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Building Barriers—and Breaking Them Down

So far—at nine schools in two cities—our schools have safely conducted in-person learning for fourteen weeks, with no evidence of in-school transmission and with infection rates far below the community. What has made each of these vital, precious learning days possible? Among other things:

  • Vigilant mitigation protocols, such as universal mask-wearing, improved classroom ventilation, and frequent cleaning and sanitizing;
  • Strong partnerships with parents, faculty and staff focused on frequent, clear, and transparent communication, particularly in the event of a positive COVID case or close-contact within the community;
  • Consistent implementation of proactive health and safety protocols that help us isolate positive cases and close contacts whenever necessary;
  • And this masked man.

Through the fall, families witnessed how smoothly learning was happening in our schools, and more parents clamored to switch from remote learning to attending school in person. In order to accommodate these families’ needs within the CDC guidelines, and to offer as many students in-person instruction as possible, we knew we needed to supplement the desk shields already in place with barriers between students’ desks in some classrooms.

Lots of them.

That’s just one of the many reasons we are thankful to work with George Grenier, Director of Facilities. An inveterate problem-solver who embraces the social justice mission of our schools, he’s been tailoring solutions to our diverse buildings—some over a hundred years old—since well before the pandemic.

George didn’t just throw together something, MacGyvering a temporary solution. Upon seeing a suburban school’s barriers with plain PVC and shower curtains, his response was “Ach—that’s—we can do better.” So he looked at models and materials; built prototypes; and tested arrangements in an empty classroom, Zooming with principals and others to get feedback and make modifications. He even found furniture-grade PVC in a blue that matched the chairs our schools use, because he wanted them to look as nice as possible for the kids. And he equipped them with interchangeable legs in three different heights, so they would be appropriate for students of different ages and could be swapped out as needed by schools.

Then—in his garage, in just a few weeks’ time, he built over 240 of them, constructing them so that schools could assemble them easily on site. Assisted by colleague Miguel Ramos and a friend who builds Broadway sets when there’s not a pandemic on, he transformed a truckload of acrylic sheets and pallets full of PVC into a way for more kids to learn in person.

And the students understand the significance of his work. This past week, George was checking on one of our facilities when he popped his head in a classroom. Principal Liz Nuzzolese, who was in the room at the time, explained to students that he’d built the barriers now in use, and a small hand shot up from the back of the room. “Thank you,” a boy said. “If it wasn’t for the dividers, I’d still be learning remotely.”

Our principals too see George’s work as deeply significant. St. Athanasius Principal Jessica Aybar explains: “Putting physical barriers up helped us take down some of the educational barriers. Some of the kids who came back really needed to; parents knew how much their kids needed to be back in the classroom; and without the barriers, it wouldn’t happen.”

Plus, she added, “with masks on, through the barriers, kids can collaborate more than they could at a distance, without compromising their safety. They can do turn-and-talks. The classrooms that have barriers just feel more—normal.

George even drove a shipment of them himself from New York to Cleveland, just as travel restrictions meant he could only spend 24 hours in Ohio. “I took a picture of myself at the border at 2 p.m., went to one school and worked with their facilities team to assemble them, made it to the other school in the morning, worked with them, and then took another picture of myself at the Pennsylvania state line at 1:30.”

As minister and author Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That third grader’s deep hunger to learn with his classmates in person is shared by so many others, and it is met by the joy George Grenier takes in making solutions happen. And for that, we are all deeply glad.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Affairs for Partnership Schools.