Gillian Wallace, Kindergarten Teacher, KIPP Freedom Elementary School

In a year that we will all remember for millions of students’ attending school from their kitchen tables and bedrooms, Gillian Wallace has the honor of being one of the first KIPP NYC educators to return to teaching in person. Her Kindergarten class at KIPP Freedom Elementary School in the Bronx has been back in the classroom since December. Last week, thousands of other KIPP NYC students joined them in their joyous return to our school buildings.

In comparison to years’ past, Gillian shared that for her students:

“Remarkably a lot isn’t that different. Kids like being around each other; it’s really valuable for relationship building between kids. The social interactions on Zoom are not the same as they are in person. It was great to see how easily kids fell back into making friends with each other. They had seen each other before [remotely], but it was like watching characters on TV. But now they are seeing each other in person and they’re thinking these are really people who can be my friends. It was really awesome. There’s something so special about interacting in person.”

Gillian was understandably nervous about returning to the classroom after the disproportionate impact of COVID last spring on New York City and the communities in which she and her students reside. However, when the data became clearer in the fall about the safety of returning to school buildings for staff and students, we opened up our High School in the Bronx since our other schools are co-located with those of the NYC DOE and subject to unpredictable COVID-related closures. At our High School, at which Gillian’s kindergarteners started the year until their building opened this week, we tested staff and students for COVID over 1,500 times resulting in only six positive cases (which equates to a 0.39% positivity rate that is significantly lower than the positivity rate across any part of NYC).

Gillian noted that the low case data from the High School and KIPP NYC’s health and safety protocols made her feel comfortable about returning to the classroom:

“Seeing what was done at the High School, and seeing the precautions that we were taking in preparation, working with experts – that gave me a lot of confidence. It felt like it was going beyond what other organizations were doing to protect the health and safety of kids and adults going back into the building. I was reassured by what I saw.”

At the start of the year, it was a common concern that the youngest students would struggle with wearing masks all day. As you may have witnessed with your own students, or heard from other families, the opposite has been true. In fact, elementary students seem to have taken in stride wearing masks. Here’s what Gillian has experienced from an instructional perspective:

“In phonics, we talk about mouth shape all of the time and that’s been a challenge, but we’re figuring it out. We use picture support so kids understand the sounds that other kids are saying. Students are still able to learn. Kids buy in and they might need a reminder, but they make sure they do it right away. This is their life; this is what they know. They do better than adults are doing.”

Now that all KIPP NYC families have the opportunity to elect in-person learning for their children, Gillian has been reflecting on the partnership with her students’ families this year and how to maintain that as we transition back to a traditional school environment:

“Relationships with families, kids, and other educators have always been at the heart of teaching. Families have invited us into their homes every day to teach their kids. They are seeing what their kids are learning. There’s something really great about parents being as involved as they have been and also being able to get feedback from us frequently. Parents have been so invaluable. The partnership has been so important during this time.”