Back in April Erin Hart of Three Rivers Christian School in Longview shared her school’s transition to remote learning. Erin, in addition to being a member of the WFIS Board of Directors, has supported the greater private school community throughout summer and into fall by sharing her insights during conversations at the WFIS Weekly Zoom Meetings. Below she gives us an update on how her school safely transitioned back to in-person learning this fall.
safely preserving our school community
When the pandemic sent us all home in March, I remember all of us thinking it might be just a month or two and then we would be back to school. It only took a few weeks for the long-term ramifications of COVID-19 to sink in. However, as educators, we are accustomed to dealing with near-impossible tasks. In a time of uncertainty, we did what educators do: we learned – and then we figured out how to teach what we learned to our community.
Our first step was to hire a team of infection prevention consultants (https://www.ipaconsultants.org/) to help us understand the implications of the virus on our campuses. With over 600 students from 4 weeks old to 12th grade, along with 120 staff members, all spread across three campuses, we knew there would be unique safety circumstances in a transition back to on-site learning. We are grateful for the work of WFIS in helping us communicate to the state that we could find safe ways, unique to our community, to return to school.
Our early learning centers closed for one month while we figured out our plans to mitigate risk, and we started working on planning for a return to in-person instruction in the fall, with approval from our local Department of Health. By the end of the school year, we were beginning to see the social-emotional impact on our K-12 students, so we moved full-bore into investigating the science of transmission prevention. We learned all about the trajectory of spit, and from masks to micron HEPA filters to UV wands – we invested in safety equipment. Electrostatic misters (https://emist.com/) are in daily use across our campuses, using a low-hazard peroxide-based COVID-killer as they spray. The UV wands (https://purify-one.com/) have been especially useful on the hard to sanitize items like books and computer keyboards.
Our elementary librarian using the UV Wand on her book cart.
Some of the changes felt like stepping back in time. At the high school, gone were our collaborative worktables. Instead, we invested in all new individual desks with smaller surface area to be more easily disinfected, arranged with the six-foot rule.
Other changes made us feel like “Buck Rogers.” The contactless temperature screening device that uses facial recognition to screen our upper campus students is awe-inspiring. (Although it does occasionally have a hard time confusing siblings with each other!)
Outdoor classroom on a sunny fall day
Marshmallow and Oreo munching
At our elementary campus, we looked for opportunity in the unique programs we already offered. Because we have an agriculture program on campus, we created outdoor classroom spaces where the students could sit six-feet-apart in the orchard or under tents, allowing for mask-breaks in the learning day. We purchased individual microphones to amplify teacher voices, whether outside or behind a mask.
We also realized that now, more than ever, our students needed joyful things in their days – so we’ve added to the school farm: Marshmallow and Oreo, our two Dwarf Nigerian goat does, are happily installed on campus and will be part of our future permaculture rotation. (In the meantime, they get a lot of attention from our agriculture students!)
We also realized that all of this mitigation is meaningless without preparing our students and staff for the reality of living daily with masked faces and little physical contact. To that end, our staff put together age-appropriate training videos (you can check out the elementary video here, and the middle/high school video here).
To date, we’ve had no transmission of COVID on any of our campuses. We had one student diagnosed in mid-October, who obtained it at a family event – but her family followed our protocol and kept her home as soon as they were aware of the other family member’s symptoms. We worked closely with the health department and used our distance learning platform to keep students learning during the necessary quarantine period.
And that has been our ultimate goal: to keep students learning and to safely preserve the community of our school. We started the school year with the aim of maximizing the number of in-person instruction days while mitigating risk. We’ve stayed in close contact with the health department and our infection prevention consultants, and we recently decided to move our K-12 programs to modified distance (with some services with students with specific needs) because of the sharp increase, locally, in the virus. We aim to be back in-person for a week in December before reassessing for the next holiday (and potential transmission risk).
It’s been a huge learning curve and a ton of work, but our families have thanked us repeatedly for being mindful of safety while giving our students a great learning experience during a time of uncertainty. In this unprecedented season, it would be easy to let the political and social turmoil take precedence. We choose to keep the focus on our students, the science, and safety, and we’re grateful for each day that we get to keep learning!
Erin Hart, Superintendent of Three Rivers Christian School