he said.
Mecsey believes “the classroom provides the opportunity for vital human connection,” something that was difficult to provide last spring despite “a rather rigorous distance learning program.” He said, “For a student to be able to look directly into the eyes of their teacher establishes an essential bond of trust and safety that helps satisfy fundamental needs in children in order for them to learn effectively. As a school built upon Christian values, we realize the inherent value to in-person interaction as a demonstration of the love between a student and his or her teacher.”
To navigate the challenges of teaching older students during a pandemic, September School, a private high school in Boulder, is pivoting to outdoor education, said the school executive director Kelly Molinet. As early as last April, September School, a 47-year mainstay of Boulder’s educational culture, was researching how safely to educate outside. “We are collaborative by nature, and we have always been out-of-the-box thinkers,” Molinet said. “We have constructed outdoor classrooms and adjusted our curriculum and calendar so that we can provide a safe, rich academic and social experience for our students. Students will learn the natural history and ecology of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, read the literature of the region and engage in environmental advocacy on the local level.” September School’s classes are capped at about 10 students.
September School, focusing on the social and emotional health of teenagers, welcomed a wilderness therapy intern and an art therapy intern to the staff this year. Molinet said, “We will do regular school Monday through Thursday and use Fridays for excursions such as hikes, bike rides, farm visits, horseback riding and more. Our curriculum remains committed to centering the voices and experiences of marginalized groups, and our history and literature courses will teach indigenous history as well as the history of Black and Latinx people in Colorado.”
September School went virtual last spring, hosting classes four hours a day online to maintain consistency, but Molinet said teachers are “excited and energized to make this curricular shift” and provide in-person, safe, outdoor education. Parents seem equally “excited and relieved,” she said. Molinet empathized, “I have four kids in middle and high school, and I am a 27-year-educator, and I was pulling my hair out trying to keep up with their work, so I get it. I know the students are happy to be coming back to school as well. Hopefully their enthusiasm will overcome any challenging weather.”
Dawson School of Lafayette, an independent college-prep school from kindergarten through twelfth grade, plans to open with on-campus instruction, but “in the event that Boulder County Public Health guidelines at the time preclude that, we will shift to either a hybrid or remote model,” said head of school George P. Moore. Dawson School’s four instructional phases, which the school may move in and out of as necessary, include their pre-COVID program, an exclusively remote option, in-person instruction with a focus on social distancing and a hybrid program with elementary students in-person five days a week and older students completing some work remotely.
Moore said Dawson School, now celebrating its fiftieth year, is ideally suited to educate students despite the challenges of COVID-19. He said, “Our smaller population and larger campus allow us to have students socially distanced in the classroom. We also have put in place health and safety protocols such as 100 percent face-covering indoors. Our adaptability will allow us to shift quickly to one of our other plans should that be required.”
Indeed, if a virtual option is necessitated, Moore said, “Our remote program is not a compromise. It continues to be fantastic teachers engaged with our students to create a meaningful educational experience. But we know the importance of in-person engagement is significant.”
Twin Peaks Charter School
With the education of 750 students on his mind, Joseph Mehsling, director of Twin Peaks Charter School, admitted, “It’s been a very anxiety-inducing summer.” However, he said, the planning and preparing is worth it, as he believes “it’s riskier to not have kids in school.”
Mehsling unveiled three educational plans in July. Phase one is remote learning only, phase two features meticulous social distancing parameters and phase three is “normal school day,” he said. Mehsling expects to return students with phase two guidelines, “allowing us the flexibility to move up or down as needed,” he said. Twin Peaks, a classical school, is offering virtual instruction to all families, but for those comfortable with returning, students will be grouped into cohorts that will learn, eat and play together. Elementary students will attend five days a week, whereas middle and high school students will attend every other day, with a day of in-person instruction followed by a day of work at home on assignments. Extended hours will be offered to help working families care for children on non-classroom days.
Mehsling said, “I think you’re seeing streamlining this year. We will focus on those essential skills of literacy and numeracy, and we’re probably going to start the year without clubs and sports. This is a year for essentials and flexibility.”
For Mehsling and his team, a silver lining this year has been a renewed appreciation for excellent teaching. “Sometimes we take what teachers get up and do each day for granted,” he said.
“I think that after great parenting, nothing else has more of an impact than great teachers.”
By Sarah Huber, for Raised in the Rockies.