By Clare Sisisky, Global Education Benchmark Group
Many schools have signature or well-loved programs that immerse students in learning beyond the classrooms and school campus. Now more than ever, we know that many of the competencies developed through hands-on learning in the world are key to developing the next generation of creative thinkers and doers, ready to tackle the complex challenges we face in today’s interconnected world. Yet these programs currently pose rapidly changing risks that schools need to consider as they strive to support this kind of learning.
For the 2021-2022 school year, many schools are considering or planning for a return to off-campus experiences locally, nationally and perhaps internationally. Some schools have even run a few off-campus overnight learning experiences this summer or spring. School leaders are working to balance the quickly evolving risks related to the Delta variant of COVID-19 with the increasing desire of students and parents for a full range of learning opportunities. How can we reimagine off-campus overnight programs to maximize competency-based learning while supporting inclusive student well-being and managing risk?
Programs with Purpose
This past 18 months of the pandemic has reinforced for all educators the importance of teaching students essential competencies such as adaptability, independence and personal responsibility, as well as the ethical considerations of how individuals’ actions impact their peers and community.
The most important question for a school to ask itself when considering a return to off-campus programs is this: Are the learning objectives clear, and are they directly aligned with my school’s mission?
For many schools and students, the most meaningful ways that students concretely develop these skills are through putting them into practice during off-campus overnight programs. Individual programs can also bring to life opportunities for students to understand multiple perspectives around an issue or topic, to practice communication skills across differences, and to learn from mentors or the environment in a specific field.
The most important question for a school to ask itself when considering a return to off-campus programs is this: Are the learning objectives clear, and are they directly aligned with my school’s mission? A program that was fun and well-loved by students may no longer be worth the risk if there was limited direct opportunity for mission-based student growth.
Schools’ Plans for 2021-22
For many independent schools, these important or signature programs are very much mission-aligned and are exactly the kind of community-building, supportive and immersive learning experiences that students and parents have been craving from behind their screens.
The Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG) has been continuously tracking data around off-campus programs since January 2020. A substantial majority of the 153 schools participating in our July 2021 survey indicated they plan to return to local or domestic off-campus programs during the 2021-2022 school year.
When it comes to planning for international programs, schools are sharing that additional risks such as border closures and ethical issues such as varying access to COVID-19 vaccines globally are impacting their thinking. GEBG’s survey data indicates that a substantial majority of responding schools are planning to resume international travel programs in the spring or summer of 2022.
In addition, about 50% of schools are still discussing COVID-19 vaccination policies for off-campus overnight programs and about 30% of schools reported that they do plan to require vaccines for some or all programs, even though they will not require them for on-campus learning.
As with any serious decision involving risk-management, ensure that you bring together a group to discuss the decision from multiple angles, including those with experience teaching and learning in the field with students, as they will be likely more familiar with both the benefits and risks of this kind of program.
Throughout the summer, as school leaders map out and think through the challenges related to returning to off-campus programs at their schools, GEBG has been listening. Here’s what we’ve learned.
As with any serious decision involving risk-management, ensure that you bring together a group to discuss the decision from multiple angles, including those with experience teaching and learning in the field with students, as they will be likely more familiar with both the benefits and risks of this kind of program. These teams are making recommendations on everything from timeline adjustments to shifting the location or other logistics of long-standing programs.
The following questions to self-assess readiness and capacity can be a helpful way to further discussion and support decision making when no decision is obvious.
- Institutional capacity: Is the school as an institution prepared to return to off-campus programs, including the financial commitment for additional risk mitigation and the ongoing possibility of changing course?
- Program evaluation: Is a particular program appropriate to offer to students at this time and/or in this location?
- Risk management: Are school and program leaders identifying, assessing and mitigating major program-specific risks on an on-going basis?
- Participant preparation: Can the school adequately train and prepare faculty leaders, students and other stakeholders for the program?
- Communication: How can the school communicate effectively with different stakeholders about decisions and policies, proactively managing expectations?
School leaders do not need to make decisions about off-campus programs in isolation. Dialogue with other schools in your region and/or bring the data shared above into your school’s discussion. Discuss decisions with school counsel and insurance providers. Bring together your in-house team — medical, counseling, athletics, outdoor program, community and global education leaders — in joint conversation. The American Camp Association has a great online COVID-19 Resource Center for Camps that has many applicable materials for school overnight travel programs. And naturally independent school associations, including GEBG, offer resources as well.
Whatever you decide, you can leverage the strengths and skills you have learned from navigating this pandemic on-campus. With careful preparation, your school will be able to support students and staff in the field when our students are out learning in the world once again.
Clare Sisisky is the executive director of the Global Education Benchmark Group, a nonprofit association of around 300 schools with global education programs. GEBG offers its members resources such as a Return to Travel Self-Assessment Tool and access to live data tracking.