Houston Sudbury School’s Response to the In-person School Debate

TLDR: We want and need to open for in-person school, but are not opening until at least Oct 5 and only if Harris County achieves at least COVID “Threat Level 2", and our entire community has had a say in the decisions regarding re-opening. (see our COVID plan here).

In recent days, during a huge surge in COVID-19 cases here in Houston, the debate over opening for in-person school this fall has polarized families nationwide. On one hand, there are families who rely on school to be able to work, families whose children are suffering emotionally and need to return to some normalcy, and families who feel the coronavirus pandemic is not as severe as described by scientists. Then there are families who consider opening schools during this pandemic to be a hugely unnecessary and very risky decision that will cause avoidable deaths and further endanger everyone. There are families who have the ability and desire to keep their children home and their kids are fine there. Added to these very personal decisions, are the demands of state and federal government leaders that schools open no matter what, which only places more pressure on the entire situation, no matter what your opinion of opening in-person school may be.

One viewpoint left out of these discussions is that not all schools are the same. The challenges and risks of opening a large public school are not the same as the challenges and risks facing a tiny Sudbury school like Houston Sudbury School. The process of making these decisions is not the same in a large urban school district or even in traditional private schools as it is for democratically-run Houston Sudbury School

Staff at HSS often spend time helping the public to redefine their ideas of what a “school” can be and to see the value in how our school has cast off the traditional school model. We now add to that discussion the ways our school will respond to COVID-19 and how HSS will determine when and how to open. Our independence from the status quo of education is highlighted even more in this time.

How our school culture affects our decisions in the time of COVID:

  1. HSS is small. It is very small compared to a large public or private school. When HSS closed in March, it had 30 students enrolled (ages 6-18), two full-time staff, and three part-time staff. It is common, given HSS's attendance policy to have fewer than 25 people on campus on any given day. Managing risk in a very small community is significantly different than in a school with hundreds or thousands of children and adults. The anticipated enrollment for Fall 2020 is even less at about 20 students, many of whom are in sibling groups.

  2. HSS is a mixed age community. Students at HSS range from age 6-18 and mix freely. This creates a culture where older children nurture and teach younger children and younger children look up to and emulate older children. A single teacher attempting to manage a large classroom of 11-year-olds and attempting to enforce masks or social distancing is very different than a culture where all the children encourage each other to follow rules and keep each other safe.

  3. Students are at HSS voluntarily. This means that they can opt out with no repercussions. Families may delay starting, may start at any time in the year, or just take the year off with no negative consequences (except for being missed). Even staff work largely voluntarily, given that several work for no pay.

  4. The HSS attendance policy is lenient. The normal attendance policy at HSS is already much more flexible than any other public or private school. In the time of COVID-19, HSS is offering even greater flexibility to students to miss school as needed in order to manage the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

  5. HSS is a non-profit private school supported only by tuition. HSS receives no funding from the federal or state government, nor from corporations. There is no Sudbury association that financially supports member schools. HSS is funded solely by the tuition paid for students to attend. Threats to “defund” schools that do not comply with opening in-person are meaningless to HSS, as long as it has families willing and able to continue to pay tuition. (Although this is a double-edged sword, as discussed further in #3 below).

  6. There is buy-in from the HSS community. Because the community makes the decisions, and especially students and staff have real power in effecting these decisions, there is buy-in from the community to take measures, like wearing masks, that might be resisted in a more authoritarian culture. HSS students have been and will be included in all the decisions that affect their experience at HSS. Our young people have a tremendous capacity to understand situations and to take on the responsibility of doing what needs to be done to keep the school open and keep the school community safe, no matter what the issue is, and it has been no different in the time of COVID. In addition, the larger HSS community is also committed to keeping each other safe (see #1 above) when the school opens.

  7. HSS is flexible. Because decisions are made on an ongoing basis by the community, HSS can continue to be flexible and responsive to changes in the COVID-19 situation, to new science as it evolves, and to the needs of our community. The decisions made now can change if needed and can be a true reflection of the needs of the community and current events. The HSS community does not discount or invalidate the concerns of meeting in-person during a pandemic. Plans are in place to keep everyone as safe as possible, to deal with cases of COVID popping up in our community, to cover staff if needed, and to shut down again if needed, but this will only apply if Houston area cases are declining so that meeting in-person is less risky than it currently is. The reality we are living in is one everyone in the community is aware of and prepared to deal with and remain flexible around.

  8. Students and staff move around freely. No one at HSS will be forced to sit together in a room all day. Students and staff can and do move around, go outside, and have space to spread out as needed. There is space for very small groups to be together and space for people to be alone. There are no packed hallways, bathrooms, or classrooms. No one is forced to breathe each other's air all day. Going outside will be even more important in the upcoming year and is something everyone will be encouraged to do. If a student wanted to stay outside all day, they could. Everyone at HSS is free to (and asked to) wash hands many many times, they do not eat all together in one communal space (everyone eats at different times throughout the day), and students already arrive in a staggered way from 8am-10am. Students can also come in for shorter days if desired, reducing their potential exposure.

  9. Since the curriculum at HSS is Life, no one is getting behind. Starting late, starting mid-year, missing days of school, etc are not sources of stress due to “getting behind.” Learning at HSS comes naturally and takes place through interests, passions, playing, talking, and living life. Our students will continue to learn no matter what and will never be “behind.”

  10. Attending HSS in person is good for kids’ mental health. Unlike traditional schools, where children are leaving a potentially more free environment (home) for an oppressive and demanding environment, students at HSS are returning to a school where they are empowered, respected, included, and free to pursue self-directed learning and life. The risk/reward of sending children back to the stress of traditional school, where restrictions are compounded by COVID-19, is questionable. Some kids are definitely happier and safer at home compared to traditional school. The claim has been made that children are suffering at home and must return to school. We would argue that children suffer even more in most traditional school environments. What children need (and what they are missing by being at home) is other children and the time and freedom to play and interact. Traditional school provides little chance to interact freely, and even less so during COVID. At HSS, students experience real empowerment, freedom, and respect in a community of children. The health risk of sending students back to HSS might arguably be worth it for the reward of having children in an environment that supports their mental and emotional health, rather than damages it.

  11. HSS’s foundational philosophy is respect, equality, freedom, and regard for each other and the community. This means that everyone in the community cares about the community and treats each other with respect and love. Opinions are listened to and considered. Healthy debate is encouraged. Compromises are not a failure, but a sign of working together to make the school work for all. This culture fosters more openness and more logical decisions.

On the other side of this discussion, there are also aspects of our school that make opening in-person more even more challenging for HSS.

  1. Online school will not work for HSS. Unlike traditional schools, transitioning to online school doesn’t work for HSS. The interrupted spring semester included regular zoom meetings of the School Meeting and the Art Corporation, a few all-community zoom meetings, and students playing/talking together online, but this was a short term solution. The school will not work as an online school in the long term. HSS does not require discrete academic courses that can be taught online. Students and staff find interacting remotely draining and unfulfilling for the most part. In-person school of some sort is what makes our school work for the kids.

  2. Talking and playing with each other is key to the HSS culture. Unlike a traditional school, HSS students spend significant time talking and playing together. These relationships are at the heart of our community. Our school would not work if students and staff were restricted from talking and playing. The challenge to HSS is to find ways to allow this but to reduce the risk (masks, air filters, moving around, and physically distancing).

  3. Financially, if we can’t hold in-person school by January, HSS cannot stay open long-term, unless we were to raise money to cover expenses. (see #5 above). Since HSS receives no funding other than tuition, and families will not pay tuition if their children can’t attend, the school will close if in-person school can’t happen. HSS is a grassroots project and a small business that relies on our “customers” being able to attend. As it stands, two HSS staff forego any pay in order to keep the school open. A third staff member is paid a minimal salary. Tuition funds mainly go to pay for rent, insurance (which are major monthly expenses), and the minimal costs of keeping the doors open. About half of HSS families are on Tuition Assistance and most of those are paying the minimum tuition. As the Houston economy continues to be damaged by the virus, and parents lose jobs or are unable to work, more of our committed families are finding they cannot pay tuition or must pay less. HSS has received no PPP funds (although we applied) and has no large donors. If HSS cannot open for in-person school by January 2021, without at least 20 students paying tuition of some sort, it will most likely close permanently.

HSS will continue to make decisions about opening in-person based on the best recommendations of local health officials, science, and safeguarding lives. The built-in procedures of HSS automatically involve the community in these decisions. HSS is committed to the mission of freedom + responsibility for children, to keeping the school functional and healthy, and to providing what we consider the most respectful learning environment for children, but none of that is worth the price of even one life lost.

HSS will not be "normal" for quite a while and may not survive this latest challenge, but we have been challenged before and have been able to rebound even stronger. Founding families and staff are confident that we will make it through this time, but we need help. If you would like to help financially (donations are tax deductible), please consider supporting the school so that we can remain open, even if we cannot meet in person. HSS offers something extremely unique to Houston area families and will continue to do so safely and for as long as possible.

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