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Singapore American School Shares Lessons from Reopening in Covid Conditions

By Lauren Mehrbach, Chris Beingessner and Chris Raymaakers
Singapore American School Shares Lessons from Reopening in Covid Conditions

Students disembarked the buses at Singapore American School, excited for their first full day of in-person school since March. They saw former classmates, jumped with joy as they reconnected, sharing stories of their “summer.” Students made their way to their Advisory to start the day. In many ways, it resembled the start of the 2019-20 school year.

However, it wasn’t. Last week, we opened one of the world’s largest single-campus international schools serving 4,000 students. In our middle school alone, more than 100 teachers and administrators worked to bring 990 students safely to campus.

Considering the incidence of reinfection in Singapore, the goal was not to eliminate risk, but rather to minimize it. We followed the guidelines of the Ministry of Education and the CDC equivalent in our host country, Singapore. Here, cases of community spread have been in the single digits for weeks, testing is quick and available, contact tracing is robust, and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving in the country is in place. This is what we learned:

Students want to be together, in person. Desperately. They are willing to do things that are contrary to human nature—like not touch, not be close, and wear a mask all day—to have the opportunity to be in school with other kids. Every student we spoke with during the first week back was excited to be at school, happy to meet their teachers and see friends after the long period of relative isolation.

Getting to know students with masks is tricky for teachers, and it is harder for students to share how they are feeling, or how well they are following along, with their faces obscured. We’ve challenged our middle school kids to learn how to move each eyebrow independently so they can communicate more with their eyes! They accepted our strange and altered reality that includes eating a packed lunch in their classrooms, attending the Welcome Back assembly via Zoom (epic fail), waiting half an hour or more to be able to leave campus at the end of the day due to our staggered dismissal, following floor markings (walk on the left!) when transiting between classes, and no outside, active recess… yet. Despite how complicated it will be, we are working towards cohort-based recess in the next few weeks.

Having said that, many of our students are also grieving, or perhaps more aptly “re-grieving.” The start of a new school is also a chance for a fresh start and all of us, students and adults, were secretly hoping that the start to this school year would also be an opportunity to start over, to go back to normal. In some ways this has happened, but in other ways it has not, and we need to be mindful that while covid-19 has been around for a while now, the start of the new school year and the restrictions that are currently in place are going to remind students of their loss of freedom and the fact that "normal" no longer exists. 

While not an exhaustive list, here are some questions to consider as you think about how to safely return in person:

  • How can you encourage or mandate mask use? What community partner might provide masks for those who can’t access them?
  • How will you help students and adults keep hands clean? Do you have adequate washrooms? Soap and towels? Hand sanitizer for each classroom? How will your school pay for all of those additional hygiene products?
  • How will you set up classrooms to safe distance your students? If they have to be closer together than you’d like, can they face away to minimize exposure? How will leaders help teachers get their learning spaces ready for safe distancing? Do you have enough desks? Will you need to reduce the number of students on campus each day to keep kids and adults safe?
  • How can you cohort your students to minimize interactions and ease contact tracing? 
  • What impact will safe distancing have on bus ridership or routing? 
  • How efficiently can you trace who a student or employee has had contact with? Can you leverage the power of reports within your Learning Management System to assist with this? Where are seating plans stored? How are you monitoring attendance taking and movement throughout the school each day?
  • How will you sanitize learning spaces? How can you have students participate in this to make it quicker and easier? How will your school afford the added costs of cleaning products and additional cleaning services? 
  • How can you avoid large groups of students assembling? Can students eat in their classrooms? Can you stagger arrival and dismissal times? Can you do temperature screening at the entrance? 
  • How might you maintain class-based cohorts at recess or breaks to minimize contacts but still allow students to have time to move and play?
  • What signage might you use to help facilitate student movement in your building or as an opportunity to reinforce desired behavior?
  • What are your policies and practices around quarantining family members of sick employees and students?

The emotional and cognitive load on educators and support staff is enormous and cannot be underestimated. Everyone, including our educators and students, is managing the anxiety created by the pandemic and its knock-on effects. As humans, we are learning that plans are an illusion, and everything can change in an instant.

Besides all of the new health and safety tasks required of our teachers, they must also completely change the way they teach. If students are distanced, a simple turn-and-talk becomes unreasonably loud. Group work is harder when students are speaking through masks. Teacher voice strain is a real thing. It’s up to school leaders to figure out ways to release the pressure so that your teachers can creatively problem solve and redesign their units.

Try creating a brief survey that you can send to the adults in your building on a weekly basis as a way to determine how teachers and staff are coping and what they might need to help them move forward. Use the results of the survey to follow-up with individuals and improve systems.

Back to school night is an annual tradition of many schools. If parents are not allowed on site, try having teachers use a tool like Loom to record their presentations and share these with parents. Be sure to include photos of classrooms and other learning spaces so parents can visualize where their children spend their days. Here are some things to consider as you think about supporting teachers:

  • How might you leverage all of the people in your building to provide supervision for students and reduce teacher supervision time. What opportunities exist to involve parents or recent graduates (if they are allowed on site) to be part of your supervision system? What conversations might you have with local teacher unions and professional organizations to create some flexibility? Are there any discretionary funds available to hire additional supervisors? 
  • How might you change the school day (duration, start/stop, early dismissal) to allow professionals time to work together? Is a hybrid of on-campus and distance something that would ease stress or create more?
  • What traditional or regular things you’ve done can you actually take off of teachers’ plates? Assemblies? Meetings? 
  • What systems and tools do you have in place to monitor the mental wellbeing of the adults and children in your building? How can you find out what people need?

Numerous articles have referenced “Kondo-ing the Curriculum.” This is real. Grade level is arbitrary and there is no such thing as being "behind" right now. Families will be so thankful to have their kids in school that there is an opportunity to reimagine what is important in your community.

Articles about the global trauma we are experiencing as humans are readily available, demanding that schools put the emotional wellbeing of our students first. Families will need to know that the students may not learn exactly the same things they did in a given grade in the past, but that the problem solving and empathy our children develop during this unprecedented time will serve them well. Here are some things to consider with respect to curriculum:

  • How might you put your students’ social and emotional wellbeing at the forefront of your school’s purpose? What support will your teachers need to guide students in their social and emotional learning?
  • How might you work with teachers to cut back to what is essential? What formative assessments can be used across the system to figure out what gaps have been created by the disruption in the spring? 
  • How will external assessments be used during the pandemic? Is there a way to rethink these high-stakes tests? 

Going back to school in person is possible. It’s hard, but it’s possible. Your school needs to thoughtfully prepare in order for it to be safe. As you start this challenging work, consider:

  • How might you help your community understand the “why” behind the restrictions that have been put in place to keep people safe? They may buy in more if they understand the purpose. 
  • How might you capitalize on your community’s appreciation of school happening on campus? What narratives can you share with parents to reinforce the gargantuan effort your teachers are putting in to make this happen? What student stories can you share to show how much they’re enjoying being on campus?

Of course, if your community still has a high rate of covid transmission or little ability to test and trace, then going back to school in person is dangerous. Not until your community meets the national or local health ministry’s guidelines should schools even consider in-person learning options. 

Reimagining school during the pandemic is a global re-creation. Hopefully we’ll learn some new ways that work better for our students and toss the old ways that don’t work as well.

Lauren Mehrbach is Middle School Principal at Singapore American School.

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