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State of the School 10/9/20: Hybrid Learning Update

October 9, 2020 | Thomas Postema

Head of School Tom Postema addresses why we’re staying in our current hybrid learning phase. Covers results of a recent parent survey. And reveals that results of MAP Growth testing in the Middle School. (Spoiler alert: good news!)

Video Transcript

Greetings Mustard Seed Community,

Here we are, four weeks in already! We told you that we would revisit the phase of our hybrid model after four weeks. We’ve been carefully tracking the pandemic data this fall. The COVID transmission rate in Hudson County is about 1.2 and cases seem to be rising. We’ve also received information from you through the recent survey. Many thanks to those of you who took the time to fill it out: we’re using your responses to inform our planning.

Given what we know, we’re going to remain in our hybrid model and hold in Phase One with a few modifications. Students with particular needs may be rescheduled or re-grouped so that we can better meet their needs. We’re taking into consideration academic, social-emotional, and technology needs as we make these decisions. You’ll be notified by your child’s teacher or program director if your child will be affected.

We’re also going to update our entry protocols to make them easier and more streamlined, while still maintaining safety measures. You’ll learn more about that soon.

One thing that we heard loud and clear through the survey is that you’re grateful for this community and you see how hard teachers and administrators are working. Let me reflect back to you that we see how hard you’re working, too. We know that this pandemic can be especially hard on families. We’re extremely grateful for you and all that you’re doing to make the beginning of school successful.

  • Thank you for clearly communicating with the office when your child is sick and keeping your children home if you suspect any illness.
  • Thank you for wearing your mask and for encouraging your children to wear their masks. This is especially important now that the transmission rate is rising.
  • Thank you for banding together and purchasing air purifiers for classrooms. The air in the classroom is processed through the filter every 15-30 minutes.

I am so heartened by the way that we’ve come together as a community to keep each other safe. A quick reminder about masks: masks need to fit well, and cover the nose, mouth, and chin. If your child seems to have problems with their mask, please check with their teacher or other parents for a recommendation about a mask that seems to work well for other children. The CDC has recommended that masks have at least two layers.

We know that academic growth is top of mind for many parents. Specifically, some of you told us that you were worried about students backsliding because of distance learning last spring. In fact, nationally it was predicted that students could experience as much as a 50% slide.

Last week, students in grades four through eight who are learning on-site took the MAP Growth test, a national assessment in reading and math. MAP Growth provides teachers and administrators with accurate and actionable evidence to help target instruction for each student or groups of students. I’m thrilled to report that the results are in. Mustard Seed School students consistently performed above the national average of students who took the test in non-pandemic times. This indicates that we have not experienced a slump. Teachers will be using the data from the tests as they consider how best to serve students at this time.

We will be offering MAP again this winter to again check student progress and learning. We thought we wouldn’t be able to offer MAP remotely this year, but we have a pilot group of students working with our Middle School Learning Specialist to try MAP testing at home. Session one went well, and are looking forward to session two next week. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to offer MAP again to every student in grades four through eight no matter where we are learning this winter.

You gave us lots of other valuable feedback in the survey. Lower and Middle School parents, we know that you’ve told us that some of your students experience the workload as too much. Others feel like it isn’t enough. The directors and the teachers are continuing to refine the program to find the “just right” spot.

Parents, we know that you have questions. I’m including a few FAQs in the email that accompanied this video to answer as many as we can.

You can also expect another survey from us soon. We’re considering what school will look like during November, December, and January. We’re trying to get a feel for how many families expect to travel over the holidays and/or attend in person social gatherings. To assess the level of exposure to COVID and other communicable diseases. Cold and flu season will soon be upon us. Have you had your flu shot yet? As always, we will be weighing many factors and prioritizing health and safety as we make plans for what learning will look like in the coming months.

Please be on the lookout for the new survey and please fill it out. Your feedback is incredibly valuable in this process.

I want to end with one final thank you–I just can’t say it enough. Parents, we see your heroic efforts to support your students and care for our community. The school year is off to a great start and you are a large part of that. I’m deeply grateful.

Bye for now.


Colder Weather and Cold & Flu Season

Cold and flu season upon us, is the flu vaccine especially important this year?
Yes. The flu vaccine is especially important this year. It’s required for children under 5 and recommended for everyone. This year it may help us all to have fewer symptoms to think and screen through. 

Will every symptom require a negative COVID test before a child can return to school?
No. Not every symptom requires a negative COVID test. It is important to reach out to your child’s pediatrician to determine if your child needs to have a check up or test. There are many circumstances, however, where we need either a negative COVID test or an alternate diagnosis from your doctor after an illness.  Check the updated health protocols in the Addendum to the Parent Handbook.

How will students and teachers keep warm with the windows open for ventilation during the cold months?
Students should dress in warm clothing. The heat will remain on and the windows will be open to allow for important airflow. We live with the blessings and the challenges of an older building.  The blessings include the fact that each classroom is self-contained and the building is well-insulated. Therefore it maintains the temperature well even as it fluctuates outside.  Sometimes our giant old boiler feels challenging because when it is on it pumps out a lot of heat.  In years past, we have found that we rarely turned the heat up to full-blast and teachers often kept windows open to balance the temperature in the classroom. We anticipate that with the heat on fully, the classrooms will stay warm even with the windows open.  We’re grateful for the new air filters that help keep air clean.  And we will communicate with families if it does feel cold so that children can dress well and we can make alternative plans if needed.  But even now, it’s a good practice to send an extra layer in your child’s backpack.

Learning Experience

Can there be more challenge work? Can there be less work?
At MSS, we follow the evidence-based Responsive Classroom model. In this model, the first six weeks are critical for learning routines and procedures that set us up for better learning the rest of the year. This way of teaching that reminds us to explicitly teach and practice new routines in a new school year. And this year, the First Six Weeks has us practicing routines and ways of connecting that will support us no matter where we might be learning. We want students to know how to learn if they are on campus, or distance learning on a long or short-term basis. 

As we learn our new routines and adjust to this new way of doing school, teachers will continue to monitor and adjust workloads for students. We can’t wait to know our routines and take off more fully with our learning explorations. 

Why do students watch instructional videos even when they are on campus?
Students in Lower School and Middle School watch instructional videos in some classes when they are on campus. One reason students engage with content in this way is so that teachers can guide students in their viewing. Instructional videos are like a new type of nonfiction text. Students and teachers can work together to crack the code of utilizing instructional videos to build and challenge their understanding.

We are seeing that there are many skills and habits that students need to have activated when learning from an instructional video. Many of these skills and habits will support students in their learning and work. 

And if a child has questions, can’t recall the instructions- they can go back to the video and review. In this hybrid model, videos create equitable access for students who are in person and students who are learning remotely. Even if a student has technical difficulties at home, they will still have access to the instruction.

Is there too much screen time?
There will be more screen time during this season. Teachers are crafting lessons so that all students can access the content, whether they are on site or at home.  For distance learners this can mean more time on the screen, whether during a zoom call or watching a video.  The schedules that have been developed have built-in breaks for students so that there is time away from the screen.  And while we can’t see everyone in person, the use of screens for all learners makes sure that all students have equitable access to the same content and can stay socially connected whether they are in the classroom or at home.

What is being done for “lost instructional time”?
With smaller classes on campus and students learning from home there is less time needed for transitions, which means more time dedicated to instruction and learning.  Teachers are using frequent assessments, as well as asking for and giving students more feedback. Because of this, lessons are targeted to what students don’t know, rather than just measuring what they already know.  Small group instruction as well as check-ins allow teachers to focus instruction so that it’s more suited to an individual student’s learning.

How will you ensure that students maintain connection to each other, their teachers and the content?
Teachers are using meeting times, small groups, and partnering of students on and off campus to build the class community. Class instruction and discussions include all students. There are times when students on campus may have snack or lunch with a distance learner. Teachers are innovating with games and other class activities that include all students and checking in with both those at home and at school to help everyone feel that they belong and are a valued part of the community.

Thomas Postema

Head of School

Mr. Postema was the Head of School from Fall 2011 to Spring 2021, when he retired.

An educator for over 35 years, Mr. Postema taught math and was a school administrator at international schools in Japan and South Korea, as well as schools in the USA (New Jersey and Alaska). He taught at Mustard Seed from 1989-1991 when Mr. Cuervo and Mr. Johnson were MSS students!

As Head of School, Mr. Postema successfully led the school through the NJAIS accreditation process and the Together for Tomorrow endowment campaign, which raised over $3M to benefit MSS students. Mr. Postema loves to tell the Mustard Seed story and continues to be passionate about the mission even in his retirement.

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