Q&A with Sam Sharp: What is Our New "School Norm?"

What will school look like when we are ready to return, both in terms of what the child will experience – and then secondly, the parent experience?

Jenna Wawrzyniec

Content Specialist

As an immediate response to navigating COVID-19, my family – like many others – kept our two young children home as we focused on building and enforcing a new at-home learning routine. As states evolve their guidelines with phased re-openings, our home conversations have shifted from, “How do we get through these immediate closures?” to “What is our new norm as we navigate phased re-openings?”

Ultimately, building a new norm that adapts to COVID-19 will not be a one-size-fits-all path, just as enduring the closures looked different for every family. I wanted to step outside of my family’s own thoughts on these questions, though, and gain broader perspective on what concrete changes are in place for childcare centers and schools. Before my family can make any new decisions, we need to understand first how these essential services themselves are adapting.

I sat down virtually with Sam Sharp, Director of School Success with Higher Ground Education, who I knew would be able to equip me with helpful guidance from her various perspectives. A parent herself, she is also a Montessori educator for ages 3-12. Her diverse experience between teaching in classrooms and also holding school leadership roles led her towards a passion in educator mentorship. Today, she mentors numerous campus teams in the Guidepost network, and in the context of COVID-19, she has been instrumental in guiding childcare centers, schools, educators, and families with emerging best practices and guidelines. Additionally, The Guidepost and Higher Ground teams have had a head start with re-openings as one of the first in the country to open in March with Emergency Care for Essential Workers.

For our chat, we focused on changes in early childhood settings, which is the biggest age range currently served across the Guidepost network – and also when parents will most likely navigate separation anxiety with a return to school.

What will school look like when we are ready to return, both in terms of what the child will experience – and then secondly, the parent experience?

For both children and parents, the experience will be different. One of the most noticeable differences will be with the parent pick-up and drop-off. Parents will not be coming into the building anymore, and instead, they will drop their child off at an entrance with a school leader, practicing social distancing from other adults. From a parent perspective, this means they will lose that interaction face-to-face with the child’s lead guide, as well as that quick glimpse into the classroom. We know this is different, and that it can prove challenging especially with young children. To address this, we will be increasing parent communication through our established classroom app, Transparent Classroom, in order to maintain visibility into the child's classroom and keep communication open between parent and guide. The other main thing that will be different is that our schools will not be providing hot lunches, snacks, and utensils, so those will have to be prepped by the parents each day.

For the child, they will also notice this difference in drop-off and pick-up, especially since it will move quickly with families lined up six feet apart. This could be challenging if a parent has not prepared the child for this change – but also challenging even if the parent has prepared the child! And each child’s feelings about it could vary by the day. Other changes to their daily routine include regular temperature checks, first by the parent each morning and then mid-day by school staff. In some states, depending on regulations, schools are also being advised to provide face masks to children over age 3, and so if a child has not been in public during these initial closures, face masks will also be an adjustment.

With these new health and safety procedures, we will try to keep everything else in terms of the child’s learning experience as normal as possible. We want to be intentional in that these changes may be different, but they are not scary. Just like coming to school for the first time can result in an adjustment period – and sometimes tears at drop off – this return to school may similarly be filled with mixed emotions. We will meet each child and family where they are, working to re-engage each child with meaningful work under the calm, steady and loving care of their guides.

On that note, as a parent I feel like I have rallied advice on how to objectively speak to my young children about the basics of coronavirus in a way that is factual, not scary. But, how should we be talking about the prolonged school closures and related returns to school?

One of the beautiful things about children is they live very much in the present. This isn’t to say that they aren’t thinking about things and making connections, but when they’ve been at home for a long stretch, home becomes their reality. This is why, for example, Mondays are typically harder for young children; Two days on the weekend is enough to create a new reality. It’s the same in this context. While children remember school, returning to it will be a new reality, then, that warrants communication and preparation.

With that said, age-appropriate information is key with coronavirus. You don’t want your child to be afraid of the world, of germs and of touching, but you do want to ensure they have enough information to understand what is happening so that they have some control and agency of their own safety. It's important to emphasize what they CAN do, re-framing it away from “the world is out to get them,” which could be terrifying. Talk about what a germ is in general; how teeny it is; how it travels; and what is in their control to stay healthy.

At school we have fire drills, severe weather drills and lockdown drills. We prepare and plan for all of these things taking steps to stay safe without inciting fear that each of these events will happen. We will approach talking about coronavirus the same way at school.

While still at home, it's also important for parents to ensure they are providing opportunities for autonomy. With such extended absences, children who have been at home will see their identity as directly connected to their parents because they are now a nuclear group. This is an extraordinary shift. There are steps parents can take now to help prepare their child to take that leap back to school:

  1. Facilitate independence and spend time in the next room away from your child as opposed to always having them work under your watchful eye.
  2. The week before the return to school, begin taking your child's temperature so this becomes part of their morning routine.
  3. Talk often about how the morning drop off and afternoon pick up will go. "First, we will drive to school. Then we will wait for Ms. Amanda to greet us at the door where she will take your temperature, like we did this morning. Then we will get a quick hug and kiss and you will walk to your classroom with your teacher. I will wave as you walk and then go back to my car. After nap time, I will come back to pick you up. Ms. Amanda will help you gather your items and I will be waiting for a hug at the door!"

Can you speak to how the Montessori approach might uniquely lend itself to these new classroom adaptations? Are certain aspects of this new norm easier with the Montessori approach? Are some aspects harder?

In Montessori learning, we are guiding our children to be independent thinkers and to be responsible for their own self-care. Our classrooms and guides have long provided the tools needed for a child to discover their own ability to take care of themselves in an age appropriate way. We teach hand washing with multiple steps, for example, rather than just instructing them to wash their hands or do it for them. This idea of caring for yourself, and your environment, is not new; this has always been emphasized in our classrooms. I think this is specifically important in the context of COVID-19 because the more independent a child is in caring for themselves, the fewer adults there are interfering with the child’s space.

The other thing important to note is that children in a Montessori classroom do not work on the same thing at the same time. They are not grouped together in the center, as seen in a traditional classroom. Instead, each child has the freedom to work independently – as part of a larger group – but in separate places of the classroom with the work that they choose. This movement happens naturally, and children actually crave their own defined space to work. It’s why our classroom layouts have always been different, with smaller tables more spaced out and work mats for each child to define their own space.

With more than 40 of our schools across the country now two months into running Emergency Care for Essential Workers, what have we observed about opening our classrooms through this pandemic?

We’ve been able to gain direct perspective from parents, of which has largely been gratitude in recognition that childcare is in and of itself essential. Still, parents have had to navigate a lot of nerves and guilt. Initially, they were concerned about the fact that they could potentially be exposing themselves to risk, but in time they grew comforted by the fact that we were very consistent in minimizing risk. In fact, one of the outcomes of our heightened health and safety measures is that we have had almost no typical childhood illnesses at any of our schools – no stomach bug, no pink eye, none of the usual early childhood illnesses. We cannot expect that regular childhood illness will vanish, but we have loved seeing that they are so much less prevalent.

The other benefit that parents quickly saw was a change in their children because their children were back in a routine and had their own existence, and so children were allowed to normalize and feel effective in an environment designed for them. Parents noted after being home and then getting back to school that they saw fewer temper tantrums and more overall happiness.

What's the number 1 piece of guidance you’d like to share for parents trying to piece together a new family norm?

There is not anyone I have talked to who doesn’t feel like their world has turned upside down in some significant way. I think as adults we are grappling with what this means for our lives, and we are all going through our own stages of grief for what was while coming to terms with what is. Children feel that abundantly. As we process this, they are processing how we are processing. They're not necessarily processing on their own, then, they are mirroring us. This doesn’t mean that as parents we must put up a front that “everything is fine,” because children see through that. It means that as parents, we must make sure to take care of our own mental health and practice self-care to effectively manage stress. That alone will help our children because we are modeling healthy means of coping and adapting.

Secondly, every family is going to be ready to return in their own time – and that’s okay! As parents, we face a tremendous amount of peer pressure, whether from other parents or as pressure that we put on ourselves. We need to make decisions that make sense for us based on our own circumstances and find confidence in that.

Meet the Author

Jenna Wawrzyniec

Jenna is a trained journalist and writer whose parenting journey transformed after implementing Montessori at home with her three children. She is a passionate advocate for bridging Montessori to the mainstream as a means to build community, empower parent-child relationships, and honor learning as the lifelong journey that it is.

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