Since August, the students of KIPP East Community Primary, like all public school students in New Orleans, were learning online. As of September 21st, they were able to return to class in person (with the option to continue virtual learning, if their families so choose).

Jenny Dennis Carey, the principal of KIPP East, is proud of the fact that, even in these distanced times, her community still feels close-knit.

“One of our guiding principles is that we partner with families and the community, and our partnership with families is stronger than ever before,” she says. “We are literally in our families’ living rooms, and seeing aunts, and uncles, and moms, and dads helping manage class.”

Her family is a KIPP East family, too—her son, Eddie, is a KIPP East second grader. When class was all-virtual, she could glimpse what Eddie’s class was up to through his computer, a few feet away.

“We create a loving, structured, and safe environment for our students, whether in person or online. I basically sat in Eddie’s classroom all day while we were online, and I see the amount of love and warmth and relationships that our teachers have been able to pull off with their kids,” she says. “That’s part of school. That’s the community. Our team has done an amazing job of making that happen.”

To facilitate off-campus learning, KIPP East made sure its students had the technology they needed to connect, like laptops for each child (for “one to one” computing) and WiFi hotspots. KIPP East also distributed non-technological resources. Students got books and hand-held whiteboards with dry-erase markers to work with.

“The one-to-one technology is a big deal and very important, but it was also very important that if our fourth graders are reading Love That Dog, they need to have Love That Dog in their living room,” explains Ms. Dennis Carey.

After NOLA-PS announced that school could resume in person for elementary school students, KIPP East’s families got the choice to keep the living room as their child’s classroom, or move them back to campus. The KIPP East staff called every single family to talk it through. Each teacher reached out to a small group that they had been in touch with regularly throughout the pandemic.

“Some families said they really love what was happening virtually and they want to stay. And some said, ‘no, it’s best for my family for my child to be out of the home—I have to go back to work,’” Ms. Dennis Carey explains. “Families have a lot of really thoughtful questions, and so we worked to make both models really high-quality.”

For students that returned to campus, KIPP East has followed strict procedures to keep children, school staff, and families safe. Schools citywide are doing the same. Students in grades PreK-4 citywide have been able to return to school since late September, and middle and high schools are slated for a “hybrid” in-person and online model in the weeks to come. All NOLA-PS schools are following both the regulations laid out in the Louisiana Department of Education’s Strong Start 2020 guidance and NOLA-PS’s Roadmap to Reopening, which outline important information like how many students can be in a classroom at a given time, and what hygiene protocols to use.

KIPP East is following those strict procedures to keep children, school staff, and families safe. Ms. Dennis Carey is confident that these safety procedures have not removed the warmth of KIPP East’s classroom culture.

“We’re still going to be telling jokes and reading fun stories and being silly. It’s not going to be cold and nerve wracking,” Ms. Dennis Carey says. “It’s still going to be an awesomely loving, happy, and positive teacher working with kiddos—who, yeah, are in a room a bit apart—but it’s not going to feel as cold as a lot of people believe. You’re still giving kids the opportunity to voice their opinions, and share, and collaboratively work together.”

Since the start of this pandemic, educators across New Orleans, like those at KIPP East, have been determined to make school in painful times remain joyful. They have done so, valiantly, in an online setting, and now they slowly are rolling out safe, welcoming in-person classrooms. Throughout this process, Ms. Dennis Carey believes the relationships at the foundation of KIPP East have kept it strong. “That’s part of our school. That’s the community,” she says.

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