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Leveraging a Global Network of Schools During a Pandemic and Building a Culture of Innovation

Leveraging a Global Network of Schools During a Pandemic and Building a Culture of Innovation

When schools were preparing to reopen in fall 2020, school leaders were eager to glean insights from colleagues in regions of the world where they had already reopened for in-person learning.

Dwight’s global network of International Baccalaureate World Schools was uniquely positioned to share lessons learned from those campuses that had reopened with fellow educators, including peers at other Dwight Schools.

Dwight School in New York, founded in 1872, is the flagship School in our network, which includes campuses in London, Seoul, Shanghai, Dubai, and in the cloud — Dwight Global Online School. While each School operates differently based on government stipulations in their home countries and has different cultural norms and behaviors, all share the same mission of personalizing the educational journey for every student based on their talents and passions, which we call “igniting the spark of genius in every child.”

The First to Close and the First to Reopen

Dwight Schools in Asia were the first in our network to navigate the uncharted COVID-19 waters by closing and shifting to virtual learning beginning with Shanghai Qibao Dwight High School in January 2020, followed by Dwight School Seoul. Dwight School London was next in line. They reopened in the same sequence a few months later — each without one COVID-19 case — completing the school year in person. Dwight Schools in New York and Dubai remained closed with robust virtual learning in place through the end of the year.

Thanks to Dwight Global Online School — ranked the #2 best online school in the U.S. by Newsweek — our brick-and-mortar campuses were ahead of the curve in upskilling faculty to make the switch to virtual teaching with guidance from Dwight Global experts.

Last summer, associations of independent schools in New York, Washington, D.C., and Maryland invited our global Heads of School to speak to their members about reopening in the new COVID-19 world. We logged on from different time zones to discuss many topics, including: health and safety protocols, curriculum and classroom modifications, scheduling and the creation of learning cohorts, budgeting, transportation guidelines, admissions, and the social and emotional impact of COVID-19 on the entire School community. With a focus on what worked well and where things could be improved, Dwight leaders shared how they planned to welcome students back at summer’s end based not only on their own reopening experiences to date, but also on those of sister schools, underscoring the benefits of being part of a global network.

Designing and Implementing a Strategic Plan

Using Dwight in New York as the example, we built on this invaluable foundation while also  consulting with local experts in the Department of Health and engineers to evaluate all of our procedures and facilities through the new COVID-19 lens. We tested air flow and ventilation systems, replaced air conditioning units, and added HEPA air purifiers with UV sanitizers; we staggered entry and exit times, created one-way traffic pathways to reduce crowding in hallways and on stairways; and reconfigured classrooms and public spaces to ensure social distancing. Additionally, we created small pods of younger students who would be together full time, along with cohorts of older students in a hybrid learning model, alternating in-person and synchronous online learning days. Our teachers and staff were empowered to find new and creative ways to collaborate safely; and continued to plan meaningful virtual events, concerts, plays, exhibitions, and celebrations for students. In sum, we revisited all aspects of teaching, learning, and life on campus and redesigned them strategically as needed. We drew on best practices from our global campuses to ensure that we were well-positioned to continue delivering a world-class education to students from preschool through grade 12.

With this extensive preparation in place, we shared an in-depth reopening plan with community members outlining policies and procedures for daily health screenings via an app, COVID-19 testing, traveling, quarantining, and much more before school began to reduce anxiety about what to expect. Baked into our plan was the reality that we needed to continue to be responsive to the changing face of the virus and the ever-evolving guidelines around it.

While prioritizing health and safety for all community members, we also prioritized the learning, emotional, and social needs of students, as well as the well-being of our faculty, staff, and parents. All in all, it takes a village to run a school under normal circumstances — amid a public health crisis, it takes a flexible, adaptable, resilient, and innovative village.

Leadership in Dynamic Times

To navigate uncertainty, as everyone has done for well over a year, school leaders must remain true to their institution’s mission and core values while also being agile enough to respond and pivot quickly.

To lead successfully in dynamic times, we must:

  • Understand our strengths and blind spots
  • Know our team members’ full capacities and skill sets, and never ask them to do something you wouldn’t do
  • Ensure consistent, transparent communication with all stakeholders
  • Constantly assess changing circumstances and guidelines
  • Be decisive and act
  • Reevaluate and adjust
  • Find silver-lining opportunities
  • Never stop innovating

With the knowledge that schools can make major changes — indeed, paradigm shifts — in short periods of time and continue to learn and innovate amid crises, educators should feel emboldened to continue pushing for ever-better ways to help students reach their full potential well beyond the pandemic.

Dr. Spahn spoke at the GESS Education Global Leadership Summit on March 24, 2021. Please click here for his talk and to learn more about The Dwight Schools.

Author: Dr. Blake Spahn, Vice Chancellor, Dwight Schools