Note: this post is part of a series about Noble’s preparation for the upcoming school year.
Across the country school districts everywhere are grappling with decisions about how they should open their doors in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. We sat down with Ellen Metz, Noble’s head of schools, to learn about how the Noble reopening plan came together.
Ellen Metz has been a teacher, principal and senior leader at Noble over the past 15 years.
MM: Ellen, first thanks for taking the time to chat. I know there are so many moving pieces heading into the start of the school year. Can we start with just an overview – when did planning start for the reopening?
EM: Thanks Matt, happy to chat any time. We started planning almost immediately once we had our footing in April. Our first priority once Illinois announced school closures in the spring was to make sure our students and staff were taken care of for the end of last school year and then we pivoted to look ahead. We knew that we needed to share a general direction about our intentions prior to teachers departing for summer break. When teachers wrapped up the year in June, they were told to plan primarily for remote instruction for the fall. Back in June we had high hopes for some sort of in-person instruction. However, we were pragmatic in that we anticipated needing to position ourselves to be nimble should another closure occur. This meant relying mostly on remote instruction so learning wouldn’t be interrupted. I am relieved that we communicated an emphasis on remote learning to principals and thus staff back in June and were able to release our full plan in July.
MM: Who was involved in the planning process?
EM: We knew this plan needed to be representative of our diverse Noble community and we also knew we needed to move fast so our teachers and staff had as much time as possible to plan. So, our senior leaders split into two teams, a “Design Team” and a “Refine Team”. Noble’s President, Matt Niksch, led a “Design Team” which collaborated with leaders from operations, academics and data and innovation to create a series of options that were then vetted and improved by the Refine Team.
I led the “Refine Team” which called on five groups of stakeholders to provide feedback in a series of focus groups. These groups included students, parents, staff members, social workers, and principals. Together, this provided incredible insight on our plans and helped see around corners that we otherwise would not have thought of.
MM: That’s great, sounds like a lot of perspectives in the mix, how did those stakeholders’ voices inform the various pieces of the plan?
EM: That’s a great question, this wasn’t just a “check the box” process. Teachers and staff from our previously formed Staff Retention Steering Committee debated and discussed various options and shared how different options would impact planning and staff experience. Parent and student focus groups (on Zoom of course!) shared honest concerns and ideas as well as their experiences – good and bad – with remote learning in the spring. Of course we also wanted to make sure there were a large number of voices and so we received thousands of survey responses from parents and students and staff as well. And then, every week or two we’d put the latest versions of the plan options in front of principals and other staff across Noble to get their feedback and those individuals in turn bounced the ideas off of their communities in formal and informal ways. Of course there’s no perfect way to make sure we hear from everyone as we navigate this situation, but I’m really proud of how we were able to intentionally involve our community along the way.
MM: What were the key priorities or principles that guided the formation of the plan?
EM: First and foremost is safety. No matter what, we want to ensure that our staff and students are set up to be safe and feel safe. This is why we led with robust health and safety precautions across the board and one of the core elements in the plan is that in-person participation remains optional. We are also driven by results, which is core to Noble’s mission. And then a throughline priority is equity. Covid is having a disproportionate impact on the students and families we work with, and it is essential to consider equitable access to learning and social-emotional support throughout this process to ensure all students have what they deserve.
MM: Anything else you want people to know?
EM: Just that this is an evolving process and that everyone is doing their best under extraordinary circumstances. Each member of the various committees was doing all this planning while having our kids run around in the background, or while we were caring for or worrying about sick family members. We know this is a challenging moment, but we felt it was really important to put a stake in the ground early – which is why we decided to communicate prior to teachers leaving for the summer that the foundation of instruction would be remote. Having our final plan completed by the end of July paired with a later student-return date will better position teachers to engage in complex, meaningful work sustainably so they may better forward Noble’s mission.
Editor’s note: Noble will continue to survey and seek input from our school community as plans adapt over the course of the first semester. Please check your email inbox and check our coronavirus site frequently to make sure you weigh in.
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