How a West Side charter school kept students in class during latest wave of COVID-19

NORTH LAWNDALE – While a battle between Chicago’s public schools and the Chicago Teachers Union interrupted in-person classes for most of the city’s students, a West Side charter school was able to function normally thanks to numerous precautions , planning and frequent communication with parents.

North Lawndale College Prep, spread across the campuses of 1615 S. Christiana Ave. and 1313 S. Sacramento Drive., has continued his in-person classes since returning from winter vacation despite the latest increase in COVID-19 cases. His strategy resembles some of the key demands union leaders proposed to send students safely back to classrooms.

The school, which accommodates just under 800 students, has made masks, tests and vaccines widely available and easy to access, parents said, and administrators have been strict on social distancing, timing school to avoid overcrowding and proper mask wearing.

In-person learning is the priority, but the school has protocols to switch to virtual learning on a limited basis in the event of an outbreak.

Because it is a charter school, North Lawndale COVID-19 cases, quarantines and isolations are not included in CPS data. Not all parents participate in the in-person learning, but some parents have said that they have been able to avoid major problems and that the school approach has made people feel more secure.

“We knew that keeping the kids at home and doing distance learning was not good for the kids,” said parent Karen Castleberry. “We have to continue to live our life and educate the students. … We have been in this pandemic for years. We have to be able to come up with some sort of plan… so that parents can prepare for it. “

Credit: Provided
North Lawndale College administrators are gearing up to say their school is the only public school to stay open all of last year.

North Lawndale College Prep’s first line of defense is a tough mask policy, said Academic Director Kieran Palmer-Klein. The school makes it easy for students to comply by providing N-95 masks every day, Palmer-Klein said.

The school “really made sure that adults and children were wearing their N-95 masks correctly,” Palmer-Klein said.

The second major element is social distancing. Administrators have minimized contact between students as they move around the school by switching to a bulk schedule that halves the number of times students have to move from class to class in very busy hallways. frequented. To further reduce contact, students move between classes on an alternating schedule so that the rooms are never too crowded.

“I love the way they space the classes and at the same time make sure the kids have their learning time,” said Lorenzia Anderson, whose son attends school.

Students are also kicked out of school early so administrators can eliminate lunch time. Instead of getting together for lunch, students get their lunch right before leaving school so they don’t have to remove their masks to eat with others.

By identifying the times when students are most likely to remove their masks or come into close contact with someone who may be infected, North Lawndale College Prep has significantly reduced the risk of learning at school, said Palmer-Klein.

“When we had to search for contacts, where did the vast majority of children come into contact with someone else? In the hallways or at lunch, ”said Palmer-Klein.

The school also works with the Lawndale Christian Health Center to facilitate screening of families and offers weekly on-site immunizations.

North Lawndale College Prep can transition to virtual learning in the event of a severe outbreak. But rather than shutting down the entire school, administrators are sending students into segregation by grade level because they were able to limit school-wide exposure.

“We only had to push that button a few times. Our goal is to keep as many children as possible in school. We know this is where kids do best, ”said Palmer-Klein.

The most important part of the plan for Wilonda Cannon, mother of an elder from North Lawndale College Prep who also sits on the school board, is that the school is ready to adapt to changing circumstances and to communicate openly with parents, she said.

“If this is one thing COVID has taught us, it’s that we have no choice but to be nimble,” Cannon said. “People still have to live, students still have to learn and we still have to be safe. “

Distance learning is a tool in the administrator’s toolkit to keep children safe when needed, Cannon said. But with other protocols in place, distance learning should only be a last resort because “our children have suffered in the online environment,” she said.

“They came up with a plan and they tested it. They are a good role model of what can happen, ”Cannon said. “We’ve got to have a better way to pivot really quickly, so if we’re going to do distance learning, we can do that. “

Credit: Provided
North Lawndale College Prep courses use strict social distancing and sanitation practices to keep students and teachers safe.

Not all families are comfortable with in-person classes during the last peak of cases. Ethel Adams, whose granddaughter attends North Lawndale College Prep, believes schools should wait for the worst of the wave before resuming classes.

“Children need an education. But what do they need most: their education or their life? she said.

The school interviewed teachers and parents to design a plan for the school year, Palmer-Klein said. Over the winter break, administrators sent out another survey for feedback, and they fine-tuned their plan to accommodate rapidly changing conditions.

Not all teachers and parents agreed with the school’s decision to stay open, Palmer-Klein said. But “the vast majority” thought the school’s agile strategy was the best way forward, he said.

This is not the first time that North Lawndale has adjusted its educational model during the pandemic. The school also implemented a hybrid model to offer in-person classes to support students and families of essential workers for whom distance learning was not possible.

The school’s open communication with families made it easier for parents to trust the safety plan and prepare for any adjustments, Cannon said.

“I knew that when my son came out of his vacation he would leave school early. All the changes that were happening were not in the dark, ”Cannon said.

The district’s latest dispute with the teachers’ union underscores how important it is to set realistic expectations and communicate with parents, Castleberry said.

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