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Re-Building Community while Reopening School

During the past 15 months, schools have had to navigate challenging and uninterrupted whitewater paddling through large waves, deceptive drops, and sharp turns. School leaders have had to adjust quickly and nimbly to changing conditions while navigating ambiguous government guidance and responding to anxious and occasionally angry stakeholders. When you run a rapid, everyone in the raft needs to paddle hard. During a long stretch of turbulent whitewater, they undoubtedly experience anxiety, stress, and exhaustion. 

But following turbulent whitewater, there is usually a stretch of calmer, quieter water. As we prepare for the next school year, we need to plan for a range of scenarios. Given the steady decline of Covid-19 infections and the broad availability and increased vaccinations, we are optimistic that our campuses will be back to something close to normal by this fall. Hopefully, we are entering a stretch of calmer water. It is important for a school to take advantage of this moment to intentionally create the necessary space to re-enter their school community with deep gratitude, with a renewed sense of optimism, and with acknowledgement that the aftereffects of isolation, stress, and anxiety are sure to linger.

I offer some thoughts as you plan for the start of next school year:

Extend orientation

Consider extending your opening of school orientation to provide ample space, opportunity, and flexibility to honor voices that seek to express appreciation for a reconnection back to their school community. This opportunity for expressions of appreciation, individual renewal, and community care should include parents as well.

Care for students

Welcome students back into their school community. They have experienced unprecedented disruption in their young lives that needs our full acknowledgement, care, and support. Most students have felt disengaged from school life. If they were experiencing social isolation and anxiety before the pandemic, it has undoubtedly intensified. We cannot assume we are launching just another school year conducting business as usual.   

Tend to their social, emotional, ethical learning

Since they were last in school, in person, full time—our students have witnessed widespread sickness and death, significant unemployment, increased poverty, homelessness, economic and social inequality, rising xenophobia, racism, and civil unrest. Now more than ever, educating for social responsibility, empathy, and human inter-dependence is vital. We must be attentive to the social, emotional, and ethical learning of our students. These are no longer “soft” skills. They are now a part of our responsibility as educators, and it will require resources, attention, and thoughtful adjustments to our school program. 

Acknowledge and support teachers

Teachers have been paddling hard for 15 months with little rest or acknowledgement. It is important to express our heartfelt appreciation to them as we end the year and begin a new school year. And we need to express that appreciation often. Preparing for the new year will require an ample reinvestment in their professional development as teachers learn to work collaboratively again, and as they look beyond their own campus to learn from other educators.

Take time for rest and renewal

The school’s leadership team has been working long hours caring for and supporting students, families, and teachers while also paddling valiantly with little rest or opportunity for reflection. They need to find ways to tend to themselves before the start of school so that they can effectively tend to others and to help lead the community. It is critical that they make time for rest and renewal this summer.

Don’t neglect parents

In their new book, Hopes and Fears: Working With Today’s Independent School Parents, Rob Evans and Michael Thompson remind us that parents worry about their child’s physical and emotional safety. Many fear that their most cherished dreams and aspirations for their child may be at risk. Don’t neglect parents when planning for the new school year. Parents are also rejoining their school community. They will need reassurance as they seek stability and continuity for their child’s well-being, and as they reaffirm their confidence in a partnership with the school

Honor Trustees

In our work with trustees during these past months, we have seen hardworking and dedicated volunteers stewarding the school’s future. But many are exhausted after helping the school’s leadership to navigate the challenging whitewater. Some are looking to limit their volunteer commitments and stepping off boards. Trustee fatigue is real. Find ways to express appreciation to these institutional stewards, and to keep them engaged in the next chapter of the school’s journey. 

The river never stops. But we can find moments when it stills. As we emerge from the whitewater it is important to be mindful of, and sensitive to, the pace of the next set of changes. A school community must FIRST create opportunities to renew itself, to take a necessary pause together, to express appreciation together, and to take a deep breath together. 

As a school community resumes in-person operations, it would do well to re-center its human relationships in their re-opening plans. It is also an important moment for a school to re-dedicate itself to its Mission and Values—before launching into a strategic agenda for the next normal.