By Christin Yates, Daily Memphian (Published: June 22, 2020 4:00 AM CT)
Colleges and schools in the Memphis area are making adjustments for social distancing as well as online learning. At St. George's Independent School, where Gil Brandon is assistant head of school for institutional advance, he measured a classroom desk on Friday, June 11, 2020. The desk will be removed to create the necessary space for social distanced learning at the school. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)
For schools and universities throughout the Memphis area, returning to the classroom will look quite a bit different than in previous years.
Southern College of Optometry, charter operator Gestalt Community Schools and St. George's Independent School are examples of institutions that are embracing new ways of learning.
At St. George's, school administrators teamed with teachers and members of its board of trustees to create Onward2021. Committees meet weekly to make decisions on how to safely return to the classroom.
In early May, they began to think about options for the fall.
"Our idea was that we wanted our teachers to be able to be teaching in socially distanced classrooms and also have the ability for, if a student was at home for whatever reason, they could synchronously Zoom into that classroom so they can hear the lesson at the same time as the students in-person," said Lori Williamson, chief academic officer for St. George's.
In addition to livestreaming classes, St. George's will be recording them for future viewing, should a student not be well enough to participate.
"You're live in person, you're live remote or you're able to watch it later - it's whatever works for each family's situation," Williamson said.
St. George's will follow its normal fall semester, which begins Aug. 17, and the plan is for classes to be in session unless the school is told it is unsafe to do so.
St. George's also is rethinking recess and lunch, in order to maintain social distancing for students.
"Our faculty groups are looking at all of those pieces right now to make sure we're utilizing best practices from the CDC and Shelby County Health Department," Timothy Gibson, interim head of school for St. George's, said. "We don't know what we don't know yet, but we're answering all possible questions and working closely with our faculty and families.
American history teacher Traci Erlandson arranges desks at St. George's Independent School on Friday, June 11, 2020. The school is creating the necessary space for social distanced learning at on campus. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)
The Southern College of Optometry, on the other hand, has not made a decision on fall classes as of yet. However, Dean Swick, director of information services for the school, expects the fall to look much like the summer semester, which is all being done remotely.
SCO's Eye Center reopened June 15, and every faculty member and student was tested for COVID-19. SCO also coded an app that pre-screens visitors to the campus. Once the questions are answered, the app is shown to security, who then takes each person's temperature.
SCO is unique in that all of its students are lock-step and take the same courses at the same time, making it somewhat easier to record classes and keep everyone on track.
"All 136 students in each four class years take the same class with the same students the entire time they're here at SCO," Swick said.
SCO already had technology that recorded classes and implemented an additional feature of the software that could make the classes live. However, the faculty and students were lacking interactivity with one another, so the school switched to using Microsoft Teams.
"We've had thousands of classes and students on Teams. We're also using it for president's council meetings as a way to stay in contact with our campus base," Swick said.
For the fall, Swick said the worst-case scenario is for first- and second-year students to have all of their courses online, while third- and fourth-year students will be able to see patients in the Eye Center with safety precautions in place including Plexiglas shields.
Gestalt Community Schools, meanwhile, has surveyed students, faculty and families to gauge what they are comfortable with in terms of returning to the classroom in the fall.
"A task force of community and staff members is creating our school reentry plan," Yetta Lewis, CEO of Gestalt Community Schools, said. "We're literally just finishing focus group meetings and deploying surveys to families. What we're working on is a hybrid model where there's some in-person time as well as remote learning."
Gestalt, which operates five schools with 2,400 students, will limit classroom capacity to 50%.
"We want to have those scholars that have the most need to have that in-person access, but we want to give parents different pathways," Lewis said. "If they're not comfortable with that (in-person learning), we want them to have access to a valuable, remote school setting."
Lewis and the task force are consulting with experts throughout the U.S., other school districts and charter school operators to see how best to provide learning while also adhering to social-distancing guidelines.
For those in the classroom, each student will have a permanent seat, and there will be no switching desks. Each desk will also have some sort of shield around it.
Williamson at St. George's knows they are asking a lot of the faculty this fall.
"But we know that they are talented and amazing people, and we've always known that," Williamson said. "That's never been more clear than when you're in a moment like this.
"Without kids you don't have a school. Without teachers, you don't have a school. It's dialing into how do we support the people."
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