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The pivot to virtual accreditation visits: creativity, continuity, and collaboration

When it became clear that in-person accreditation visits were not possible last year due to the pandemic, NEASC staff reached out to schools and learned that many still wanted to have their visit and keep moving forward. “Schools that had finished their self-studies were concerned that if they waited, their work would be out of date,” explained Jay Stroud, Director of the Commission on Independent Schools.

Schools wanted to forge ahead, and NEASC wanted to provide support and preserve continuity. So NEASC got creative...

Each of the three NEASC Commissions — Public Schools, Independent Schools, and International Education — adapted based on its members’ needs. No schools were required to hold a visit, but for those who wanted to proceed, NEASC found ways to accommodate. Over 100 virtual visits were conducted in the fall of 2020 and as of this report, 171 are planned for completion by the end of spring 2021.

Conducting meaningful visits virtually required innovation and collaboration with schools. Visitors held online meetings with school staff and stakeholders, using the online platforms now so familiar. They shared documents electronically and pre-recorded lessons. Schools in the early part of the process continued to do Reflections/Self-Studies remotely. All team meetings, meetings with stakeholders, and classroom observations have been virtual.

Observing authentic learning in the classroom proved to be a bigger challenge. For those schools with in-person classes, NEASC considered how it could be possible to gauge the learning happening in a way that felt natural. “Finding someone in the school to help you simulate the feeling of being there is important,” said Jeff Bradley, Director of the Commission on International Education. To do this, school staff can carry a tablet throughout the building to capture livestreaming video, guided by the visitor working remotely and serving as their eyes and ears. “We had a person with an iPad and headphones in the classroom. We could see them and talk with them to ask things like ‘Could you step back so I can see all the students?  Can you let me see what that student is writing?’” explained George Edwards, Chief Accreditation Officer.

Virtual visits can’t capture everything, though. Edwards explained, “The things we miss when we’re not onsite are the casual conversations and the relationships that are built during a visit with staff members and students, or with other members of the team.” Those types of interactions give another layer of insight about school climate.

Traditionally, visitors must travel to in-person meetings, so virtual visits opened participation to experienced educators who otherwise might not have been able to serve as visitors. “We were able to place people on teams that they ordinarily wouldn‘t be part of,” said Edwards. In the past, for example, NEASC would not have asked an educator from Northern Maine to serve as a visitor in Connecticut because of the burden of the travel. The ability to conduct visits remotely opens up options for visitors who can bring new ideas and new perspectives.

The shift from in-person to online helped sharpen the focus on NEASC’s mission, placing a spotlight on what is really important. When forced to rethink how to make visits work, staff prioritized the essential pieces. “I do think we are going to find ways to make the future work more like pandemic-era work — by keeping focus on quality and impact,” said Stroud. Despite all the difficulties of the past year, he said, “There are a lot of silver linings.”

Virtual Visits Q&A

Extracted from the February 9, 2021 webinar, "Reflections on Virtual Accreditation Visits"

Q: Will the Standards for the virtual visit be the same as the Standards for in-person visits?
A: The Standards do not change. The challenge is ensuring that the visiting team has access to the evidence they need, including classroom observations, for example, to build a rich understanding of the school.

Q: Are schools requested to send a video to show various practices, including Health and Safety?
A: Yes - health and safety as well as school facilities are being shown using video.

Q: What does the schedule look like?
A: The schedule looks pretty similar to an in-person visit, with interviews and even class visits. School includes video links/instructions to ensure easy access by visitors.

Q: I wonder what may happen if in a virtual meeting you need to add more information about certain areas of concern after the meeting is conducted.
A: As always, we expect that the communication channels between visitors and the school remain open for the full visit.

Q: When is it likely that onsite visits will resume? Does NEASC have any expectation that visits can resume with team members who have received the vaccine?
A: Internationally, we plan to avoid sending visitors across borders until quarantine rules are lifted, coming and going.

Q: When conducting a virtual visit, does it matter to the visiting team if the school is entirely online, entirely face-to-face, or hybrid?
A: We have held virtual visits with schools using all three methods. The biggest difference is the observation of learning, but it has been successful regardless of the current method of instuction.

Q: How can visitors observe if classes are all in-person?
A: The school can identify a person with livestream video for visitors to 'zoom into' classrooms and even ask questions in real time as the learning is happening.

Q: What are the requirements for the tours of the building/facilities? Is there a list of requirements?
A: Yes. we have a list of areas to be included on the tour. Narrated tours that are pre-recorded are fine, but a 'guided' live tour is also possible -- of both classes in action and particular sites at the school you want to see, from health/safety features to what's on the walls.
A2: The useful thing about the pre-recorded tour is that you can pick up on things you want to follow up on during the 'real' visit.  You can also request that certain areas be included in the tour based on the Self-Reflection. The pre-recorded tour is a must in getting oriented.

Q: Our team was in a similar time zone (one hour difference for me) which was helpful.  If the team is scattered that could be difficult!
A: We try to limit the time zone range between visitors and international schools. More than 3 hours will pose real challenges.

NEASC | April 2021


Photo of a virtual classroom observation

Webinar: "Reflections on Virtual Accreditation Visits"