Recently, the Savannah Chatham County Public School board of education members held a workshop to hear and discuss information presented by staff regarding reopening schools. It was an insightful session, chock full of questions and suggestions. The thought exchange will continue this week as board members hear about other components of district operations affected by current public health recommendations. We can expect robust discussions about the challenges, opportunities, considerations and lessons learned regarding operating schools during a pandemic. There are hundreds of questions to be answered prior to the adopted school year start date. The initial workshop demonstrated the board members’ and staff’s awareness of the need to adapt and plan for challenges that no one can fully envision given rapidly changing public health conditions.
School boards and district administrators, tasked with creating plans for reopening schools, will – in coordination with health officials – make the final determinations of when and how schools reopen. The public health conditions and health of our staff and students are major forces in making these decisions. The idea of returning to a traditional school format presents significant obstacles given all the unknowns facing our community at this time. We know for certain that we are in for an unusual 2020–2021 school year. Until there is broad availability of vaccines and/or successful treatment solutions for COVID-19, we may face future disruptions to schooling. There is no getting back to “normal” for now. Schools are human enterprises where practices like group work, in-person instruction, meals in the cafeteria, assemblies, science labs, hugs, team sports, and sharing are the norm. They are places where loud laughter and playing with friends are observable signs of children growing up. Beyond academics, schools provide social support for children and reliable childcare, without which many parents could not work.
Our priority is health and safety. Current recommended health practices should help us avoid yet another public health risk. Taking temperatures, hand washing, social distancing, smaller classes, modified classroom spaces and schedules, and other practices which minimize transmission will be considered. Policies on attendance, grading, building access, extra-curricular activities and other areas must be examined for appropriate adjustments. Maintaining budgets to accommodate the increased costs associated with new health standards, staffing, and learning options will be an ongoing exercise. Modified transportation capacity limits and meal service demands are also part of this operational complexity. A robust communication program for students, staff, and families is essential for understanding the new norms, expectations, and practices.
Creating an effective reopening plan will take time and patience. The school board and administration will have the benefit of a small task force of diverse individuals to offer suggestions and feedback while developing the best reopening plan possible. Whatever the plan, it will not be a perfect fit for every individual, but it will address our new uncertain reality. We must adapt as needed. We encourage all to unpack their patience and compassion as we approach this new era of schooling during a pandemic.