Ms. Mary Haynes-Smith, the veteran principal of Mary McLeod Bethune Charter Elementary School, is proud of how her community has weathered these difficult times.

“I’m proud of the staff, I’m proud of the students, I’m proud of the parents—if I had to pick one group I was proudest of, I’d put them all together, like a gumbo,” she said.

School closures back in March brought abrupt change to the Bethune community.

“Back in March, when we were thrown out, it reminded me of being thrown out with Katrina. Our teachers weren’t given an opportunity to prepare,” she explained.

But the Bethune team leapt into action. They prepared packets, learned how to teach virtually using Google Classroom and Zoom, and innovated around engaging their students from afar. Now that students can return to the classroom in-person, Bethune is innovating again, creating a warm environment, even if they must be socially distant.

Pre-K through 4th grade students in New Orleans Public Schools (NOLA-PS) were able to be back on campus in September, and Bethune’s older students began returning on October 12th. Even though in-person learning is an option, all NOLA-PS families can choose whether or not their child will learn in-person or virtually. In the first few weeks of Bethune’s reopening, about 60% of PreK-4 students had chosen to be at school, and 40% were learning from home.

Bethune is committed to its students’ safety. Whether on-campus learners arrive by bus or car, their temperature is taken right away. (Bus-riders also get their temperature taken before they get on the bus.) They pick up their breakfast when they enter the building, then head to their classrooms, where they wash their hands.

Students eat in their classrooms, spread out from their peers and with clear plastic shields on either side of them. When they finish eating, they wash their hands again. And any time they are not eating, they wear their masks.

From these early-morning logistics to the lessons that come next, Bethune’s team has things running smoothly. When class begins, the teacher teaches their lesson to in-person and virtual learners, simultaneously.

“The teacher will teach the whole class, and then she has an assignment—and the kids that are in person do the assignment, and then she turns to the kids on Zoom to make sure they are doing the assignment, too. Every grade level also has an assistant to help them with distance learning,” Haynes-Smith explains.

Haynes-Smith feels that, even with school operating so differently than before, students are happy. The children cannot be close to one another, but they are supporting each other and building social connections. Bethune is supporting and celebrating them, too.

“My administrative team and I went to every class…and gave certificates to the new students at the school that say ‘Welcome to Bethune Elementary,’ and I had the class clap for them, so those kids felt very welcome,” she said.

And she believes their environment remains warm and loving, just as it has always been.

“You walk into these doors, and you know it’s about the children. Our purpose and everything we do, we do it for the children,” she explained.

She and her team make that clear, not just in the strong academics and safe environment they create, but also in the empowering rituals they build into each day.

In previous years, Bethune’s students sang “Something Inside So Strong,” by Labi Siffre, all together each morning. Now that COVID-19 prohibits them from gathering together and singing all as one, Haynes-Smith is planning to play the song over the loudspeaker.

“I don’t want them to forget that song, or the lyrics: ‘The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become…there’s something inside so strong. I know I’m going to make it.’”

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