An Early Preview of the 20-21 School Year


As we―Free Union’s staff, teachers, and COVID task force―work on plans for reopening school this coming fall, I find reassurance (maybe even optimism!) about our school’s unique position in these uncertain times. Our size, imagination, open campus, and nimbleness, combined with dedicated folks who want to figure it out is allowing us to plan a full, though modified, return to classes on campus, beginning we expect either on August 26th or September 2nd.

Since my last message to the school community on May 20th, the school’s COVID-19 Task Force has been industriously exploring how to reopen the school in a way that will allow as much on-campus, in-person learning as possible with the lowest risk possible. We have been measuring and reevaluating our use of space, defining infrastructure changes and how to implement them, incorporating your suggestions and feedback from our latest survey, and reviewing guidelines and recommendations from the CDC, Commonwealth of Virginia, and health professionals to determine the best course and precautions for our school.

Perhaps the most important thing for you to know is that we are making every effort to take full advantage of our strengths in order to enable us to have as many learners as possible learning here at school 4-5 days per week. We expect that much of the teaching and learning will take place outdoors, in part because of the growing research pointing to all the ways that would reduce health risks, but also because we know from our progressive pedagogy that there is powerful learning potential in the natural world and we have an opportunity here to take even better educational advantage of our open, pastoral campus. Besides learning outside more, there will be precautionary changes, too, many of which should feel fairly routine now, like frequent hand washing and wearing masks (in our case, they would be worn while indoors). Also, though, classrooms will be reconfigured to ensure adequate social distance for students and teachers, new outdoor learning spaces are being assembled this summer to help us be outside more even when weather becomes manageably inclement, and indoor classroom windows and doors will be kept open as much as reasonable to ensure ventilation, another critical measure for minimizing disease transmission.

Research and projections do suggest there may be a resurgence of the coronavirus in the fall and/or winter, unfortunately. So, to supplement the lessons we learned from our rapid shift online this past spring, teachers are training and preparing also for more effective distance learning in order to ensure a healthy, productive balance between scholastic development and social-emotional welfare. Furthermore, your responses to the survey emailed to you last week have helped us immeasurably to better understand what worked and what was difficult this spring, and how we could adjust for the fall. We thank all who responded, and if you have not yet had a chance to fill it out, we still welcome your thoughts (sooner will be more usable than later).

So, here is an overview encapsulating some of the specifics we anticipate implementing for different scenarios this coming school year; more details will be available on our website and/or later in the summer.

What Learning Will Probably Look Like

As much learning as possible will be in person at school, four or five days a week, every week that we can throughout the school year, made possible by:

  • Self-contained and, in some cases, mixed-age Learning Teams of nine young people and 1 teacher for K-5 groups, and smaller groupings for our early childhood friends…

  • spending as much of their learning time outside as possible (sometimes within 2-3 new covered outdoor learning spaces) given our infrastructure modifications and each day’s weather conditions, in pursuit of understanding, creation, discovery…

  • developing core academic skills and understanding often tied together within the meaningful context of interdisciplinary themes and projects that can be approached and apprehended from multiple angles, skills, and subjects,…

  • in concert with learners of other ages, so that

    • siblings may discuss and pursue learning together when at home, and

    • learners of different ages may stay connected to one another asynchronously through the projects they share and products they create around our campus

  • with recommended public health precautions, including

    • daily self-screening (more details to come next month)

    • new arrival protocols to promote healthy arrivals

    • facemasks and physical distancing when indoors

    • disinfecting practices and procedures instituted throughout the school day, and deep cleanings every evening

    • extra cleaning stations throughout campus for sanitizing and washing hands frequently

    • a new, separated infirmary and isolation room, for reducing the likelihood of contamination when one person becomes ill

    • a designated staff member to attend to health needs

The Interruptions or Changes We Will Have to Work Around

  • If or when anyone on a particular Learning Team tests positive for coronavirus while having been at school, their Learning Team will likely need to quarantine at home for two weeks. However, our goal will be to allow other unaffected/uninfected Learning Teams to continue coming to school every day. A rubric outlining the school’s response, and our expectations of families, under different infection-related scenarios, is in preparation.

  • Any mandated closings as ordered by the Commonwealth of Virginia

  • Given recommended operating procedures and several other limitations, it is unclear whether we will be able to offer extra-care programs this coming school year.

Our Evolving Plan for Remote Learning if/when Students Must Learn at Home for an Extended Period

  • Every class will gather virtually for a 15-minute Morning Meeting via Zoom every weekday morning.

  • Moderate periods of synchronous online instruction, developmentally adjusted and scheduled for a few times every day, could be interspersed with longer periods of time for learners to practice and apply off-line what they have learned. The episodes of direct instruction on-line might be a mixture of whole-team, small group, and individualized interaction with the teacher.

  • For many of our younger learners, hands-on Learning Kits will be assembled and made available for application and practice at home, to help reduce reliance upon online digital materials and resources.

  • The interdisciplinary nature of the work should help cohere subject content together, so that instead of having various disparate assignments to keep track of, learners will simply have one project to approach and build upon from different angles.

  • Details about each grade's particular approach will be documented in our school's Remote Learning Plan, which will be published on the Free Union website next month.

Contract-related Things to Keep in Mind

  • The Board of Trustees approved a new policy this spring allowing families who experience a life-changing event during the school year to appeal to the Board for a special release from contract, if necessary.

  • We have also established a special “Rainy Day Fund” to provide temporary financial relief on a month-by-month basis to anyone who experiences an unexpected change in income that hinders tuition payment.

  • Admissions inquiries are picking up, and with this modified plan, we can accommodate no more than nine students in any class, so if you've been on the fence but now are able to commit, it could be wise to do so sooner than later. As demand for available slots increases, it would be very valuable for us to know as clearly as possible your intentions for the coming year, so that we can solidify rosters, and so that any Free Union family who may be undecided about returning can be given the option of first refusal if a new applicant family becomes a candidate for a “last-available” slot.

  • Substantial tuition credits are available to anyone who refers a new family who enrolls for the fall.

Although we still have details to iron out and communicate to you, we hope that this preliminary overview will help many of you with your planning for the coming school year. We do feel excited in many ways about the possibilities for the new school year, but there is much to prepare this summer and a thinned out staff, so if you have time or talents that you might be interested in volunteering, please send Eric an email and we can explore.

We hope you and your loved ones are staying healthy and well, and look forward to hearing from and seeing most of you again in the coming months. Meanwhile, if you have any questions, please give us a shout.