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  • General Best Practices
6 Schools Share Plans for Re-Opening in the Fall [Webinar Recap]
Leah Mangold

On June 3, Finalsite CEO Jon Moser hosted a panel discussion with six school leaders from around the world about their plans for reopening in the fall. You can watch the full video below:

Prefer reading? We've included a transcript of the discussion with some of the top questions asked during the panel. Questions include:

  1. What are your current plans for reopening schools?

  2. How do you lift the spirits of your community during times of uncertainty?

  3. How are you managing tuition during this time? Are you providing refunds or tuition discounts? 

  4. Are you holding summer programs? 

  5. Are all of the kids wearing masks? Do school administrators need to go out and buy masks for all of the students? What is that aspect like in your area? 

  6. What are your graduation plans?

The panelists include:

  • Kevin Lynch, Director of Marketing + Communications at Shanghai American School, China
  • John Mikton, Head of Education and Media Technology at International School of Luxembourg, Luxembourg
  • Philippa Scudds, Director of Marketing and Communications at Canford School, United Kingdom
  • Kyle Aldous, Director of Communications at Singapore American School, Singapore
  • Wayne Rutherford, Director at American School of Milan, Italy
  • Chuck Putney, Website Project & Content Manager at Central Catholic High School, Massachusetts, USA

We've added public re-opening plans to our COVID-19 Resource Hub. You can check those out here, too!

Q: What are your current plans for reopening schools?

American School of Milan | Italy

Wayne Rutherford, Director

Overall fall scenario: Still weighing numerous options.

Wayne: When The American School of Milan closed, we were one of the earliest schools in Europe to close on February 24. We jumped into online learning, just in a day. 

We're under the guidance of the Ministry of Education. And so, as we've been working towards our plans to reopen, we've been waiting for clear indications from the Ministry because schools aren't going to open this school year. They haven't been very specific about what's going to happen. 

And that's made it a bit of a challenge. Our parents would like to know, hey, what's, what are things going to look like in September. Tuition paying parents want to know that their kids are going to be in school, five days a week in September.

And we've been faced with the challenge of saying, look, we really don't know exactly what it's going to look like. We have three scenarios. Hopefully we're on campus with 100% of the kids 100% of the time.

Likely, we're going to be in a hybrid model with some on, some off, some homeschooling or some at home learning. And then there's the possibility it will be entirely at home with online learning. Again, though, we hope that that's not the case. So it's been a challenge to keep parents informed when so much is unknown to us as we await the government to roll out the edicts that will tell us what schools need to look like.

As a school leader, the ramifications of those dictates are just the avalanches of complexity in terms of how many kids you can have in a class where you’re supposed to have 20, everything is built around a model with 20 students in a class. And you're now going to have to split those kids into groups. And how are those groups being supervised and by whom and how much time do the kids get on campus. So it's a very involved conversation with each one of our communities.

Central Catholic High School | Massachusetts, USA

Chuck Putney, Website Project & Content Manager

Overall fall scenario: Depends on Massachusetts government, but after a successful spring, an online fall semester would be okay.

Chuck: Alright, so first I'm going to go where we are right now because we're kind of at an important milestone. We're almost done. Again we closed on March 16 remote learning was up on March 18. We've had hiccups along the way, but overall, a very solid positive learning experience. We were able to do full grading assessments. A lot of schools went pass/fail, but we were able to kind of maintain the learning experience at a level that we were happy with and we got very positive feedback from parents. So that's something we're hoping, hoping to build on in the fall, whatever the learning scenarios are.  

The last week of class is this week, so we're really looking forward to taking a breath and looking into the fall. 

Similar to what Wayne mentioned, there's a lot of uncertainty. So in Massachusetts there is a Four-phase reopening plan. We're currently in phase one, but it is kind of fluid, not definite. If we hit phase two and things take a turn, we could go back to a phase and so on.

Phase four is the full reopening of schools. And that's essentially when vaccines are available. That's a kind of full return to normal. So in the meantime we're also preparing scenarios, having internal discussions that we haven't really communicated to our families yet because we aren’t sure what it's going to look like. So we're really looking forward to taking a breath (a breath, not a break!) and really looking at it and putting a message together to our families. 

But we do feel positive because we were able to offer a really solid learning experience this spring. And that's something we can definitely build on. We had moved into student life, offering meaningful student life stuff. We were doing a combination of virtual events and some social distance activities because the kids really want to be back on campus. That's they want — to see each other — and we were able to offer a little bit of that to our seniors. So we can build on that in the fall.

Canford School | England 

Phillippa Scudds,  Director of Marketing and Communications

Overall fall scenario: A few options in place, but still unknown.

Just to talk a bit about what the government has been requesting from schools: June 1st year one and year six pupils were asked to come back to school.

The government also asked for some year ten to twelve to have face-to-face contact at some stage this month, or certainly before the end of the summer term and the aim for the government was that by the end of June, all primary aged children would be back at school. 

We're just looking at reopening plans at the moment, various scenarios where I suppose in quite the sort of early stages of planning for that and we are hoping that we're going to be able to bring people's back onto the campus for September.

The government at the moment is imposing a 14 day quarantine for anyone coming into the UK so schools are starting to look at ways to bring back the international pupils with a 14 day lead time, but at the moment we're not sure whether we're not by the end of August, that quarantine is still going to be in place.

Singapore American School | Singapore

Kyle Aldous, Director of Communications

Overall fall scenario: Likely a hybrid approach. 

So the last time we hopped on here, we were at the start of our distance learning, unlike a lot of our colleagues who had already been in the mix. So we learned a lot from watching them as they did that process and it was very helpful to have those plans that we were able to draw from.

The government did something that they called a circuit breaker, which basically meant that we were all told to stay indoors for two months. We've been running distance learning for that period of time. 

Then toward the end, about two weeks ago, we got the all clear that we would be able to return to campus, but we would have to submit plans that followed a certain set of guidelines and then those plans would have to be approved. I'll run you through just very quickly some of the things that are in place (as we just returned back yesterday). 

  • Our preschool Pre K and kindergarten teachers all had to be tested for COVID-19 because they work with our youngest learners. Unfortunately, because there's a backup in the queue for testing, they weren't all able to be tested, which means that today we actually just had to cancel the return to campus for our preschool, Pre-K and kindergarten students.

  • We have to keep capacity under 50%. We do staggered arrivals and dismissals, temperature checks, and students wear masks or face shields. Faculty are allowed to wear face shields while they teach, but in other scenarios have to wear masks.

  • Students have to observe and do fixed seating, which is something that, for our students, is very different from what they’re used to. We had a lot of flexible learning environments on campus, but now we have to have one student who's assigned to one seat and cannot leave that seat. This allows us the government to be able to do contact tracing if in the future we need to do that.

  • We can't do food this week on campus. All adults have to do a safe entry (they have to check in using an app as they come in). We don't have parents coming on campus and there's no intermingling between divisions.
  • We have 4000 students on one campus and really the main priority is health and safety. We rely on the government, like many of the other schools and our colleagues here that have mentioned, The Ministry of Education has set guidelines and so it's some of the things that I mentioned about the temperature taking and having to complete the safe entry app and the distancing in the classrooms. All of those things are things that we have to ensure happen because the government has also said that they will do random spot checks and that at any moment somebody could come by to ensure that you're in compliance.

It's interesting that a lot of this has been happening right at the same period of time that our tuition is due for next year. So the timing is interesting on some of this as we returned back to campus. And we still have foreign passport holders who are not allowed to enter Singapore.

So when I think about that list of things that we've been asked to do, and I think about some of the major decisions that we've had to make over the past few weeks as we've prepared to come back, one of those is the families who are trying to come here next year. We have about 300 new families who'd be arriving, as well as all of the new faculty. None of them have employment passes or anything to be able to come and we had to make the decision as to what to do with the incoming faculty. 

And the decision was made to honor those contracts, regardless of what happens. So even if they don't come in at the start of fall because the government regulations don't allow them to come in just yet, we're going to find a way to get them integrated into the culture into the community, but they're going to have to do it from a distance.

And same with the new families, which I think puts us in that position where likely, we're going to be running some type of hybrid model as we move into the fall, which is something that we had very much hoped we wouldn't be wouldn't have to do. So we'll continue to play that one by ear. 

International School of Luxembourg | Luxembourg

John Mikton, Head of Education and Media Technology

Overall fall scenario: Unsure, but looking at a potential “normal” return. You can read their public re-opening plans on their website here.

Pretty much everything that I'm going to describe regarding our reopening and what we're looking at in the fall, really gives credit to the amount of time we were able to spend talking with other schools that opened before us. The collaborative nature from schools has been a huge support because there's no way of being able to do this alone and there's no handbook. I think we can only leverage each other’s experience.

We've been open since May 11, under the guidelines of the Ministry of Education. We brought in 50% of our grades 6-10 students. They have been social distancing, two meters apart. They have to wear masks at all times. We have a temperature check — we can get 300 kids through the temperature check in about 20 minutes. And then half the cohort is at home. 

We're using Schoology as our virtual online platform. There's a component called Schoology conferences. So the teacher has the screen up, they can see the kids at home and the kids at home can see the kids in the classroom and they kind of work together. They have a chat room, whiteboards and breakout rooms, and those different dynamics are being used. 

For the fall, we're looking at three scenarios. 

We're crossing our fingers because Luxembourg has opened up: restaurants are open, bars are open, and theaters. Since everybody has been confined and there's this beautiful weather, people just want to get out and about. Luxembourg has had no deaths in eight days and very low count, so we're thinking that maybe we're getting into a place where this “contained social distancing openness” is something that's sustainable. But of course, the borders have opened, our airport is open, and people are already thinking about holidays, so we don't know what that will look like over the summer when we come back.

But we are looking at three scenarios: 

  • One is just school as normal. So everybody comes as usual. 
  • Two, a hybrid — like what we have now. Partially virtual, partially in-person while social distancing. 
  • Three, completely online. We do have to follow the guidelines of the Ministry of Education, we don't have much leniency. 

I think there is no special, “good” plan. Every country is different. We have parameters that are unique to our government, to our culture, to where we live, and down the road, somebody could have something very different. I was talking to two Swiss schools who are 20 minutes apart and they have completely different reopening architectures because their local governments have different philosophies on how to do it. 

So I think schools should always look at any program or any reopening plan with a pinch of salt and adapt where they see fit. Feel free to go to our website, grab whatever works for you, and if we can help you or if you have questions, reach out. We really want to return the generosity that was given to us by the larger international school community.

Shanghai American School (SAS) | China

Kevin Lynch | Director of Marketing and Communications 

Overall fall scenario: Likely a fall semester online or hybrid in order to return “loudly” in the spring. You can read their public re-opening plans on their website here.

We have people who can't come into China right now — about 30% of our families and over 50% of our faculty. So we have contingency plans. 

So, how would we go about opening in the fall? Just as we returned loudly in the spring and got a sort of beta tests of working under the restrictions that we have, we plan on doing a hybrid solution in the fall. We take temperatures at the door. It is China, so the rules change every week. We have an app now that is part of our transportation app for the school that people can do their daily health checks through a QR code that it's tied into some of the local popular apps here which monitor your health and all that type of stuff. So sometimes it's paper form. Sometimes it's the app. Sometimes it's the QR code. It’s always temperatures and everyone's washing their hands at every turn. So that's already happening and that we assume will continue in the fall.

As to exactly what our school looks like in the fall will depend in part on what we're allowed to do, who were allowed to bring in this fall. So we're absolutely prepared for a hybrid model. We certainly prefer an in person model.

I think the last four months has given us a lot of confidence to say that we can pull off whatever needs to be done.

Q: How do you lift the spirits of your community during times of uncertainty?

Kevin Lynch, Shanghai American School (SAS)

I think the graduation kind of falls under one of the themes that we had when we first created our communications plan in February, when we realized we're going to be closed, more than just a couple of weeks. We talked about communications, making sure we were informing and inspiring. But we also had part of that plan to return loudly and I think that that frame of mind has been really helpful as we've come back. 

So we started coming back May sixth with the grade levels.

And by having this sort of mentality of returning loudly, we looked at how we could offer school experiences, with government regulations and safety in mind.

And it's, you know, it's hard to kind of feel brave. It's hard to feel confident right now. You've got social distancing, you've got facilities that are likely closed.

For us a lot of our signature programs feel a lot less signature just based on the restrictions that we have to live under. And I think there's a tendency amongst some of our mindsets is you're doing what you can. 

And I think we've taken this return loudly in a kind of a way that's helped affect our community in a really positive way. 

  • So now every single week that we get new kids back, we release on social media a video about that particular Division, which was all shot in one day earlier in the fall. And all of a sudden, when it is put to some music, it's like let's look at us on our best day. Let's look at this as, as we can be.

  • I think there's ways to kind of frame in a much more positive way, something that feels like it's less than what you wish. We have signage about “be a superhero, wear your mask.” We have to have a quarantine tent and so we tried to brand it as the VIP tent because if your temperature is a little higher you get a little extra attention. We thought it was a really kind of nice light hearted, you know, way to make it positive.

John Mikton, International School of Luxembourg, Luxembourg

The one thing that we realized for many students is that it has been quite traumatic and we don't know where they're coming from in their home situation with their experiences. 

  • So we put superheroes everywhere in the high school in life-size cutouts. 

  • The leadership team got dressed up like Harry Potter characters. 
  • We had the grade 12 art students decorate all the windows, so when people came back, they got a big welcome back. 

  • In the lower school, we had an arch way of balloons and minions everywhere. 

Q: Are you charging differently at your school for a hybrid environment? If students are not going to come back and they're going to be online, is the tuition different? What happens if you're fully online — is your tuition price different?

Chuck Putney: Well, we had gotten some pushback on that when we went to remote learning, about whether we were still going to be charging the full tuition, and our president answered very well, emphasizing that our main cost is teachers. And the teachers are still working — in some ways much harder than they were before. And parents can see how committed the teachers are with the kids. 

So we were able to forestall that. I don't think we're considering a tuition change, especially if it's going to be hybrid, because even if it's not fully in person the expenses are still there. So I don't think it's something that we're currently considering now. 

We are reaching out to families who are having difficulty in terms of the economic situation. We’ve had families reach out to us about that. But that's a separate discussion around offering increased financial aid, rather than reduced tuition.

John Mikton: Our school is doing something similar to what Chuck mentioned, supporting parents because of the economic situation with payment plans, but we are not going to charge any differently than we have previous to this situation. And similar feedback has been shared with parents that teachers are the most expensive cost and we want to make sure we can provide that exemplary teaching. But we are definitely talking to parents that need support, and looking at helping them that way.

Wayne Rutherford: I think it's important that parents have an understanding of the extent to which your budget is personnel (teachers) and that that personnel converts directly into the quality of product that you're offering. Because I think a lot of people don't understand that personnel costs can be upwards of 80% of an independent school’s budget and that that’s normal. I think that's kind of a face straightener for parents when they get that perspective. And then you say, “Yeah, well, which teacher do you think we should pay less?”

Kevin Lynch: One of the differentiations we've made already in the period of the 140 days while we were closed was that we recognized that what we could deliver in terms of distance learning had the biggest negative impact on our pre K and kindergarten students. And so we did give parents the option of a prorated refund for the rest of the semester. The majority stayed in the program.

I think, you know, the teachers are doing what they can, but just in terms of what a kid would get in that in-person experience versus an online — they were probably the most severely impacted. So if in the fall, we're forced to do an online model we would probably look at that again.

Kyle Aldous: I would echo what Kevin just said because we did something similar with our preschool and Pre K students for the block of time that we were out. They are the ones who likely suffered the most, for lack of a better word, because it's just hard to manage that digitally. So we did a flat rate payment that we offered families that they'd be able to take advantage of during that time. That way they would still continue through with the program, but we just gave a portion of that back to the families.

Q: Are you holding summer programs? 

Kyle Aldous: We typically run a summer semester that allows students from all over Singapore and the region to be able to come in and experience SAS and it's it's often a great way for us to get people to experience what life is like at SAS because they have our actual faculty run the program, they get to be on campus. We are going to allow the maximum we can under local regulations. The local regulations are still coming together, but we're prepared to take advantage of whatever they come back with.

This time around what we've decided to do is just keep it to our community, so it can only be SAS families that participate, but we've extended the length of time. We are doing six individual one-week sessions for each of those courses and we've had an overwhelming positive response.

The faculty have been excited to create new courses and they had to do all of this in the span of about a week as we prepared to come back. So we now have over 3,000 different registrants for over 100 different courses that will take place beginning next week into July.

Philippa Scudds: We currently are still planning to go ahead with some sort of summer sports camp at this point, but we're just waiting to see. It's supposed to be the first week of August. We're just waiting to hear government guidance and local health guidance around social distancing to determine whether we can still run our program, or perhaps offer it with some slightly different sporting options that allow for social distancing. But at this point, it's possible that we may be able to offer something.

Q: In China, are all of the kids wearing masks? Do school administrators need to go out and buy masks for all of the students? What is that aspect like in your area? 

Kevin Lynch: I would say in Shanghai, we're ahead of that curve, both from a city standpoint as well as a school standpoint. From a city standpoint, they've lowered the warning level to the point where you don't have to wear a mask — you can if you want to to be polite and respectful, but it's not necessary. And we just received notice earlier this week that even the restrictions within the school are loosening up. We're a week and a half away from the end of the school year so I'm not sure how much more change we want to throw at our students, but we do have it that for most of the campus experience it is optional to wear a mask. 

Shanghai has for the most part done a wonderful job of controlling the spread of the virus since the beginning. I wouldn't say that Shanghai itself has had a second wave, but there have certainly been areas in China that have had some spikes there. No one will be surprised if we have to back off on some of these loosening of restrictions. But we're certainly taking advantage of it while we can. 

Part of the reasoning was the cost of providing masks, as you mentioned. But also it has been great to have that connection, that facial recognition of the students. There’s so much expression that comes from the nose down that you miss out on. Without a mask, teachers miss out on being heard in a lab classroom and even more just connecting with students. 

Q: What are your graduation plans?

Kevin Lynch: “Returning loudly” has really carried over into our graduation as well. Instead of looking at this and going “all right, we have to move from what's been a really terrific in person ceremony to something that's online and immediately kind of feel a sense of loss there. 

We said no. 

The challenge that our school leadership gave to us, and then to the high school divisions and we helped out along the way, was how do we make the class of 2021 jealous of the class of 2020.

I think that's like that sort of return loudly mentality that's not saying, “Hey, let's cobble this together,” it's now “let's kind of exceed what we would normally do.”

  • We looked at graduation more as a couple week experience at least so when we worked with Finalsite to put up our graduation site, the first thing we did was put a countdown. So it's like this big sort of drum roll to an online graduation and automatically that kind of shifts your mentality to say, gosh, is this going to be so good that it's worth a two week wait.

  • And then we also media things. The week before our buses. We have 167 different buses and each of them has their own unique design. And so we dedicated one of the buses to the class of 2020
  • And then when we had the actual event that night, we actually worked with Finalsite to stage our website. As each section went live and you had a little countdown. So when the next section went live, then the next one on down. And I think that that was really helpful.
  • The other piece that has been kind of one of the more popular parts of that graduation was a video from an alum from the class of 1949 saying, “hey, you know what I know how you feel, because the same thing happened to me.”And she talks just about how her her senior year was affected by as it turns out that  that time it was the, the end of the war here in China, and they were affected, just as the the class of 2020 was where the class got a bit smaller. By the end of the year, they had all spread out a lot of the sort of big events and milestones that they had looked forward to were cancelled. It's a really, really powerful sort of emotional start that again, like, you know, suddenly people were not engaged in online graduation. They were as engaged and sort of emotionally sort of pulled in, as they would be if they were if they were there in person.

  • The last thing I'll mention is that we're now creating a documentary as well called 104 Days where we're capturing people's experiences, the decisions they had to make, the regrets they had or the joys that they had, the adversity, as well as the difficulty. But they've gone through again to really kind of mark how this is as a, as a community, and kind of help us kind of process it and come together a bit stronger in the fall. 

Chuck: This last week was a fun week for us. We were able to celebrate our graduates. We had some in-person remote activity, a car parade that went over really well, and over the weekend, we had our teachers deliver diplomas to kids following social distancing guidelines, which I think meant a lot to the kids. We're still planning on an in person graduation at the end of July, and it seems like we're on track for that, but we also found it important to give the kids some emotional closure as soon as we could. 

One thing we did for that is we let kids indicate who they wanted us to send out to receive the diploma from. So they named five teachers, and every kid got either the first or the second choice. I think the teachers were really touched and it was an emotional thing when the teachers went to the house. They spent time and said really positive things to the kids. It worked out really well. Really important closure for us.

John: We were not able to do a graduation and we just got good news today that we can have a graduation with social distancing at one of our big auditoriums so that's very positive news. But anything that we do has to be in sync with the Ministry of Health and the other Luxembourg public schools. So we do have to work with those guidelines and we have parameters to be flexible and creative within those, but often there are things that we would like to do that we can't. And we of course honor that because we want to be guided by the experts in the scientist and the health department that gives us those guidelines. 

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As Finalsite's content specialist, Leah promotes new school websites and exemplary content marketing examples from schools around the world. She’s also writer and editor of numerous blog articles, eBooks and presentations on best practices for digital marketing, social media, and school web design. Leah found her passion for international education at Arcadia University, where she earned her BA in Global Communications and studied abroad in England, Greece, Vietnam and Australia. When she’s not exploring new places, she’s either blogging, doodling, or dreaming about it.

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