We think we can, we think we can. These adapted words from “The Little Engine that Could” rang true through the summer months as our school put its plan to reopen, safely and responsibly, in motion. As one of our county’s non-public (independent/private) schools, we were in a fortunate position to work independently, via our own task force, on developing approved guidelines that permitted us to open our doors to in-person learning five days a week. As we walked our path, dedicating ourselves to safe “mask-to-mask” teaching and learning, we worked collaboratively with the Anne Arundel County Health Department and in concert with our accrediting body to ensure our measures were sound.
In our small school, we are simply not adequately staffed to manage a simultaneous virtual experience for families wishing to keep their children home. However, should the situation call for it, we can pivot and conduct our program remotely. Our choice stems from an ability to maintain small class cohorts of 12 to 14 students per classroom and to house our three age “divisions” in three distinct physical spaces. Of course, we implemented several other guidelines: masks, distancing, temperature checks upon arrival, routine cleaning, reduced bathroom capacity, separate entrances and exits, and one-way hallways. We have partnered with families throughout our trajectory to ensure their follow-through at home with safe measures and communication. Overall, these steps, combined with our current student count of 215 students, allows to safely and effectively manage in-person learning.
Moreover, we have discovered that kids and families are genuinely happy back in school, even with some big differences. We wear our masks throughout the day, almost to the point we forget they are there! Surprisingly, it is the youngest of our bunch – our 3-year-olds – who are the best at it! We handwash and sanitize like crazy. Our desks are spaced apart, and we still use Zoom for parent meetings and gatherings like back-to-school night. We optimize the outdoors for everything: classes, lunch, play, weekly assemblies, parent association meetings, and even band class! We are grateful to be where we are, and we sense our young students – from preschool through middle school – are benefiting from a connected in-person school experience.
At the same time, this is not an easy walk. I contend that whatever path a school is on – virtual, hybrid, in-person – teaching and administering a school of any stripe in our current context is an exercise in their flexibility and stamina. There is a quiet yet perpetual state of overwhelm and even anxiety which can be felt, even via a Zoom screen as we discovered during last spring’s sudden immersion into distance learning. We know the end goal is the continuity of student learning and students’ social and emotional well-being, and that is essential work. As I tell our staff, along with the health and safety of our students, our own self-care is our highest priority. Any opportunities to alleviate added pressure on our educators is a sensible measure these days.
As we lean into this cooler season, we know the transition may ebb and flow as cases potentially rise, and we will adapt. It’s helpful to be small right about now, knowing that not only we can, but we will.
St. Martin’s Episcopal School is a preschool through grade eight independent school serving 215 students from 18 zip codes. For more information about St. Martin’s and its commitment to building students of confidence, character and compassion, visit www.stmartinsmd.org or call the director of admissions, Kira Dickson, at 410-647-7055.