August 13, 2020 – Schools throughout Georgia are opening for instruction – some in-person with a virtual/remote option for students, and some in a full remote or hybrid A/B model.
Understandably, there is apprehension and uncertainty from students, educators, staff, parents, and community members. Opinions and emotions are running high as families, educators, and school leaders work to navigate a landscape none of us have ever encountered or experienced.
When COVID-19 began hitting our state's educational system last March, the situation was challenging but the timing had a silver lining as we approached natural “breaks" in the school calendar – Spring Break, a testing season we were able to suspend, and the short-term wrap-up of the school year.
The start of the 2020-21 school year is just that – the start. There are going to be lasting and long-term challenges, no stopgap or summer around the corner.
District and school leaders and teachers all across the state are putting in overtime to respond to these challenges. Some districts are beginning in an all-virtual mode, with an intentional phase-in plan for in-person instruction, prioritizing students who can be disproportionately impacted by virtual learning.
Others have delayed their start dates to intensify planning, professional development, and preparation.
The vast majority of districts have selected a model that gives families a choice between in-person and online learning. And in those districts, the majority of families are opting for in-person instruction.
I have supported, and will continue to support, all of these instructional models as school leaders consult their unique communities' public health data, access to resources and connectivity, and the educational needs of their families and students.
For those offering a face-to-face option, it is important to keep the goal in mind: keeping our students and staff safe while keeping the in-person option viable. We all need to be intentional and disciplined in our decision-making. I believe it will be imperative to adhere to the following:
- Screen and monitor. If you or your child are sick or symptomatic, stay at home. See a physician and get tested.
- Sanitize. Practice good hygiene and wash your hands.
- Social distance. Whenever possible, stay at least six feet from others.
- Wear a mask. I know this has become a political issue.
Some see this as a personal choice and liberty issue, and I respect those points of view. Like many people, I find masks to be personally uncomfortable, but I wear one when I cannot maintain six feet of distance from others. We must keep the goal in mind: if this school year is to be successful, we will have to use all the available tools in our toolbox.
As educational leaders, it is also non-negotiable that we operate, in this moment, with transparency. At the school district and state level, we must all engage parents and educators in restart planning, provide options that have buy-in and support from stakeholders, continue to assess and enhance our efforts, and admit when those efforts fall short.
The vast majority of Georgia school districts are doing just that. I am aware, however, that some teachers and students in this state have felt compelled – explicitly or implicitly – to remain silent when they have concerns about their school district's safety plans. I want to state unequivocally that this is not acceptable. In every school and district in this state, teachers, staff, and students should be able to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal. Negative media reports and complaints from community members are not a reason to blame and shame – they are a reason to reflect on and refine our efforts and response. And when students and staff raise concerns, we need to be engaging with them to find viable solutions.
Likewise, school districts who are being transparent about case counts and quarantines – assisting with contact tracing efforts and clearly erring on the side of caution when identifying potentially impacted students and staff – are following the guidance they received from the state and working to safeguard the health of their students and staff.
The difficult decision to close down a section of a school or make a shift to online learning should be viewed for what it is – a district following guidelines that were put in place before school started to keep students safe.
Districts are following guidelines – for scenarios which were anticipated and put into place before a school even started -- to keep their students safe. Let us not penalize districts for their transparency.
Together, we have been preparing for this moment since March. Throughout the spring and summer, the faculty and staff of Georgia's public schools prepared and delivered millions of meals to their students, taught millions of lessons virtually, and made millions of small gestures of dedication, passion, sacrifice, and compassion that added up to show the best of who we are as Georgians.
To ensure school districts had the resources necessary to put their plans in place, the state sent millions of face coverings and other PPE to school districts – enough for all students and staff in our K-12 public schools. We released comprehensive guidance on limiting transmission and preparing for safe in-person instruction. We provided additional funds for connectivity along with federal CARES Act funds (including funds to completely replace the federally required equitable services allotments for private schools).
I have reminded local superintendents and boards of education that districts and schools have the authority to mandate masks/face coverings through their dress codes. Guidance from the Georgia Departments of Education and Public Health stresses the importance of face coverings, specifically in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained – such as buses, pickups/drop-offs, and hallway class changes.
Right now, the emotions are running high because there are no clear or easy answers – not for the medically fragile child who needs the refuge of an online learning option or for the child who is in a home environment that makes their school a place of refuge. Not for the parent of a child with a disability who desires face-to-face support or for the family without internet access or cell reception. Not for teachers who desperately want to be back in the classroom with their students but want to ensure they are there safely.
Individuals will have differences of opinion. We must work together and work through those differences. Let us not point fingers, but come together to find solutions as we face this uncertain time together.
The “public" in public education is just that – a reflection of the challenges, needs, and voices of our communities. Leaders must continue to engage with the public and build trust, buy-in, and faith in their restart efforts.
For my part, I will continue to advocate for our school districts, teachers, students, and families. I will continue to visit schools in-person, and to seek feedback from parents and students engaging in virtual/distance learning. I would never ask a teacher to enter a school building I am not willing to enter myself.
I know there will be more challenges ahead, but I believe all of Georgia can have a successful school year in whatever form and path that takes. The educational impact of the pandemic can be mitigated. But this will require that we all make sacrifices and face difficult decisions. To get through this time and make this school year a success, we as Georgians must come together as one.
Richard Woods is State School Superintendent of Georgia.