Dealing with COVID-19 in our schools
Most people can imagine some of the challenges businesses, organizations, and just the ordinary family have in dealing with the issues that the COVID-19 pandemic presents. The challenges are staggering. In our schools, it is no different.
This was likely the first time since the wars in the last century that schools opened with trepidation and anxiety instead of excitement. Millions of children began school virtually on the first day and would have rather been seeing their friends and meeting new ones in school. Parents were scrambling to find childcare so their child could learn virtually while the parents had to go to work.
School districts were working and planning for reopening schools in some form or fashion. Many schools have started with online education. For years, many districts tried to convince school boards to invest in a technology device for each learner, but the expense was more than was believed to be affordable. This year forced the issue. However, that presented many problems. Federal money was provided that did help districts move forward. A large amount of districts had no cyber option for students, and had to work to provide one. If they didn’t, taxpayer money was going to the for-profit cyber schools, because families would choose that instead of a public school.
A number of school systems opened with a split schedule and a virtual option. If Pennsylvania schools opened their doors for students to return face to face, they were required to offer a virtual option for families that did not feel safe sending their children back to school. The split schedule offers a face-to-face option for students at about half the normal time or less. The purpose was to have less students in a classroom and keep them socially distanced.
Pennsylvania has had numerous school districts return completely to school face-to-face. In addition, they offered a cyber-option as required by the state.
Some districts offered more choices such as face-to-face, cyber school online program, and hybrid-type learning. The Waynesboro Area School District offered such options. The hybrid is an online option in which the teacher is videoed while teaching a class to face-to-face students. That requires recording, editing, uploading, downloading, the teacher connecting with the learner, and a lot more responsibilities. The other challenges are balancing the classroom of face-to-face students and the hybrid students. Dealing with more students opting to leave face-to-face for the hybrid and those wanting to return from cyber or hybrid to the face-to-face classroom has presented difficult problems that the schools have been trying to solve. Nevertheless, the options are a good thing, but extremely tough to manage.
The other rocky roads for schools have been the budget concerns and safety. Obviously, safety is the first concern to address. If a student or staff member is identified as a confirmed case with COVID-19, the schools are cleaning walls, high touch points, spraying, and using misting machines that spray a disinfectant cloud in a large area to cover the entire room. Again, the federal government provided money to help pay for personal protective equipment and disinfectant supplies, but many districts have kept costs down over the years by keeping skeletal custodial and support crews. This presents dilemmas with getting the cleaning done in a timely manner. When identifying each confirmed COVID-19 case, school administrators are overwhelmed for many hours dealing with the issue because of contact tracing, communication, and working with the PA Department of Health. By the way, the Department of Health school representatives have been wonderful to work with!
As mentioned, the federal government has provided school districts some grant money (after an application and approval process) for cleaning supplies and technology. Nevertheless, schools are still dealing with considerable budget concerns. There are diminished revenues from unemployment and other financial support due to the adverse effects of COVID-19. The season for starting the 2021/22 school year budget begins before December 2020, so districts will be grappling with more cost cutting and belt tightening as any other business.
Schools are dealing with labor concerns with the additional expectations and demands on staff. Substitute teachers are difficult to secure. Substitutes are concerned with contracting COVID-19 for the fact they are facing so many different people in various places. Employees having taken advantage of federal programs, Family Medical Leave Act, sabbaticals, and other options in order to remain home because of the virus have all contributed to the stress on schools trying to open and stay open. Many school districts have gone virtual because they had too many staff members take advantage of such options.
Schools that went back in person this fall are in their sixth and seventh weeks of school. They are dealing with hours of phone calls with the department of health. They are trying to clean the best they can. They are trying to give kids the best education they can in light of the challenges.
There is blue sky here. With all the challenges and strife schools are facing, the children and families who depend on our schools are benefiting from the work and effort of the school board and staff. Admiral Frederick Halsey stated, “There are no great people in this world, only great challenges ordinary people rise to meet.” Hats off to our health care people, those working to provide food and other supplies, those that transport and open their doors to provide supplies and services, our public servants, and our schools rising to make things happen in a very difficult time.