MINT HILL, NC – An average day at Queen’s Grant High School this fall begins in the carpool lane, where staff with iPads and thermometers greet arriving students. “Each iPad is already set up with the Google Form that we have to ask them each day,” says Principal Josh Swartzlander, referring to questions about whether students have tested positive for COVID-19 or had extended contact with someone who has. “When there’s a huge rush, I say, I’ll check all your temps and then go through each question, and they can follow along with me. We have one staff member here,” continues Swartzlander, gesturing to the student parking lot, “one to navigate traffic, another one up there to make sure we don’t miss anybody.”
If it sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Yet it’s only one piece of the large and complex puzzle that allows Queen’s Grant students to be on campus for two days a week while their counterparts at schools like Independence, Butler, and Rocky River will remain remote for most of the first semester.
With fourteen iPads set up to begin screening students at 7:00 am, Queen’s Grant manages to get all 150-160 students arriving on campus to class by 7:50. “That was the goal,” says Swartzlander, “not to lose any instruction because they lose a lot of instruction at the end of class.” For the first week of class, teachers began dismissal ten minutes before the bell, allowing seniors, then juniors, then sophomores, then freshmen to depart separately at two-and-a-half minute intervals to minimize crowds in the hallways. As students adjust, they’ll decrease that to five minutes with one-minute intervals between dismissals.
Between classes, students move in one direction through the modular units guided by painter’s tape arrows on the walls and floors. Meanwhile, teachers are busy cleaning their desks and even the bathrooms, where handles and doorknobs are wiped down every hour. Administrators stationed between mods handle traffic, reminding students to move in the right direction and stay six feet apart. Doors are propped open during passing periods; hand sanitizer greets students at the door to every building.
Previously packed with up to thirty students in a class, Queen’s Grant’s classrooms now house around nine desks carefully situated six feet apart. A group of 150 students attend on Monday and Tuesday; another 160 attend Thursday and Friday. Everyone is remote on Wednesdays while the school undergoes deep cleaning. With only about 30% of its 504 students on campus each day, it’s quiet; some classes have only two or three students.
Their counterparts – those who attend on another day or elected to be remote full time – are completing their lessons at home. “Just about everything is asynchronous, which means they post assignments,” says Swartzlander. “Let’s say they’re doing a lab,” he continues, referring to a science class we just passed. “They’ll have the lab for the kids in person, but they’ll also try to record the meaning of the lesson.”
Queen’s Grant’s teachers’ method of instructing remote students differs markedly from the approach of many CMS schools, whose attempts to create, in many cases, a remote learning program that approximates the regular, in-person school day leaves students sitting for long hours in front of a computer. A father of six who wrote his dissertation on blended learning, Swartzlander understands the stress a schedule like that places on students and families.
“Having six children in different schools, I’m able to identify what I think is effective and what isn’t,” says Swarzlander. “I’m trying to get the whole staff to stay under 20 minutes [with recorded lessons]. It’s really, really tough for them to sit in front of a computer all day. Six, seven hours is insane.”
On campus, lunch remains the most difficult part of the day logistically. Formerly allowed to socialize and eat in the courtyard outside the administration building, students now eat in their fourth period classrooms. “They can come outside with their fourth period teacher, but we haven’t figured out how to bring them all together in a group yet,” says Swartzlander, noting that with five potential outdoor areas and nine classes eating lunch at a time, it’s impossible for everyone to eat outdoors.
Queen’s Grant has been lucky so far; they’ve had zero positive cases among students or staff. A handful of students whose temperatures have read high upon arrival have been sent home for the day. Queen’s Grant relies on their students, staff, and families to self-report and self-quarantine if they are sick, but identifying and isolating those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 is trickier than it sounds. Swartzlander gives the example of a student whose mom is an ER nurse who potentially comes into contact with COVID-positive patients every day. “I can’t say you can’t come to school,” says Swartzlander. “We have to trust the hospitals to do what they’re supposed to do and trust that if she ever had a positive, that she would let us know. Families have to be forthcoming about those questions we ask because it’s impossible to enforce without the trust and support of the parents.”
If they do have a positive case? “Well, that’s the question we hope we never have to face,” says Swartzlander optimistically. “We already met with the people that would do a deep cleaning, so we’ve got them on call if we need it. They would advise us on how many days to close before students can come back. It would really depend on the amount of time and exposure the infected person has.”
One of the main factors that has allowed Queen’s Grant to successfully welcome students back to campus while all CMS public schools and even Queen’s Grant Community School, the K-8 division of Queen’s Grant’s charter began the year remote is size.
With 504 students compared to nearly 2500 at Independence High School, for example, Queen’s Grant is able to adapt more easily to constantly changing circumstances. Take, for example, a situation that happened last week: a child who was supposed to be remote showed up for class, and the teacher was lacking a socially distanced seat for him. “We had to get creative and put somebody in a chair and then come back later and measure and readjust the desks,” says Swartzlander. “That’s not anything we had prepared for.” Small, on-the-fly adjustments like this would quickly become overwhelming at an institution five times Queen’s Grant’s size.
But there’s another important factor to consider in Queen’s Grant success: the nearly 200 students who elected to go fully remote this fall. “I knew it would work because we were hovering around 160 that were going to be fully remote,” says Swartzlander. If we went to an A/B day, I’d have 150 or 160 on campus, and I said, if we can’t keep 150 people apart, nobody in this country can. If we had 220 kids wanting to be here on each A and B day as opposed to 150, it would make it a lot harder.”
About this point, Swartzlander is crystal clear: there is no returning to “normal” this year. The plan is working at Queen’s Grant right now in large part thanks to the percentage of students who are fully remote, and if everyone were to want to come back to campus, they would need a different plan.
“We have those plans ready,” assures Swartzlander, “but we can’t return to full normal this year, no matter what. It’s not possible. We could return to a situation where everyone comes back to campus, but it may be A/B half days with only thirty minute classes.”
When asked if he feels that Queen’s Grant could serve as a model for other schools as they transition to hybrid instruction, Swartzlander is pensive. “I’ve thought about that a lot,” he begins. “I do believe that we can be a model, I really do. But I also believe that if you want everybody to go back full time, there’s no way to do it. Everything is based on scale,” he continues. “I don’t know what can be mirrored or brought into the larger schools. I do think we can be a kind of model for smaller schools or even elementary schools.”
“It’s not perfect,” Swartzlander concludes. “I know it won’t be perfect, but if everybody does what they’re supposed to do and the kids wear the masks like they’re supposed to, everything I’ve seen says this will allow us to stay open.”