Working with Stakeholders to Plan & Execute
Superintendent Burke knew in the spring it would be a challenge to secure buy-in, both internally and externally, for getting students back into the classroom in the age of COVID-19. For students with disabilities and alternative education students – these vulnerable populations tended to struggle with distance learning – she felt it was the right thing to do, with the proper health and safety protocols in place.
While the ultimate goal was to establish procedures and protocols for students to return for in-person learning in fall 2020, the immediate goal was the return of those two student populations to finish out the 2019-2020 academic year.
Burke and her team at MCOE had established their goal, and they knew it would take collaboration every step of the way to achieve it. Together, they set to work laying the foundation for what would turn out to be a challenging endeavor, testing their resolve along the way.
Identify Your Collaborators
To start, Burke assembled a new team, the MCOE Rethinking Schools Task Force, to design, implement and share evolving protocols, procedures and processes to return to site-based classroom instruction.
She and the team identified key external partners that would be critical collaborators throughout the process, including the Marin County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), County of Marin Department of Health
and Human Services (HHS), the local unions,
parents/families, students, and community-based organizations.
MCOE already had an established relationship with most of those partners, including Marin County Public Health, which has partnered with MCOE on issues related to student health for several years. The most recent example was the 2019 fires that necessitated collaboration, such as closely monitoring air quality to determine when schools should be closed and when it would be safe for students to return to school.
Throughout the process, MCOE teamed up with partners to share important information in community meetings and forums. For example, on March 9, just days before the district announced it would close its doors due to COVID-19, it partnered with the county public health department to host a community meeting that was both in person and streamed live on Facebook. It partnered again with the health department on March 13 to issue a news release about classes being suspended to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Find Your Early Adopters
MCOE partners with many agencies and services across the county, whose employees were classified as essential workers and, with schools and daycares closed, were in need of childcare so they could keep working. Leveraging the experience of offering daycare services for first responders during the fires prior to COVID-19, MCOE collaborated with county partners to offer a solution in the form of pop-up daycares for healthcare workers, first responders, and all essential workers (e.g., grocery store and gas station clerks). Each center followed social distancing, sanitation, and hygiene practices approved by the county health department.
The pop-up centers, which were established out of urgency to support frontline health care workers and first responders, served as a model and springboard into phase-one of MCOE’s plan. They opened March 19, four days after the county’s shelter-in-place order was issued. Through June 30, the centers served 3,424 student days across two preschools, three elementary schools and a library, in collaboration with the County of Marin, the YMCA, City of San Rafael and South Novato Library, two childcare providers, and three school districts.
During that time, a pair of siblings (attending two separate sites) had close contact with a family member who tested positive for COVID-19. The siblings were asymptomatic but were isolated and tested, and both confirmed positive. The MCOE worked with the county public health department to shut down the cohort and provide contact tracing information, and public health ultimately identified and addressed a third, potentially unrelated case.
The pop-up centers helped the MCOE establish a group of early adopters in essential workers who were willing to use the childcare service. The centers provided valuable experience to the MCOE, allowing it to modify procedures and protocols based on lessons learned – and used them to build out a spring in-school pilot program and summer school options.
Because of the success of the pop-up centers, MCOE was prepared to enter the second phase of the plan developed in close collaboration with Marin County Public Health to get students back to school, which was to re-open to students with disabilities and alternative education students on a pilot basis to finish out the school year. Special education teacher Cindy Evans volunteered to use her classroom after talking with a parent who was overwhelmed by homeschooling her special-needs child.
In early May, Burke and her team began to prepare for the launch of the pilot program on May 18. The county office of education surveyed parents and staff members, brushed up on liability laws and worked through accommodations for medically fragile students, who would attend via Zoom. Staff were trained on health and safety protocols and classrooms were reorganized to allow for physical distancing and reduce clutter while still creating a welcoming learning environment.
Then, came their first big roadblock: the planned physical location of the in-person special education class was thrown into question as concerns regarding custodial costs, transportation logistics and assumption of liability were raised. Ultimately, MCOE figured out the transportation issues, agreed to cover all custodial costs, and executed an agreement to assume liability.
Classes resumed in person May 18 for special education students and for alternative education students at three pilot sites. The sites adhered to state and county requirements to bring back no more than 12 students at one time, with the same students, teachers and teaching assistants remaining in a cohort and engaging in social distancing, wearing masks and taking temperatures regularly. The facilities were cleaned regularly throughout the day with deeper cleaning protocols in the evenings.
“Our teachers’ passion and commitment was the heart of the entire effort; they inspired all of us. Parents were supportive of the new protocols, and everyone on the team stepped up to address the new and locally unprecedented challenges in service to the children of Marin.”
Burke did not want to ask students to do something she and her team were not willing to do themselves. A week before the two pilot programs launched on May 18, she began the phased re-opening of MCOE’s central office department. By June 1, all departments had re-opened using the safety protocols developed with the approval of Public Health.
This transition was the culmination of the weeks of collaboration with Public Health on the development of protocols for reopening safely. The protocols addressed check-in procedures, sanitizing and hygiene requirements, facial coverings, and how to respond to a potential exposure.
“It was important to make sure our staff felt comfortable in this new environment. We began a phased-in process that included a video showing how the procedures would be implemented in the office environment,” said Superintendent Burke. “We then held a staff-wide training and answered questions at a regular Zoom meeting. The questions were important because they helped us identify and address staff concerns that we had not previously considered.”
The MCOE office populated slowly starting at the end of May. By June, the office was fully functional.
“Once our team members returned to the office, they became more comfortable with the new protocols and were happy to be back among colleagues,” said Burke.