Read and React – Reopening School During a Pandemic

Will Yeiser, Executive Director & Co-Founder

I never imagined I would hear the words “reopen school during a pandemic” in my lifetime.  There was no course in graduate school at Harvard or class during my teacher training with Teach for America to prepare me for this kind of scenario.  Rather, it required relying upon an important skill I learned as a young whitewater paddler during my summers at Camp Mondamin: read and react.

In the whitewater context, one has to “read” whitewater rapids to determine the safest, cleanest line for paddling a canoe or a kayak. If one is able to analyze the rapid from the shore or even from their boat before running the rapid, this is called “scouting.” However, there are many stretches of rivers where it is not possible to “scout” the rapid due to the nature of the terrain and the river itself. In these situations, one must run the rapid without knowing the exact line while relying on instincts, experience, and even muscle memory. This is what I refer to when I say “read and react” whitewater paddling. It is one of the most exciting and rewarding forms of paddling, and it is analogous to the approach we took when the novel coronavirus began spreading throughout the United States and forced the closure of our two campuses.

After successfully completing the spring semester using our Remote Teaching and Learning (RTL) platform, we formed a ReOpening Task Force who were tasked with creating a plan to reopen our two campuses for the start of the 2020/21 year. The task force was comprised of educational professionals, FBRA administrators, infectious disease experts, licensed physicians, human resource specialists, and current FBRA parents. We researched other schools and countries that had experienced success with reopening while also educating ourselves about best practices for the prevention of spread of COVID-19 in articles such as this one from back in May.

The task force drafted a plan that would allow us to keep as much of the FBRA culture and programming as possible while also keeping students, families, and staff as safe as possible as well. Among many daily programming changes, we designed a new outdoor intensive (OI) week where students spend four days off campus camping, canoeing, hiking, or another outdoor programming activity instead of a weekly canoe trip for just one day. This would allow us to keep one grade level off campus and reduce our numbers from 72 students to 48 students.

We then presented the plan to FBRA Board Chair Marge Shonnard and the Board of Trustees for approval. It was immediately approved, and we then shared the plan with our staff for review and feedback. FBRA staff were 100% bought in to bringing students back on campus and executing the plan. We then shared it with our current parents, and it was received with support and excitement. If families were uncomfortable with having their child on campus, we committed to providing a “Digital Campus” option where families had the option to continue to learn remotely with a dedicated FBRA teacher. Tanya Prater is the Digital Campus coordinator, and she currently is facilitating instruction for five FBRA students. From the outset, one of our goals has been to retain 100% of our families and staff, and this inclusive approach of providing a remote option has allowed us to continue to fulfill that goal.

Now that we had the plan, the preparation and implementation of the plan began.  The FBRA administrative team collaborated and worked non-stop over the course of the summer to adapt the CDC guidelines for schools to our two campuses.  We also formed the FBRA COVID-19 Advisory Committee to provide continual guidance on the various issues and challenges that were simply impossible to predict in our initial reopening plan.  Outdoor classrooms began to take shape, new UV filters were installed on HVAC systems, thousands of masks were ordered, and 100% of the FBRA staff showed up on Monday, August 10th for the annual three-week staff training period.

On Monday, August 31st, the sixth graders began their Induction week at Camp Pinnacle while the seventh and eighth graders began their year with an academic week on campus. It is impossible to try to articulate the sense of joy, fulfillment, and pride I felt as the first students showed up on campus. All the hard work, dedication, and commitment to our students and families immediately paid off as the students trickled into the new classroom spaces or began learning how to hold a canoe paddle for the first time if they were at Camp Pinnacle.

We are now over one month into the 2020/21 school year, and while the multitude of new procedures and routines were confusing, frustrating, and, at times, overwhelming for students and staff alike, things are beginning to feel more routine.  Tweaks and modifications have been made as needed, and some level of normalcy has returned to our two campuses.  Kids are jamming in their music classes, mastering new Spanish words, playing four square during break, reciting poetry in Language Arts class, and swimming during PE.  Students and staff are  COVID-free, and the momentum of the FBRA “flywheel” is steadily increasing with each successful day in the books.

There have been and will continue to be countless challenges and obstacles to overcome as pandemic conditions change.  We are in a very fluid situation where conditions are changing almost daily.  In this state of what I call “constant whitewater” where one can never predict what might come at you next on a day-to-day basis, one must learn to “read and react.”

I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank FBRA COVID-19 Advisory Committee Chair Dr. Sarah Warren, as well as the other committee members listed below.  Rarely does a day go by where I am not contacting Dr. Warren or the committee with questions or concerns about a COVID-related situation at FBRA.  We simply would not be able to operate this year without their input, and on behalf of the families, staff, board, and FBRA community, THANK YOU FBRA COVID-19 Advisory Committee! 

  • Dr. Sarah Warren MD-General Internal Medicine Carolina Internal Medicine Associate, Head of Committee

  • Drew Pollick Parent and Human Resource Specialist, Vice President, People & Culture at No Evil Foods, Founder/Partner, Craft HR Solutions, LLC

  • Dr. Brian Asbill MD-Board certified cardiologist and lifestyle medicine physician

  • Dr. Anna Hicks MD- General Geriatrics, Hospice and Palliative Medicine

  • Dr. James Whitehouse MD-Infectious Disease-Mission Hospital

  • Marge Shonnard-FBRA Board Chair