When we shut down for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year last April 1st, choosing to continue with remote meet-ups only, we knew that we had to begin preparations for coming back together in very different ways in the 2020-2021 academic year. We also had to prepare for the possibility of not being able to physically come together this coming year if broader society didn’t come together and engage in practices such as masking and social distancing to protect each other and bring the pandemic under control. Today we begin our 2020-2021 academic year journey in-person, and we will indeed be together in different ways than we had been in the years past.

After spending countless hours poring over medical research, medical opinions, public health guidance, education guidance, state directives, and news articles about Covid-19; as well as talking to dozens of educators and a handful of public health officials; we decided that we were going to take Abrome outdoors for the coming academic year. We will do so in small groups of 4-7 Learners each, in physically distant locations, in cycles of three-weeks on (in-person) and one-week off (not meeting), while wearing masks, social distancing, and using safe hygiene practices.

Each summer we invest in Facilitator training, usually sending Facilitators across the country to train with other Self-Directed Education professionals, so that we can best support the Learners in the Abrome space. This summer we knew we were going to have to change it up so that we could be prepared to support our Learners as we left the Abrome facility behind, during a pandemic, during economic and social turmoil, and as we potentially enter into a period of political unrest.

After our (remote) academic year ended on July 10th, we took a week off. The Facilitators scheduled weekly meetings that allowed us to review the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead. Through these meetings we were able to brainstorm and plan how we would communicate with each other while we were physically separated for weeks at a time, how we would manage growth, how we could better prepare ourselves to support Learners while outdoors, what training we would need, and what supplies we would need. These meetings allowed us to make consistent progress each week in anticipation of today.

Fire making

Jennifer practicing starting fires

In mid-July we began practicing being outdoors. We started with one hour a day outdoors and slowly increased that to an average of six hours a day over six weeks in order to prepare for a potential late heat wave this September. Fortunately it doesn’t seem as though there will be a late heat wave this year. In August Facilitator received training from local firefighters and became First Aid and CPR certified. The Facilitators then spent three 8-hour days at local parks with Natureversity (a local nature school) learning about and developing our outdoor facilitation skills. And then in late August the Facilitators came together with some Learners to practice being outdoors at two different parks to identify potential challenges that we may not have been aware of.

Antonio’s gear and supplies for the first day back at Abrome

Antonio’s gear and supplies for the first day back at Abrome

We also continued to talk to other educators to learn about what they were doing to prepare for the coming year (and to encourage them to leave the schoolhouse behind). We received some great advice on heading outdoors from Rivers & Roads ALC in Oklahoma City and from our Flying Squads collaborators that we were able to directly apply to our preparations. And while no conventional schools seemed to follow our advice on how to safely come together this coming academic year, some Self-Directed Education communities and progressive schools did. We were thrilled to receive messages of thanks from communities who copied portions of our contingency planning document, and we hope that there are others out there who have not. Two of those communities ended up creating plans that we then took pieces of to strengthen our plans! Thank you ALC-NYC and The Children’s Community.

We know that there are going to be growing pains as we come back together in new ways, and as we try to welcome in new Learners and a new Facilitator. We know that supporting the Learners who are going to check in with us remotely while we are in the outdoors is also going to pose some challenges. But as I was telling Facilitator Jennifer yesterday, I am surprised at how little anxiety I have about today. The planning that went into today was substantial, and we are agile enough that we can handle any curveballs that come our way.