Planning the COVID comeback: Tools for school reopenings

Supports are available to district leaders making complex school design decisions this summer. Because staffing and facilities constraints impact every approach, the tools help in understanding what is possible and what tradeoffs will have to be considered.

If there’s one thing that’s certain about the current situation for school and district administrators, it’s that uncertainty is very prevalent right now.

“Leaders are wrestling with a lot of uncertainty about what physical distancing requirements will be in place when students return to school,” says David Rosenberg of Education Resource Strategies (ERS), who was a lead creator and author of a new set of COVID Comeback School Models tools. “Those who can channel their sense of urgency toward creating options for some likely scenarios, even with imperfect information, are going to be better prepared for re-opening.”

A nonprofit focused on transforming how urban school systems organize resources with student success as the goal, ERS is offering the models to help determine student groupings, scheduling and staff roles as well as to illuminate the system-wide implications for various school design options. The tools are based on the assumption that schools will need to implement physical distancing and social-emotional supports, plus that a hybrid approach of in-person and remote learning will be needed. The resources also indicate what trade-offs and resource shifts would come into play under the models.

Using the tools

District leaders can start with the Decision Points for COVID Comeback Models, which describes a process for choosing the best model for the individual school system. Then leaders can dig into specific models, making use of a calculator to determine what’s feasible.

“We set out to create a set of hands-on decision support tools that help leaders unpack what an in-person, remote or hybrid scenario could actually look like, including the real-life resource trade-offs leaders face. We also worked to build out a structure and process for addressing what can quickly become a dizzying array of questions and challenges,” explains Rosenberg. The tools focus explicitly on the decisions shaping students’ instructional experience (as opposed to operational questions), he adds.

Rosenberg’s belief is that most school districts have by now put reopening committees together to put potential scenarios in place, and that the tools will be helpful in moving forward. But districts that are further along in planning may not yet have identified the impact of decisions. “It’s helping shine a light on some very real trade-offs hey face,” he says. In addition, strategic re-allocation and re-organization decisions related to people, time and money must go from concept to reality. The tools are designed to help.

Just one example of moving a concept forward is how to implement the “A” days/”B” days model where half of students go to school on each. “You quickly get into some really interesting questions. Will we group students in homerooms that include in-person and remote learners together, or will remote days look fundamentally different from in-person days? Will we ask educators to teach students in-person and remotely, or just one or the other?” says Rosenberg. “If hybrid models are designed to enable physical distancing, in-person days require relatively small group sizes—and therefore, more educators. What does that imply for students’ remote learning experience? It’s all solvable, but the questions are new and unique to the current moment we’re living in.”

His advice for district leaders is to start with building buy-in by engaging families, educators and partners in establishing “guiding principles” for the work. Then leaders can get specific about priorities and operational constraints. Finally, he says, leaders must “get comfortable with ambiguity and expect change.” Neither, he adds, “should become a barrier to forward progress.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.

Read more coverage on coronavirus, including how schools are planning for fall.

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