group of sudents sitting outside at the new roots charter school cayuga wetlands restoration project

New Roots Charter School lessons learned during the 1st month of welcoming students back to school

After 6 months of closure due to COVID-19, New Roots Charter School opened the doors of the Clinton House right on schedule on September 9, 2020. Students attend in person classes two full days and one half day per week, following the same schedule on alternating days remotely.  Students who have chosen entirely remote instruction due to medical needs and other factors attend the in-person classes remotely via live streaming.

After four weeks, there have been no cases of COVID-19 reported at the school.

The New Roots teacher leadership team planned extensively for supporting students in learning and understanding the scientific, social and emotional reasons for the new safety protocols.  This has resulted in 100% compliance, not in response to new rules and mandates, but in the spirit that truly reflects the New Roots Commitment to Respect Yourself, Respect Others, and Respect Our Environment.

Lessons learned from the first month of school at New Roots include:

  • COVID-19 protection is manageable in a small community like New Roots where students understand that protecting themselves means protecting their friends, teachers, mentors and families, and that procedures are meant to be followed 100% of the time.
  • COVID-19 management is a multi-layered defense. The New Roots defense system includes pre-screening, daily temperature checks for all students and staff, wearing masks, small class sizes with physical distancing, hand washing and sanitizing at regular intervals, cleaning work areas at every transition, air filtration, and strict protocols for managing any signs of illness in students or staff. 
  • There are silver linings to COVID-19:  more flexible scheduling allows time for outdoor learning and innovative digital programming.

Outdoor electives on Fridays serve as a great example of how New Roots is finding the silver lining in the current circumstances.  The school is offering courses such as Sustainable Entrepreneurship, Green Economy, The Science of Ecological Restoration, Philosophy and Nature, and Local History Walks in the first quarter.  “Community-based fieldwork has always been the hallmark of a New Roots education,” Nilsen-Hodges said. “We designed our schedule to take advantage of greater flexibility to integrate more of these experiences for all students this fall.”

“Our biggest challenge was determining how to create opportunities for students to participate in on-site classes via livestream.  It’s truly amazing how quickly staff and students have adapted, learning to use technology to integrate remote learners into the culture and activity of the classroom. Now even students who need to stay home for a few days can attend class remotely while they are out — what an unexpected benefit!” said Tina Nilsen-Hodges, Principal/Founder.

Originally the plan was to separate cohorts within the school by floor, and quickly discovered that choreographing movement between classes would allow more flexibility, giving students access to a wider range of classes and more of a sense of normalcy than restricting them to smaller areas as originally planned.  “We’ve got a beautiful dance going between each period, coordinated by our Dean of Students Jhakeem Haltom,” said Nilsen-Hodges.

Being flexible and responsive to change is built into the New Roots organizational DNA as an essential aspect of educating for sustainability in these rapidly-changing times.  The pandemic has provided a great opportunity to walk the talk, resulting in a powerful educational experience for staff and students alike.

“We will continue to make good use of the unique learning opportunities that this year offers us, in the spirit of inspiring our students to learn actively, think critically, solve problems creatively and collaboratively, developing the knowledge and skills necessary to redesign our communities for social, economic and ecological sustainability,” said Nilsen-Hodges.

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For more information, contact Michael Mazza, director of community engagement at New Roots Charter School, at