BASIS Independent Manhattan, like many other academic institutions, started school with remote learning due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Despite the extreme difficulty in planning for the 2020-2021 school year, we set forth intending to follow our mission to try and be rigorously academic within an environment that is joyful, loving, respectful, supportive, and safe.
Much of this enormous task was shared by our administrative and teaching staff, but our decisive resource in creating this plan was Mr. Robert Runyon, Director of Academic Programs. We asked him some questions to uncover and explain the process, which we are featuring in this two-part blog series.
Having to implement and manage distance learning from March to June of last year, what knowledge did you gain from the experience?
The most important thing I learned during our distance learning roll-out was to remain as flexible as possible during this situation. The entire world was, and still is, in uncharted territory, and I think everyone just wants a plan.
During our transition to distance learning last spring, we had a plan that was recommended to us based on our schools’ experience in China. We worked for hours and hours to turn that into a school-wide schedule, and trained our teachers and our families on how to follow it. Within a few days, we could clearly see that our plan was not working well. Immediately, our school leadership team took action and collaborated on a new plan that incorporated parent requests, our observations, and teacher experiences. The changes were implemented within a few days -- along with some small growing pains -- but everyone quickly became accustomed to our finalized distance learning plan. That is when parents began reaching out to our teachers and staff, complimenting us on sustaining the connections students had with their classmates and teachers while maintaining a depth of instruction.
That plan deserves a lot of shared credit. It took the adaptability and ingenuity of our entire community to trust each other as we went forth into the unknown and actually made distance learning work.
How did you use those circumstances to inform your planning for the return to school this fall?
That experience informed a lot of what we’re doing in 2020-21. Taking feedback from our families, teachers, and administration led us to identify tactical ways of enhancing our distance learning schedule, while still being very careful not to break something that was already working. These are the areas we focused on improving:
- Student-to-teacher ratio school-wide
- Online learning platform
- Short live instruction times
- Breaks that were too long or too short between classes
- Essential classes like art, music, and world languages met less frequently
How would you describe the unique features and benefits of your distance learning model?
Modularity and flexibility are the greatest strengths of the model. Thinking back to our first go-round of distance learning, we spent a week having students learn from PDF packets in each of their classes while setting up the online courses. I wanted to avoid that loss of instruction at all costs.
Our new schedule is perfectly modular with the in-person schedule. If a student takes a certain subject on Tuesday in-person, they’ll be taking the same subject on Tuesday online. That means no matter what happens with the public health situation, we should be able to continue learning relatively unabated.
Can you describe the biggest challenge you faced in this process?
First, we had to completely rethink how we deliver our curriculum to our families and then training teachers and students to feel comfortable with the new methods of learning.
Over the summer, the greatest challenge in creating this schedule was not just accommodating rooms, subjects, and teachers, but also reconciling the subjects and teachers across two separate timelines that are proceeding concurrently. Furthermore, we had to devise an entirely new way to look at our spaces in order to safely receive our students and allow our high standard of learning to continue.
How do you tailor your distance learning for the various age groups when you have students in grades PreK-9
Each of these grades has varying levels of needs, skills, stamina, and self-discipline. Where last year our approach was a bit more “one size fits all,” this year’s approach is more customized.
An example of this can be explained by looking at our approach to adjusting the amount of time between classes by grade based on their academic needs and what is developmentally appropriate.
- In PreK and K, we wanted to create a flow between online classes with shorter breaks in order for students to not lose their focus on class.
- For grades 1-3, we wanted to extend the length of our core classes to ensure student progress in literacy and math while allowing them time to enjoy essential classes like art and engineering.
- We are giving students in grades 4 and above opportunities to do work on their own by having longer breaks between classes.
Throughout all of this, we wanted to assure that our students were not overwhelmed by the amount of time they spend on screen. We’ve all learned during this experience that everyone, whether adult or child, has a breaking point with Zoom where it’s easier to be silly than pay attention.
That's definitely true, but how do you assure that?
A growth mindset is something that we teach to our students in all grades, and it was something I kept returning to while creating our new schedule. Our teachers actively incorporate this theory into their classroom, in-person and remotely, so we know our students are able to face whatever comes our way this year with positivity, understanding, and resilience.
For 2020-2021, we opened in distance learning with a plan of phasing in to fully in-person and hybrid models beginning September 29. You can view more details about our Distance Learning Model here. If you would like to learn more about our program, you are invited to attend one of our upcoming information sessions.