Synapse School is a private elementary and middle school located in Menlo Park, California that takes an innovative approach to education.
Rooted in social-emotional learning (SEL), Synapse’s curriculum is largely project-based and involves no grades. Instead, students engage in experiential learning through hands-on, real-world activities designed to develop core academic and social skills.
Even Synapse’s campus is unique. Located in a business park, the school is made up of four former business buildings. A warehouse that houses their “makerspace.” Artificial turf gives the students an ideal outdoor play area.
When the shelter-in-place order took effect in California last spring, Synapse’s Head of School Jim Eagen quickly mobilized and motivated a number of different committees to determine how to ensure a safe reopening come August 1st, the start of their school year.
Their reopening plan, which was a summer-long endeavor, ended up focusing on creating outdoor classrooms and enforcing social distancing, hygiene best practices, and weekly testing.
“It was obvious early on that it was better to be outside,” explained Bob Bear, Synapse’s Chief Operations Officer (COO). “We wanted to create as many outside spaces and outside classes as possible.”
In addition, better airflow decreases the chance of COVID-19 transmission. Outdoor classrooms could be spaced out in the surrounding parking lots and outdoor spaces to help keep groups apart. Staff and students were separated to reduce the number of individuals people come into contact with.
Synapse is also allowing families to choose between distance and in-person learning. Those who choose to attend class in person are split into two blocks, with one block attending school in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Everything is thoroughly cleaned after each block leaves for the day, and groups don’t share supplies.
The school partnered with Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital to provide weekly COVID-19 testing. Testing takes place every Thursday, and results are in by Saturday. If anyone tests positive, their entire cohort is quarantined according to county and health standards, after which everyone in the cohort is tested again.
Outdoor classrooms have been a common solution for schools wanting to convene safely during COVID-19, but deciding what these classrooms will look like can be an initial hurdle for schools.
Luckily for Synapse School, this choice was easy, since they were already developing the perfect structure for a different purpose.
About a year ago, Bear began his search for outdoor shade shelters to protect students from the California sun, wind and rain.
Quality was a primary concern for Bear: “It needed to be safe,” he explained. “I initially thought about putting up some of the really simple shade structures you see at softball games, but I didn’t want to have to worry about them blowing over.”
He ultimately determined that engineered fabric structures would be a high-quality and durable alternative.
A little research brought WeatherPort to Bear’s attention. He soon realized that a local swim school had been happily using WeatherPort structures for a number of years. Bear liked that WeatherPort structures were relocatable and didn’t require interior posts, which wasn’t an option for other manufacturers. He also liked that they were US-made and could be custom-designed with specific colors and branding.
Bear ended up ordering two playground shelters from WeatherPort. Fast-forward one year to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he knew just the right manufacturer for the outdoor classrooms he needed.
Synapse School worked closely with WeatherPort’s building specialists to custom-design the perfect structures for their outdoor classrooms.
The size of the structures was particularly crucial: The classrooms needed to fit roughly 10 to 12 students spaced 6 to 7 feet apart for social distancing. Bear also decided not to include side panels in the design structure to promote airflow.
WeatherPort’s building specialists ensured that Synapse’s classroom structures were designed to meet the specific wind loads in Menlo Park. They worked with Bear to determine optimal installation methods and layout for their campus.
When it came to the aesthetics, Synapse worked with an interior designer to choose a color to complement the buildings. WeatherPort was happy to be able to accommodate their specific design requests.
“I have nothing but good things to say about everyone I worked with at WeatherPort,” said Bear when looking back at the design process. “The sales people were great, and so were the engineers. Folks were very responsive too.”