"They consider themselves a school with an on-site hospital, while we consider ourselves a hospital with an on-site school," says Klein, M.D., M.H.S.A., FAAP, FAAHPM, executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief medical officer, Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, New York. "It's sort of like a Reese's peanut butter cup."
This partnership has provided education for thousands of medically complex patients over the last 50 years; Klein credits the bond's strength in enabling MPBS to remain open for in-person instruction for these students throughout the 2020-2021 school year.
Best practices—along with constant communication between MPBS, Blythedale staff and patient families—resulted in a full school year of continuous, in-person education for more than 200 medically complex students and 54 teachers with very few positive cases and no closures due to COVID-19 exposure. "A lot of planning went into this," says Emily Hersh, Ed.D., superintendent, Mt. Pleasant-Blythedale Union Free School District. "But the bottom line is, we've made it through because we have an on-site medical facility that takes care of us."
European data, local expertise inform processes
Reopening the school—and keeping it open—after statewide COVID-19-driven school shutdowns in March 2020 required some heavy lifting. Like most school districts across the country, MPBS used remote learning options initially.
But given the special daily medical and rehabilitative services required by its students, Klein and his team considered it important to reconvene in-person schooling as soon as possible.
MPBS administrators, in conjunction with Blythedale leadership, worked closely with the New York State Department of Education to not only demonstrate its needs but also the stringent safety and security protocols planned to make the school safe for students and staff
Klein says they leveraged practices proven effective in keeping European schools in session, but the school also had an advantage with the expertise already on its campus.
"Where the hospital made the difference for the school was in all the planning, screening, spacing and room design informed by medical and nursing staff who were used to figuring out how to keep the hospital safe," Klein says. "We applied those same skills and techniques to keeping the school safe."
Strict safety and security guidelines yield dividends
The protocols MPBS implemented upon reopening in July 2020 included many of the same best practices other schools around the country would eventually employ social distancing and masking, enhanced cleaning of classrooms and continuous screening of students and staff.
It also instituted hybrid scheduling, but with a twist—unlike some school districts that split students into groups with different days on campus, MPBS used an AM/PM model with most students attending every day for a few hours.
Patient families key to success
While the strong partnership between MPBS and Blythedale made it possible for the school to provide in-person learning through the pandemic, Klein and Hersh agree another group deserves much credit for this success—through their strict adherence to safety protocols.
"Our parents understand the school and the stakes involved," Klein says. "No parent wanted to put their child at risk, nor did they want to run the risk of putting any other children at risk. That helped tremendously."
Social benefits crucial to improved medical outcomes
The importance of in-person schooling for this patient population was always a driving factor for the efforts required to pull it off—Klein cites the hospital's view of "development as a medical issue." The fruits of those efforts are on display every day.
"We provide a sense of normalcy for our children when life is so chaotic," Hersh says. "Often their primary goal is to heal and get better, but we give them the outlet for just being a kid."
"That's always been the joy of having the school here—they're here with their friends, and they're happy and doing all the things kids do," Klein says. "Those are the reasons we pushed to remain in person, and it's something that is really important to us as a partnership."