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Seton Education Partners: What did we do to get ahead of the curve on a COVID response? 

I expect that most everyone likes to think of themselves as being nimble and able to adapt to most any challenge.  The nasty COVID19 bug is putting that “thinking” to the test, as we now have to be “doing”. This is especially true for those of us involved in education. 

As the Managing Director of Seton Education Partners I’m proud  to say  we reacted both nimbly and intelligently – though obviously not without hiccups. Seton is a national network of character rich, academically excellent, and—for those families who choose it, faith-nurturing—schools. We work in underserved communities at the elementary and middle school levels and  a new Catholic academy – Romero – that will open this fall in Ohio.

So what did we do to get ahead of the curve on a COVID response?  Early on we realized  our “constituents” – largely minority and lower income kids and families – would be hard hit by the virus and be the most likely not to have access to the technology or tools for remote and digital learning. We needed to be “early responders” in equipping our kids  to seamlessly continue their learning. 

It took “all hands on deck” effort, so before most school closures were even announced  we created an Emergency Task Force of  key leaders.  It wasn’t rocket science to know we didn’t want kids going home without the tools to continue  learning immediately, so we sent them home with backpacks full of books and two weeks worth of learning materials. We developed a  plan and tiered resources  to send to leaders and teachers in waves. All of our schools were already blended learning schools, so we leveraged our existing relationships  with organizations like Edmentum,  iReady and Lexia to go from school to home learning fast.

In New York City we communicated clear expectations. We tasked our teachers to call every student for 20-30 minute deep learning sessions and well-being checks, while any child who doesn’t log in during the day gets a call that same day.  We  canceled Spring Break – families welcomed this decision – teachers and others  not so much. So we arranged things so staff could choose four days of vacation before the end of the school year.

All  the planning for remote/digital learning would be useless if our students didn’t have the basic tools.  It took some heavy lifting and cajoling but we secured internet access for a third of our families. In New York City, we issued computers for nearly 700 children, and our Catholic schools did the same for families without them. We created a tech helpline and email  to trouble-shoot connectivity and other issues. I want to  give a huge shout out to our “Ops Team” – the ‘’A-Team” of solving problems for our kids and parents.

The result?. On day 1, 85% of our students were logging in and learning. That climbed to 92% by day 2 and continues to climb. So what we had done was obviously important.  What we didn’t do was also important. We did not lower expectations for children with special needs. Our student services team provides twice weekly one-on-one tutorials.  They also do home room teacher calls and provide counseling sessions for kids who need them.

Finally,  we created a Family Support Fund to provide non-perishable food and supplies (including diapers) to our most vulnerable families. I’m proud of what we have been able to accomplish. What we did has worked so far – fingers crossed and many “thank you” prayers said. Responses will of course differ with each situation. But  there are four guiding principles I highly recommend to anyone.

First—Keep It Simple. The  most important goal  is to ensure children remain safe, engaged  and to keep them from losing ground until schools re-open. Second—Prioritize the right “Cs”   – Compassion/Community & Culture—Over Compliance—for Everyone. Third —Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Stay flexible and responsive. What teachers and students needed in week 1 will be very different from week 4, etc.  Fourth—Don’t forget Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This sudden switch to no traditional schooling puts students with disabilities, English language learners and children with only one caregiver at home in a more vulnerable position.  We must ensure that we are providing robust support for the  mental, emotional—and for many of our children, spiritual—health.

The silver lining behind the very dark cloud of COVID is the  game-changing opportunity – right now – to disrupt the status quo of failed schooling  and show that we have the future of schooling clearly in our sights and firmly in our grasp. Let’s do it! Thanks so much to Jeanne Allen and CER for letting me post on this blog. You can learn more about Seton Education Partners here. If you have questions or want to reach me for any reason, please drop a line to Stephanie@SetonPartners.org.

Stephanie Saroki de García is co-founder and managing director of Seton Education Partners.

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