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The Right Stuff for Running Schools This Fall

In mid-July, we shared with parents our plan to open the school year with in-person instruction, along with a remote option. We have been committed to in-person instruction because ample evidence suggests that it is best for learning, and because we believe that our schools are more than classrooms: they are communities–communities that flourish best in person.

Yet leading with what we believe would be merely daydreaming without the competence to put it into practice. As Kathleen Porter-Magee reflected in August, our competence at operating schools safely in a pandemic doesn’t come from a single leader or expert; it comes from the “collective competence” of all in our community. It comes from principals, operations staff, teachers, donors, parents, students.

It also comes from two guys in a purple van.

The Partnership van may not rival the Batmobile in styling, but make no mistake: George Grenier and Miguel Ramos, who spend their days zipping around New York and back and forth to Cleveland in it, pull off quiet saves every day. And they do so as part of a team of people, including Chief of Staff Kathleen Quirk, Partnership-Cleveland Superintendent Christian Dallavis, Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary Principal Molly Smith, and others, who have been meeting weekly since early July to learn, ideate, plan, and adapt so that our schools could be ready to open on schedule last week.

A look at their work this summer and fall can provide some insights into what it takes to operate schools in a pandemic.

It takes some supplies you might expect:

  • At least 2,200 disposable masks per day, with the goal of a month’s supply on hand at all times.

  • A beginning supply of 165 gallons of CDC-approved hand sanitizer–and 165 mobile sanitizer stations to put it in.
  • Over 2,000 desk shields for student desks, and over fifty plastic office partitions.
  • Large tents for outdoor education–16 and counting.

  • 700 iPads–to complement our existing supply of Chromebooks and enable every student to have a device if needed.

It also takes some resources that may seem less obvious:

  • Walkie-talkies. Given that schools have gone from one entrance in most cases to as many as five, communication is as important as the touchless thermometers staff are using at each entrance, along with screening questions, to maximize the health of our in-person communities during the school day.
  • Nine new part-time cleaning staff. When students go outside to play during the day, or have a break of 15 minutes or longer, these disinfecting specialists visit each vacant classroom to spray rooms with disinfecting mist and wipe-down high-touch surfaces.
  • Carts for teachers. Teachers of subjects such as art, music, and many middle school subjects used to have students come to their rooms but now go to them to minimize the number of encounters each student has with others during the day. So we needed more ways for teachers to move classroom materials.

But the supplies and added staff alone are only part of what George, Miguel, school operations teams, and parents too have brought to bear on making in-person education a reality. They’ve used:


  • Early in the summer, the team began wondering about how we could adapt outdoor spaces for use other than playgrounds, even in our schools where urban outdoor space is already at a premium. Fortunately, this flexible thinking got the team ordering tents before shortages began to occur–as they have with other items.

  • Until we are confident we can safely operate after-care programs, which tend to mix the cohorts that are important to keep self-contained now, our parents are adapting heroically, arranging work hours and pick-up earlier than they might have last year.
  • We’ve adapted to backorders of some items–like water bottle fillers to replace water fountains and Chromebooks for remote learners, both of which have months-long backlogs due to high nationwide demand. Families are sending students with water each day, and our tech team sprung into action to order, configure, and deploy iPads to supplement the Chromebooks we’re using for both remote learners and a handful of in-person class activities.


  • Public health guidance was updated this summer to indicate that all school nurses’ offices should have an adjoining room in which to isolate individuals who become symptomatic during the day. Finding new spaces in buildings that are in some cases over a hundred years old was a feat, but our facilities team did it.
  • They also reconfigured space in one building to create an entirely new eighth grade classroom. For Harry Potter fans, this feels a little bit like discovering No. 12 Grimmauld Place or Platform 9 ¾. With a little creativity–bordering on magic–George and Miguel make spaces appear that were previously invisible.


  • For a couple of our New York schools that have no playground space on which we can erect tents, we’re currently working with the city to safely use nearby public parks for some outdoor school activities.
  • Our vendors are crucial partners. For example, our food service providers have switched rapidly to grab and go meals, and our cleaning companies are implementing new sanitizing protocols each evening.
  • As we shared previously in a Partnership Post, community partners like South Bronx Churches and BlocPower are helping families get adequate, modest-cost internet access in some of the neighborhoods we serve.
  • Our most important partners, though, remain our parents. They are going to heroic lengths every day to help their children and their whole school communities learn. Whether it is doing their own health screenings each morning, navigating remote learning with us, or adapting with us as this new dawn of education greets us all, our parents aren’t just doing what they can to help children; they are embracing the reasons why dozens of new practices are in place.


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Mrs. Kelly’s Introductory Meeting with Kindergarten Parents.

A post shared by DominicBFanelli/MelissaAHill (@stmarkharlem) on

We can’t say enough about how mission-focused our colleagues are in these long and strange days. As George explains, Miguel Ramos went from being senior manager of all seven New York schools’ facilities to being “the Partnership first responder” in the spring. At a time when being out and about in the city was particularly challenging, Miguel continued to ensure that all seven buildings remained in good shape; delivered Chromebooks so that families did not have to wait to start remote learning; and even shuttled needed equipment to network staff.

And while Labor Day is supposed to be a break from–well–labor, both George and Miguel, along with the cleaning staff of all our New York buildings, spent the holiday before school started in a day-long training to ensure sanitizing occurred without a hitch from Day 1.

Miguel Ramos trains facilities personnel on Labor Day.

Beginning that first day of school–and continuing for the foreseeable future–every main office staff member in our network has stepped into new roles, guiding the screening process for students each morning and managing many of the other routines crucial for keeping schools safely open. They’ve bravely and flexibly taken on these new tasks.

Staff at St. Athanasius-Bronx train to do temperature checks.

Schools and networks like ours have nimbly, safely opened in person, even as 17 of the twenty largest school systems in the country have not, because of the tireless, resourceful efforts of individuals like George, Miguel, and so many others in our network. It is thanks to them that we can say: have a great second week of school.