This is what school safety looks like.

Every student dropped off at school gets a temperature check before they enter. Parents aren’t allowed inside the buildings at pickup or drop-off.

A new routine for coming and going is one of the most visible changes that has unfolded at The Independent School, a private institution of about 480 students and 85 staff members in east Wichita, since the campus reopened to face-to-face instruction on Aug. 19.

It’s a significant shift at a school that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, worked hard to encourage parents to not only enter the building but be an active part of the school’s tight-knit community.

But the pandemic has forced school officials to choose among competing values, prioritizing the safety of students and staff above all else. Chris English, Independent’s head of school, says parents have been accepting of the restrictions and safety procedures for being what’s best for the kids.

“It’s better to be overly cautious,” English says. “No one wants our kids back home, fully online, without the ability to come to school.”

Across the state, schools are adapting on the fly as the COVID-19 restrictions force the cancellation of sporting events and the moving of classes online.

  • Since the beginning of the pandemic, hand hygiene has been recognized as an important response to its spread. Independent relies on Cameron Stewart and his fellow students to do their part.

While there are some families who have chosen to keep their students learning from home, Independent is going full-speed ahead with in-person instruction. School officials allowed Journal photographer Jeff Tuttle, whose daughter, Erin Wilson, teaches at the school, to take photos in a third-grade classroom where Lindsey Ralston teaches.

As of late September, the school had been spared any outbreaks of COVID-19.

English, working with school’s board of trustees and his administration, made the decision to reopen with in-person classes in accordance with guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which stresses the benefits of in-person learning for students’ academic, social and emotional development, provided schools can implement a layered approach to protect students, teachers and staff.

The school’s approach is directed by four key principles: the school community is capable of being creative and flexible and open to altering plans at any time; the school’s plans will be revised and adapted depending on the level of viral transmission in the school and community; policies should be developmentally appropriate and may be implemented differently for different divisions of the school; developing policies that reflect the needs of the school community and promoting a “shared sense of family.”

It’s a mindset that focuses on both holding to purpose and acting experimentally when circumstances change.

But it’s a process not without loss. The graduating class of 2020 missed out on traditional graduation festivities. This fall, the school canceled homecoming, a decision that students helped take the lead on.

Indeed, children at all levels are playing a unique leadership role of helping the whole school community move on with life amid unusual circumstances.

“They’ve adapted to this change and adapted in ways that a lot of adults can learn from,” English says. “They’re not the ones who feel a sense of loss.”

Being able to work with students who come into class with energy, curiosity and creativity helps inspire the school’s staff, English says.

“The feeling is very different when you’re focusing on what’s happening with the kid.”


A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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