At Launch, "We Are Crew" means we work together for the common good. In times of challenge, this ethos is more important than ever.
Launch has been open since August 24th, and we are thriving. Instead of going fully remote or implementing a "hybrid" model, as most schools are doing, we chose a third way: Distance Teaching. We worked together over the summer with a parent committee and staff members as we crafted our re-opening plan.
Read our article published yesterday in Chalkbeat to learn about our innovative model and why it is working for our entire Crew: students, teachers and families.
For the first time in more than six months, all of New York City public school buildings opened last week, yet much uncertainty remains about the safety of returning. Already, 100 public schools and 200 private ones have been ordered shut due to rising coronavirus rates in certain ZIP codes.
The first day at Launch EL Charter School in Central Brooklyn, where we are school leaders, was Aug. 24. Our public charter middle school has been open, safe, and thriving ever since, thanks in large part to the model we have developed, called Distance Teaching, and consistent collaboration with our families. It involves keeping teachers home and teaching remotely, while opening up the school building as a learning center, so parents can get back to work, while their children can access reliable internet, a dedicated workstation, and free meals.
At Launch, which is part of the NYC Outward Bound Schools network, teachers are offering three hours of daily, live lessons. They are becoming experts at remote instruction instead of splitting time between in-person and remote lessons (as “hybrid” plans may now ask of teachers). For remote instruction, we will soon roll out a single sign-on platform that allows students and families to navigate an online space that mimics our school’s look and feel; users can click into classrooms, small group rooms, a main lobby, an auditorium, and the principal’s office, among other spaces. Families will log on for meetings and can pop into their child’s classroom to observe.
Students are accessing the rich online curriculum from home with its live classes, small group reading, and office hours. And for families who send their children to campus, for however long it remains open, they will access that same curriculum from a building where students are divided into small, socially distanced groups, and wearing masks. Pod Leaders, primarily staff members of our afterschool program, provide supervision.
Many of our families have work that does not allow them to juggle a “hybrid” schedule, when their child is in school on some days and learning remotely on others — the model most New York City public schools are offering to those opting for in-person learning and one that Launch considered. And some home environments are not conducive to focused learning because they don’t have reliable internet, quiet work spaces, or functional devices.
About one-third of the 285 families in our community, which has been disproportionately hard hit by the coronavirus, opted to send their children into the building. Meanwhile, 75% of our families have elected to send their children to weekly in-person meetings, held outdoors and focused on social-emotional learning, physical education, and fun. Together with our afterschool partners, we are also hosting clubs, including choir, music production, step team, and majorettes.
Like other schools, we spent significant time sorting through a lengthy guide from New York state, trying to answer technical questions, like how to keep children six feet apart and how to increase ventilation. But in the absence of the fundamental question for all schools — how to achieve educational excellence during a public health emergency — answering only technical questions is not sufficient. Asking children to learn in three different modalities (online synchronous, online asynchronous, and in-person) is both unfair and unrealistic. Asking teachers to teach effectively in these three ways is nearly impossible.
Our staff, together with a parent reopening committee, worked tirelessly over the summer to develop our plan — considering several options before settling on Distance Teaching. We are committed to investing in a singular vision that we will build, polish, and continue to improve. This model means that even if we are forced to shut down the physical building due to a second COVID-19 wave, instruction need not be reimagined since everyone is already teaching and learning online.
As with anything new, we have faced challenges. The rollout of our remote platform was delayed, student internet access at home and in shelters has not always been reliable, and building strong relationships remotely has required learning new skills. But by communicating clearly and often with our parents, and by working together to troubleshoot technology access and issues, our first month of school has left us hopeful.
We look forward to the time when we can all be together safely again. We know that no model is perfect in the current context. We know district public schools and charter schools face some different constraints. But for the time being, we are embracing Distance Teaching and encouraging other schools to consider implementing aspects of it that could work for them, too.
Jonathan Harber is Founding Board Chair of Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School and a board member of the Fund for Public Schools.
Geoffrey Roehm is Founder and Executive Director of Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School.