Cameron Smith

Bennett Day School
Chicago, Illinois
Cameron Smith, Co-Founder and School Parent

In a crisis, there can be so many unknowns.  And that shakes us all to our core because then we don’t know what to expect and we cannot plan.  But this summer at Bennett Day School in Chicago, we committed to doing everything in our power to re-open on-campus learning for our K-12 students this fall.  And it worked.

We know we are fortunate as a small independent school and small community to have an ability to adapt and change our plans that feels seemingly impossible for larger schools or districts to be able to accomplish, but we are hopeful that some of the measures we took are helpful to others, and not just for educators but for families as well.  Here is our Top Ten List from our Successful School Reopening at Bennett:

  1. Start Small. We ran summer programs for two months in summer 2020 with up to only 50 children at maximum at our 50,000 SF campus with a 4:1 child to staff ratio.  We made the programming free of charge to our Bennett families too as part of a way to make up lost time in social-emotional development too.  We also provided free tutoring services for our older students.  If your school is currently still in 100% remote learning, as we were from March to June of 2020, we recommend starting small with on-campus programs before going to a hybrid or 100% on-campus.  For us, starting small helped us execute all the safety and operational protocols we needed to then offer on-campus learning to 100% of our K-12 students as of this fall, and now our campus accommodates over 300 people among students and faculty on schools days.
  2. Be Creative With the Calendar. We added 10 days or two full weeks of school to our academic year calendar.  We shortened some long weekends and repurposed some of our professional development days for faculty, but we also did not want to extend the number of days required of our faculty who are more than essential to all that we do.  But, by adding two extra weeks of school to our calendar for our faculty and families, we have prepared ourselves for the times we may be away from school in remote learning and when that is out of our control due to other broader public health measures. As a tuition-based school, we were able to add more school without a change in our tuition because it was the right thing to do.
  3. Take Care of Teachers. No one became a teacher while also expecting to be on the front lines of a pandemic.  Trying to teach in masks is a task.  Teaching and learning with students both on-campus and off-campus participating in class remotely via Zoom because they are at home, is not easy.  One small measure we took was to provide every faculty member reporting to school daily with a Reopening Stipend of $200 they could use for whatever was important to them — PPE even beyond what we provided at school, funds to defray commuting costs, or anything else that would help them.  We also put in place five different tiers of contingency plans for substitute teachers where needed.
  4. Access COVID-19 Testing. Until there is a reliable treatment or vaccine, knowledge is power, and COVID-19 testing is critical as a health and safety protocol for school.  The State of Illinois and City of Chicago have provided numerous options for free testing, but there was still the challenge of getting such testing close to school for hundreds of people to access regularly.  We worked closely with other local community members like Alinea and Morgan Manufacturing in our West Town neighborhood who had already worked closely with the State of Illinois.  They had coordinated for the State’s mobile testing unit for free COVID-19 on the weekends for restaurant and service industry workers that was open to the public and the entire broader community for anyone who wanted it.  We thought the same free testing could be useful on a weekday for our school community and anyone else who wanted access to testing.  We donated space in our parking area for the State of Illinois and their testing partners at HR Support to conduct free testing weekly on Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.  It is the simple, less-invasive nasal swab that we were told was still over 98% accurate.  This has gone well in just our first few times hosting the free weekly testing, and both adults and children have been getting tested.  We are bolstering our testing infrastructure to arrange separately for rapid testing available to our school families and where we pay for faculty testing and transportation too.
  5. Be There for Families. We increased our grant and scholarship budget by over 20% to provide support to families at any income level who had fallen on hard times financially due to COVID-19.   School is a long-term commitment for us and our families.  We also implemented a Tuition Protection Program to give families peace of mind in the event a parent/guardian lost a job or the family needed to move, for example, then they would not be responsible for all of their tuition payments at that point.  We also included a tuition credit for our youngest learners if we must be in remote learning this year based on broader City public health measures.  Our parents also repurposed the Friends of Bennett Day 501(c)(3) that provides scholarships to attend our school to provide other monetary assistance a family might require for basic needs.
  6. Play it Safe. It is impossible to be 100% certain about anything, and it is better to play it safe while COVID-19 is still among us.  We have had a small number of faculty or families either be exposed to someone with COVID-19 or have a household member with COVID-19, but then they have stayed home and quarantined or isolated or we have had cohorts stay home for remote learning as required while the rest of our students still come to campus.  It is helpful to plan ‘not if but when’, especially as flu season approaches, and having this mindset keeps us prepared.
  7. Conduct a Facilities Audit. This should have been done over the summer or earlier, but if not, this is key.  We are fortunate to have enough spaces in our campus, with a new wing just opened, to have everyone on-campus yet also to be able to social distance at the same time.  It is so important to provide adequate ventilation.  That can mean windows open and playing outside as much as possible.  For us, we also assessed our HVAC system, which is new as of just a few years ago, and the system separately ventilates every classroom with 100% fresh air in and exchanged out.  If your facilities can also avoid recirculating air, that is extremely helpful.
  8. Get Expert Help! While we have a full-time school nurse, we quickly realized that we would need some expert guidance, both as it related to medical advice and to our facilities.  We brought on and have continued to consult with a former CDC quarantine expert and department of health medical director who we met through our lab school partnership with Northwestern; a national return to work advisor; and a certified healthcare facilities manager given that running a school started to feel so much like running a healthcare facility.  There may be experts among any given school’s community, be it in the parent body, significant others of faculty, etc. who can help.
  9. Access to Tech. When we were all in remote learning last year, we loaned technology and provided help to any family that needed it to get access to broadband.  Since that time, many big companies and cities have teamed up to provide similar resources for free as well and we’d encourage any school community in-need to look into their own similarly available resources.
  10. Do the Right Thing. Last April, our R&D and innovation arm, Bennett Labs, created Bennett Live, which is educational media programming via live and live recorded videos that any family can enjoy with their children for project-based learning with materials you can find easily around your home.  We have had over half-a-million homes tune into Bennett Live since then, and next there will be a Bennett Live app you can download from the app store to ‘get a little bit of school’ at home wherever you are and whatever your home or learning situation may be.  What is happening en masse to children in the pandemic and the loss of time for learning and development is tragic, and so we created some free and low-cost resources that families could access anywhere around the world.

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