School leaders have never had to prepare for school in quite such unique ways, but all previous ways of getting ready for back to school have been tossed aside this year as school communities look to re-invent this coming Monday, Sept. 21, what a high-energy First Day of School can be like when working remote on the other side of a computer screen.
Students in all of the Charlestown and area schools will return to classes on Monday, Sept. 21, but almost all won’t leave the house to attend their first day of classes. With the district going fully remote throughout the first months, students will log on Monday with computers, but already over the past weeks school leaders have been figuring out how to make remote school exciting, caring, challenging and “normal” – to whatever degree possible.
At the Eliot School in the North End, which serves Charlestown students, Principal Traci Walker (of Charlestown) said she will be able to provide plenty of energy through videos – something she found worked well last spring to get kids motivated and excited.
“We’ve really been talking a lot about what is the best way to do the first day,” said Walker. “I will have my own Principal Traci’s video challenge. That will be the first day and every day. From there, the students go to their morning gatherings online. We can’t completely replicate a school day, but what we want to do is create the joy students feel for the first day and we will replicate it for sure. Making sure the students are happy, engaged and joyful is what has been driving us.”
For educators at the Eliot, the Warren Prescott and the Harvard Kent Schools, the summer has not been the usual time off from school. Much of the months before school ended, and going throughout July and August were about planning for what school would be like in September. For a long time, the schools were looking at a hybrid model to start, then the district backtracked to announce a phases approach where students started remotely this coming Monday and then – as the science and virus data dictated – slowly work towards a hybrid model in the late fall. Of course, all parents also had the choice of choosing a completely remote option for the school year if they felt it was unsafe for their children and families to return to a building in person. All of that left a lot of options and logistics for school leaders to sort out. That began at the Warren Prescott and other schools on Sept. 1 when teachers began doing their professional development, something that was negotiated statewide so that educators could better learn how to implement remote and hybrid learning models before students logged in or arrived at school.
W-P Principal Michele Davis said they did their own professional development from Sept. 1-3 at the school, and the larger Boston Public Schools (BPS) had professional development from Sept. 8-18.
She said a key to the first day would be building on a successful spring and trying to keep traditions in place that kids are used to having at in-person school days.
“Having the extra time to plan has been so valuable to ensure consistency of instruction,” she said on Tuesday. “This week individual teams have held Zoom meetings with parents. Also, we wanted to be familiar with parents and students and we weren’t able to have our Back to School Bash where we meet each other in person informally. So, we did do meet-and-greets online with parents and students and that was helpful. We didn’t want to let that tradition go.”
And tradition and slowness, she said, will be hallmarks of easing into remote learning for W-P students. Davis said the Warren Prescott had about a 90 percent engagement rate online during the spring, and have used their Equity Committee to zero in on students that didn’t engage. Through that victory, they believe they can get every student involved, and make them comfortable with familiar routines, like the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Every day at 8:30 a.m. we will sign on and say the ‘Pledge of Allegiance,’” said Davis. “That’s something we did in the spring and it worked. We had kids, grandparents, parents and others joining in. The traditions we’ve always had a Warren Prescott – it’s a way of trying to find a way to continue those traditions even if it’s online.”
Both Walker and Davis said the important work this week and in the first week of school will not be so much teaching reading, writing and arithmetic as it will be building trust with students and parents – as well as making sure people are doing okay socially and emotionally. Some students and families might be fine and happy to start school, while others might have lived through trauma and tragedy over and over in the last six months.
“Last year, we had three-quarters of a year behind us and had already built relationships,” said Walker. “this is how do we establish and strengthen a new relationship in a remote world. Teachers have been reaching out and having remote meetings with parents, which started Monday and will go until Sept. 21. We have 800 kids at the Eliot, so we need to do 800 virtual home visits. It’s all hands on deck. I did some too.”
That’s also translated in kits that students pick up at the school during the appointed times, whether a science kit or books to read or any other supplies.
Davis said another key will be finding the right blend of Zoom meetings with kids, and down time to do homework and projects without instruction. That will take time, and she said all schools are working under the umbrella of trying to problem solve on the run.
“We are all in and ready to go and we’ll adjust as necessary,” said Davis. “We just want to make sure we are meeting the needs.”