Like many schools across the United States, the British International School of Washington temporarily paused on-campus classes in mid-March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved to a virtual school experience through to July 1. Then, on August 19, at the start of the 2020–21 school year, BISW implemented policies and procedures to reopen responsibly on campus based on DC Health guidelines, becoming the first K–12 school to do so in Washington, DC.
The current reopening strategy applies some of the strictest recommendations from DC Health. Everyone in and around the school building must pass a daily health screening, wear face masks indoors and outdoors, and keep six feet apart. There are hand-sanitizing stations for people to use at entrances and around the building, which now operates a one-way system, and an enlarged maintenance and operations team keeps the school building clean throughout the day with HVAC systems following COVID-19 recommendations and utilising MERV-13 filters. Moreover, visitors are no longer allowed to enter the building during the school day.
Brainstorming the reopening plan included discussions on everything from everyday matters to pedagogical points. The staff discussed layered topics like the best ways for young people to learn and retain information during these unprecedented times, and simultaneously, they talked about details like desk spacing and not sharing common resources or using lockers.
“We deal with families’ most precious possessions,” said Head of Primary Katie Benson. “We had to get it right. The strict restrictions led us to create classrooms that looked different from anything we had ever had in our school.”
While modifying the classroom capacity, BISW leaders considered the need to create pods of students and also maintain a correct ratio of children and adults for each room. The Early Years Programme reduced classroom capacity to eight students for Pre-Nursery and ten students for Nursery and Reception. Meanwhile, the Primary and Secondary School capped room sizes at eleven students and one adult. To ensure that students that wished to return in person did so, more learning assistants were recruited and what was previously a class of 22 students in Primary was split across 2 rooms with the teacher and a learning assistant being the responsible adults. Due to these changes, Early Years and Primary students have been able to physically enjoy school every day and Secondary students are rotated on site for three weeks and then have one virtual week.
BISW’s connection to Nord Anglia Education proved helpful because school leaders could discuss and benefit from other NAE schools worldwide and implement some of their solutions. Some physical education, and performing arts lessons moved to an asynchronous online learning experience due to the difficulty of safely delivering these movement-based activities. Similarly, BISW implemented a virtual school experience to run alongside on-campus learning, which gives families an option.
In this dynamic school year, it has been particularly important for the school to keep the channels of communication open with parents and guardians. For example, families can expect to receive a weekly newsletter alongside other frequent communications to keep everyone up-to-date about changes from lunchtime menu updates to citywide matters. In these ways and more, the school endeavours to support students’ families.
“BISW’s extraordinary commitment to opening safely this year brought some needed stability and consistency to our family, and most importantly, more normalcy and joy back to our son in an otherwise very challenging time,” said parent Jacquelyn Davis, whose family joined the school community in the fall. “The whole team has worked extremely hard to run a high-quality education program that both supports and challenges children. Even with considerable COVID-19 constraints, BISW has created a sense of community and belonging.”
Over the first few months, procedural aspects evolved, and school leaders tested new ways to manage systems. BISW staff continually reinforces the regulations as well.
“I have been astounded by the teachers,” Ms Benson said. “It has been wonderful to see their creativity, diligence, and energy as they develop learning experiences despite the challenges. The exciting and fun tasks they have designed for both on-campus and virtual school go far beyond anything I could have imagined. Times are uncertain, but since day one of this academic year, the children have adapted and brought cheerfulness and joy back to the school, and that makes us optimistic about the future.”
As we look back at a year of changes and their impact on education, the school staff and community members should be truly proud of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.