Returning to Friends Select School: Health, Safety, and Community Stewardship

After Friends Select students and employees made the successful transition from in-person learning to iSelectLearning in the spring of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began, the school’s administration began drafting a plan for reopening the building: Returning to Friends Select: Health and Safety Plan. Michael Gary, head of school, immediately developed a COVID-19 Response Task Force to assess operational challenges and considerations to open the building to the community for the 2020-21 academic year. “Having a planning team allowed us to put together a comprehensive plan as to how we could open in a safe and efficient manner,” he said. “The group met extensively throughout the summer and on weekends, and we continue to meet daily to assess COVID-19’s ever-changing impact on our ability to offer in-person learning.” 

In forming a Faculty Planning committee to collaborate with the task force, teachers from every academic division contributed considerations regarding the health and safety consequences on students and teachers in the building’s reopening, as well as guidance on maintaining academic programming through iSelectLearning. The Faculty Planning committee included: Zoë Blatt, Sarah Kelly, and Natalie Mayer P’32 (from upper school); Carlzel Bostic, Carl Trainer, and Anne Wentling (from middle school); and Kellie Bowker P’14, ’17, Jessica Hardy, and Colleen Law (from lower school). “As those who are in direct contact with students each day, it was essential that teachers were part of the planning conversations and decision-making process in reopening,” said Zoë Blatt, upper school art and English teacher. “It has been useful for each academic division to discuss areas of crossover in terms of needs and potential problems, and to have a space to come together to support one another as a larger school community.” 

Guided by Friends Select’s Quaker mission and social responsibility to the community, the task force developed potential educational scenarios reflecting various percentages of students reporting to school in person or virtually relative to their age, and in consideration of local health and safety requirements. Scenarios were created with the goal of maximizing in-person instruction and providing flexibility in case another iSelectLearning transition became necessary. “One of the priorities of the reopening plan was to be nimble,” said task force member and school nurse Kelly Papianou P’29. “We wanted to be able to transition quickly when necessary, as we understood the local state of the pandemic could change our scenario throughout the year.” With the recommendation from the Faculty Planning committee to welcome students with a staggered start, Friends Select opened with a blended approach of both in-person learning and iSelectLearning in September. In response to a rise in local COVID-19 cases in November, the school shifted to iSelectLearning, and then added health and safety protocols to allow for a safe return to in-person learning this past January. 

The health and safety protocols that were implemented last summer included: physical distancing, increased hand washing and hand sanitizing practices, mandatory face coverings, and daily temperature screenings. Additionally, students and employees were asked to complete a self-assessment through Ruvna, an emergency management app, to answer COVID-19-related health questions before arriving for each school day. In January, the school added COVID-19 testing and contact tracing technology for students and employees returning to the building for in-person learning.
Before the school year began, Ted Harnwell, director of facilities and task force member, consulted with an engineering firm to help assess necessary changes to the building, including updating the HVAC system to promote air circulation within the school. And to assist with increased demands to ensure safety of the community, four part-time staff were added to the facility management team. “To accommodate distancing, a number of areas not typically used for learning began to be used as classrooms, including the Blauvelt Theatre, dance studio, and a new outdoor parking lot learning space,” he said. “We have had more to routinely clean and disinfect, in addition to our normal duties; the facilities team has worked very hard to maintain a safe environment for our community.”
To assist students and employees in successfully managing the realities of COVID-19 and to uphold the shared Quaker responsibility of community stewardship, the Faculty Planning committee developed a set of guiding principles: Friends Select’s Community Stewardship Statement. The shared responsibilities featured a corresponding email system to report and track concerns about the implementation of health and safety protocols. “I am impressed with how seriously most people at Friends Select have taken the Community Stewardship Statement,” said Zoë Blatt. “Their commitment has enabled us to be physically in school as long as possible.” 

In addition, a Medical Advisory committee composed of health experts from Friends Select’s body of parents and guardians assisted in the planning for reopening, and has continued to assist in further assessing safety precautions and local data related to COVID-19 as well as considerations for transitioning to iSelectLearning. “In the beginning of the school year, the Medical Advisory committee took part in virtual town halls for parents and guardians as well as faculty and staff. It seemed reassuring to many participants that I was a parent and a public health physician,” said Dr. Lisa Di Cicco Maslankowski P’23, ’25, an internal medicine and HIV physician with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health Ambulatory Health Services who provides comprehensive care to HIV-infected patients. “I also provide weekly updates to the task force on current COVID-19 numbers in Philadelphia, including test positivity and incidence rates.“ Dr. Di Cicco has also assisted any community members in need of healthcare in navigating the City of Philadelphia’s public health system, working with a benefits coordinator and finding a primary care physician in one of the city health centers.
Medical Advisory committee member Dr. Kristen A. Feemster P’26, ’28, adjunct associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, research director for the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and medical director of the Immunization Program and Acute Communicable Diseases at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, identifies benefits in having the perspectives of both healthcare professional and parent. “As a medical professional, I focus on COVID-19 and its epidemiology, providing the guidance to optimally prevent transmission. And as a parent, I think about what it means to implement that guidance and how I would want it communicated,” she said. “On the other hand, there are times when I do need to put aside what I might prefer as a parent and focus on the best path forward for the Friends Select community. Developing a plan is challenging; this is uncharted territory for most of us, everyone has a different risk threshold, and is balancing a different set of needs related to the virus.”
Establishing a reopening plan, adhering to health and safety protocols, and being prepared to transition to iSelectLearning have been major feats for the entire Friends Select community. They have proven the resilience, strength, support, and flexibility of the school’s students, families, and employees. “The reopening of the school is a tribute to the commitment and hard work of our community,” said Amy Segel, associate lower school director and task force member. “Employees, students, and families are all being stretched in many ways, but we’re rising to the challenge.” Dr. Di Cicco added, “There are many things that I love about the Friends Select community. Particularly in regard to the impact of COVID-19 on this year, I love that the faculty and staff show the students how to care about and care for each other. Following the COVID-19 mitigation guidelines is just another way our community demonstrates this.”
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