There is no clear and easy path for the start of the school year this fall. Coronavirus cases are on the rise in many US states. Several states are mandating masks and closing their bars and restaurants. Other states are back to business as usual with people moving about mask-free in any establishment they choose.
For schools across the nation, administrators are trying to find a balance between freedom and safety that can provide a somewhat smooth transition back to learning. Major decisions must be made before students can return to the classroom or back to online learning.
What are administrators discussing as the summer is coming to a close? What must be decided to ensure the safety of students as they start the 2020-2021 school year?
The first major decision about schooling this fall is whether it is preferable to return to school buildings or if it is better to use online learning. Many schools are exploring the option of using a hybrid schedule with some days of learning taking place in the school building and other days of instruction being online. Some districts are having older students learn completely online while younger students return in-person. Several districts are choosing to return to their schools for learning all five days a week
Many districts are opting to survey their community members for input on this major decision. In numerous communities, children returning to school is crucial for parents to be able to return to work. Some communities would have limited access to WiFi and technological devices that students would need to successfully learn online. Families within the same neighborhoods may be divided as to what the best solution would be.
Administrators also must keep in mind the social benefits of students getting out of the house and having genuine interactions with their peers. Teachers also enjoy working with students face-to-face and making connections that aren’t as possible in a virtual learning scenario.
Whichever option districts choose will lead to many more decisions about safety, learning, and best practices.
If students are returning to the classroom, how will they get there? The safety of students and bus drivers on busses must be taken into consideration.
Policies can be written where students from the same family share a seat. Students can be spaced out throughout the bus, but this could lead to logistical issues such as the need for more bus routes, drivers, and busses. Will masks be required on busses? If so, who will enforce this is the bus driver is concentrating on driving the bus?
Communities could ask parents to help transport students, but this could cause traffic issues that also would need resolved. Who will direct the daily student drop-off and pick-up traffic?
The transportation departments of each district obviously have their own decisions that need to be made in conjunction with the school district leaders and the citizens of their community.
Rules need to be established that will make classrooms safer. The CDC recommends keeping desks six feet apart. Administrators have to determine if this is possible in the school building and if students’ schedules need to be changed to allow more space in the classrooms.
Supplies need to be in place to keep the classrooms sanitized. How often will desks be cleaned? Will students have access to hand sanitizer? Funding for the extra supplies would need to be considered as well.
The physical act of learning will need to be discussed. Will students be able to partner up to work side-by-side on a math problem? Can groups work together to create a presentation? Students and teachers will need to know if they are expected to stay six feet apart at all times.
Each school will have to decide what limitations will be placed on common areas such as playgrounds and cafeterias. If playgrounds are to be used, how will social distancing be enforced? Sanitation measures will need to be determined by the school as well.
Cafeterias are a tough situation for administrators to deal with. If they need to socially distance the students, they might need to change the school schedule to allow for more lunch periods. The plan might also include students eating in classrooms. If this is the case, who will supervise the students? If the teachers are supervising, when will the teachers have their lunch or planning times?
District nutrition staff will have to change the menus to ensure that food can be sold and distributed to students in a safe and effective way. Perhaps more pre-packaged food will be served or fewer options will be made available.
Schools will have to make new policies involving visitors being permitted to enter the building. Plexiglass might need to be installed at the office area where visitors are greeted. Will volunteers be allowed to help out in classrooms and libraries?
Teachers will have concerns about interacting with hundreds of students on a daily basis. Some teachers are in a high-risk category and administrators need to make sure they feel safe and protected during the school day. Administrators will have to work with teachers’ unions to make sure they provide a safe work environment for everyone.
Limitations need to be put in place for extracurricular activities. For sports, how will students social distance when game play requires them to be in close proximity to one another? If a student on a team becomes ill, does the team need to quarantine or do they get to play? Do spectators have to social distance? Temperature checks might need to be mandated before practices and games. This might be needed for both student athletes and spectators. Activities and clubs that meet before and after school will also need to have rules provided that will ensure social distancing.
It is easy to see how every aspect of each school day needs to be pored over before schools begin this fall. For every decision that administrators make, there are hundreds more to be made. Many of these mandates require more manpower and supplies at a time when school funding is being decreased. Administrators have to make decisions that provide safety for everyone involved while managing within each district’s budget guidelines.
Tough decisions have to be made, and administrators have the difficult job of trying to make quality choices for their school communities. It is impossible to keep everyone happy (and 100 percent safe), but administrative teams across the nation are doing all they can in an attempt to make this unprecedented school year the best that it can be.