Here’s how to steer a school through uncertain times

We’re not making things up as we go along

AS SCHOOL LEADERS, we prepare for shutdowns of two or three days due to extreme weather. We prepare for terrifying scenarios like school shootings. But not a single school leader I know had ever seriously considered – up until just a couple of weeks ago – what it would look like if schools closed for weeks or months while trying to continue instruction.

Given the unprecedented and dynamic nature of this crisis, it’s normal for students and parents – as well as teachers and administrators – to feel a bit adrift. Indeed, while I was in the middle of writing this piece, Gov. Charlie Baker extended the statewide school closure by an additional four weeks, until May 4, underscoring just how quickly the situation continues to change.

But it’s not quite right to say that we’re making things up as we go. It’s up to educators to be strategic and thoughtful as we guide families over the weeks and months ahead. At Atlantis Charter School, we’re trying to put parents and kids at ease, deliver the best possible instruction under the circumstances, and, ultimately, come out stronger on the other side of this crisis.

Here are three things that are working for us now and some thoughts on where we’re headed.

First, it’s been important for us to be streamlined and straightforward in our communication. With the facts changing as quickly as they are, there’s an understandable impulse to communicate constantly and across multiple channels—from teacher and administrator emails to school and district websites to social media. But this risks overwhelming parents and, worse, inadvertently contradicting ourselves.

The language we’re using needs to be strategic, too. When we first closed school (before the statewide shutdown), I told staff and families that we would be closed “until further notice.” We would spend at least the next week assessing the situation, I explained, but I didn’t offer any return date because I didn’t want our families planning their work and family lives around a date that would have been arbitrary at best. I am not an epidemiologist, and I am not a public health expert. But I knew enough to understand that these circumstances were unprecedented in our lifetime and that information was likely to change rapidly. When you don’t know something, it’s important to say so—especially in situations like this.

Second, we’re working closely with our community and industry partners. Both our school and the local traditional school district set up “grab and go” meal programs in the early days of this closure. With a few text messages over a matter of minutes, both school systems committed to making sure no child is denied food. If students from the local district schools visit our food program, they get fed, and vice versa, regardless of where the students are enrolled.

The industry partnerships are especially important for Atlantis, which has career academies designed to expose students to job opportunities in in-demand careers. Already, we’re working to keep connections going between students and our industry partners, some of whom are using videoconferencing tools to replace job shadows and internships for the time being.

Third, we’re being deliberate in our approach to remote learning. If my inbox is any indication, school leaders are hearing from every learning management platform, educational app, and collaboration software vendor in existence right now. Many of these solutions are valuable, and it can be tempting to quickly adopt a range of them and see what sticks.

I think that approach is a mistake.

Atlantis Charter School in Fall River.

In the immediate term (through early April), our first priority is to ensure all students can access remote learning, which means having “paper and pencil” resources. We serve families that do not have internet access, as well as families that do have internet access but share devices (during a time when there may be multiple siblings engaged in remote learning as well as parents working from home). Simply asking a student, “Can you access the internet from home?” is not enough to tell us whether or not that child is ready for online learning. Paper and pencil resources are a must.

Our second priority is to fill that gap in resources by handing out school Chromebooks and connecting families to internet service providers that are offering support to low-income families.

Our third priority in the immediate term is to leverage our existing online education tools to the greatest extent possible (most schools were doing something online before this crisis hit). Using resources that students (and guardians) are familiar with cuts down on additional learning curves when families are already adapting to many changes.

In the near term—early- to mid-April—our priority is to extend instruction with the existing online tools that are meeting our needs, continue to back up those efforts with paper and pencil resources where appropriate (to include for possible special education needs), and identify any gaps in communication, instruction, and student support that call for different online resources. With that information in hand, our team will evaluate the options that reliably fill those gaps, that align vertically across our K-12 grade span, and that will serve us both during the current school closure and in the event that subsequent spikes in COVID-19 infections, either later this spring or as we head into the next school year, cause future disruptions.

In the long-term, our goal is to have an online learning platform that complements the instruction happening in our traditional (physical) classrooms and provides greater flexibility to students, teachers, and administrators, allowing expanded course offerings, adaptability to varying schedules, and broader supports for all learners.

Meet the Author

Robert Beatty

Executive director, Atlantis Charter School, Fall River
Truth is, lots of schools were headed in this direction anyway. Our response to the pandemic—strategically planned and executed—just accelerates the process.

Robert Beatty is the executive director of Atlantis Charter School in Fall River.