For schools across the country, heading “back to school” took on new meaning this September as students and teachers began the school year amid a global pandemic. From health and safety concerns to new organizational and learning strategies, COVID-19 transformed Bank Street’s approach to teaching, learning, and building community in the 2020-21 school year.
Long before the first day of class, a team of Bank Street leadership, faculty, and staff worked tirelessly to create a reopening plan aligned with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York State Department of Health. Through deep collaboration and research, a layered system of protections for children and adults was developed to support the community’s health and safety while maintaining Bank Street’s commitment to meaningful learning for all students.
The School for Children began the year with a phased-in approach, with the youngest children starting in-person learning first and the older students attending virtually at first and then in person by October 1. The Family Center, which serves children ages 6 months to 5 years, and Bank Street Head Start, which serves children ages 3 to 5 years, began in person with their annual phase-in process in early September, providing opportunities for our youngest children—many of which are attending school for the first time—to get to know their teachers and adjust to being together at school. Bank Street families across our children’s programs could also choose a fully virtual option for this year if they preferred to learn at home or were unable to attend in person given their family circumstances. Both the Graduate School of Education and the Education Center continued virtual teaching and learning for adults for this fall.
“Leaning on our expertise around how children and adults learn best, we made a conscious decision to prioritize in-person instruction for Bank Street’s youngest learners,” said Justin Tyack, Chief Operating Officer, Bank Street College of Education. “To ensure we were ready to safely reopen in September, members from across our community worked harder than ever to help leadership develop a comprehensive plan that met the needs of students, families, teachers, and partners while adapting to the many challenges brought on by the pandemic. Their support was invaluable and we are forever grateful for everyone’s hard work, dedication, and continued support of Bank Street’s mission.”
The reopening plan put in place a series of new routines, procedures, and policies around health and safety. Guided by science and the latest research, Bank Street identified five organizing principles to create a strategy that allowed both the 112th Street building and Head Start center to reopen as safely as possible:
- Reduce the risk that someone who is currently infectious comes to school or work through testing, daily health screenings, and work from home policies for some staff.
- Ensure regular cleaning of all shared surfaces as well as increased fresh air circulation to prevent the spread of the virus inside the building.
- Establish protocols around social distancing and face coverings to prevent the virus spreading through close contact with others.
- Limit group sizes and the number of people each child and adult is in contact with while at school or work.
- Immediately isolate anyone who may be infectious if a case arises in our building and begin contact tracing to identify and test others who may have been exposed to the virus.
For in-person learning, students have been grouped into smaller cohorts to ensure limited interaction across classrooms and enable social distancing within classrooms. Additionally, Bank Street established new protocols around the use of shared materials and spaces, increased cleaning throughout the school, and established requirements for all adults and children ages 2 and above to wear face masks. Bank Street also made crucial infrastructure investments to the HVAC system over the last five years, including additional recommended improvements this summer following a thorough assessment by experts.
Bank Street’s approach to testing and screening for the coronavirus has been uniquely robust. Prior to the first day of school, all students and staff were required to show a negative result on a COVID-19 test taken within the seven days before returning to the building. Regular, frequent testing throughout the year is helping to identify any positive cases early—while asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic—and better protect both children and adults. Students and staff are also required to pass a temperature check each morning and complete a daily health questionnaire through a symptom screening app. In addition, Bank Street developed staggered arrival and dismissal procedures—which utilize nearby Riverside Park and 112th Street—to provide sufficient time and space to safely enter and exit the building.
“We feel confident in our new health and safety protocols, including our rigorous testing program. We have been building our capacity to respond to cases discovered at school— emotionally and academically—and we have plans in place to make any required shifts to virtual learning as needed,” said Doug Knecht, Interim Dean of Children’s Programs, Bank Street College of Education, and Interim Head of the School for Children. “Since we began surveillance testing, we have administered several thousand tests and identified around 0.2 percent positive cases. I am pleased with how much care everyone in our community is taking day to day to be safe, and that, once we have detected a positive case, we are quickly able to isolate and support the people impacted. To date there has been no evidence of transmission within our community, which is the most important measure of success we can have.”
To support virtual learning as needed, the School for Children developed BankStreet@Home, an online-based learning platform designed to largely align with the school’s in-person curriculum and goals, with the necessary modifications for virtual learning in place and ready for access at any point throughout the year. Through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instructional time, students digitally interact and build relationships with their peers, including other at-home students as well as in-person students, and engage in virtual learning by using platforms such as Seesaw, Google Suite, and Google Classroom, among other applications.
“The pandemic continues to challenge schools across the country and Bank Street’s plan will evolve as needed in response to these ever-changing circumstances,” said Suleyni Abreu, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, Bank Street College of Education. “This summer required us to rethink how we structure school and, thanks to the efforts of Bank Street’s community, we have been able to reimagine both our in-person and online learning spaces to support the meaningful education of all Bank Street students.”
Bank Street has been able to successfully operate with these comprehensive safety measures in place, ultimately creating a very low risk of transmission in the building through the combination of ongoing testing, upgraded air purification, rigorous attention to wearing masks, strict social distancing, limited contact between individuals, and other precautions.
“I know that this will continue to be a challenging year on many levels. As we further adjust our work in light of COVID-19, we will have to work in different and often more intense ways than we have in the past,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, GSE ’00, President, Bank Street College of Education. “This plan is the result of countless hours of work by faculty, staff, and leadership across our institution and all of this has been possible because of the incredible dedication, creativity, and resiliency of our community. I am very proud of what we have accomplished so far and know that there is much more to do.”