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  • Writer's pictureKelly E. Middleton

The School Reopening Dilemma

This is the fourth piece in a series of posts on customer service for public schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. To see all posts on this topic, click here.

It seems like only yesterday we breathed a collective sigh of relief that school was over for the year and that we had made it through the gauntlet of Covid-19 school disruption. But here we are in late July and the next school year is right around the corner. With recent news about an Arizona teacher who passed from the disease earlier this month, many school districts and state officials are wondering what the right course of action is for the fall.

As of right now, states are allowing schools to reopen sometime in August for in-person classes. Though, most are considering at least the option of having online learning for the 2020-2021 school year. Some states, like California, are still deciding what they will do.

Because each state and school district has different needs and is in a different stage of outbreak from the pandemic, plans for educating students for the upcoming year vary greatly. It's a relief that, at this point, there is no federal mandate on how learning is to resume. But, we're already seeing conflict between local government and school employees over reopening in Florida. States like Texas, Arizona and California, which are currently facing severe outbreaks, won't benefit from the same plan as states with lower infection numbers or more rural populations. So nationwide, school districts have to weigh many local, regional and national factors in making their decisions.

Looking at the upcoming school year through the customer service lens, school leaders should consider what is best for the students and their families. It is quite a dilemma. On one hand, in-person learning represents a return to normalcy and structure that many students crave. Getting back to socialization with peers would be a huge boost to morale and psychological well-being for students. Teachers and school staff would also go back to their routines, which many prefer over managing remote learning.

On the other hand, some schools have reported that remote learning has gone well and even some students doing better learning from home, though many have ruled it a failure. Still, the trade-off of keeping students, their families and the community safe cannot be understated.

It may be that hybrid learning, a combination of in-person and remote learning, will be the answer for most schools, but there are a lot of factors to consider when making that decision. Especially important is acknowledging those students and staff who are at high risk due to existing medical conditions. How can they be fairly included in the schooling decisions? Offering both students and teachers the option for remote learning may help meet their needs.

We would expect that for schools that do open in-person learning, there will be some hard decisions on when to close school completely, should the number of local infections spike. Those will be some tough conversations and the disruption to the students' education if the school continuously closes and reopens all year could be worse than simply keeping students home. We simply won't know what's best until we are in that moment or maybe not until afterward. Keeping students home certainly creates childcare challenges for parents and families. How long do we think our students can stay socially isolated from their peers before we see negative behavioral or psychological consequences?

Another challenge school leaders face is how to respond to information about Covid-19. With sources giving different suggestions, it can be hard to know who to listen to: public health, the CDC, the President, local government, reports from other countries? The public is divided on issues like wearing masks, maintaining distance and interpersonal contact, so no matter what course of action schools take, it surely won't sit well with some of the community. In cases like this, whether we are talking about the pandemic or any other damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't scenario, I advise school leaders to reflect on what would be the best for the safety and wellbeing of the students. Go with that decision, then share the news with the school community, being sure to emphasize that the decision was made in the students' best interest. I've found that even when we are wrong, when we make decisions that we truly believe will benefit the students, we are more likely to be forgiven by the public.

Similarly, we cannot let politics drive our decision-making. In a previous post, I mentioned that politics can influence school rumors and it's best to keep politics out of any rationale. Supporting an idea or rule because of a political loyalty not only sets us up for public scrutiny, but it undermines what we were hired to do: serve our students. Whether it's the Washington politicians or the local officials, blindly following governmental leaders has no place in public education.

As the forthcoming school year approaches, we will again be thrust into making challenging decisions on how we operate our schools. It is certainly an unenviable position, but one that we need to face head-on and work together to solve so that our students, families and communities can get the most out of the school year. Whether we decide on in-person learning, virtual or a hybrid of both, if we truly believe in giving the best customer service, perhaps these options should be available to all families. When we think of the competition, like home-schooling and charter schools, maybe offering some sort of hybrid learning after this pandemic has passed wouldn't be a bad idea. One thing is for certain, the landscape of education is sure to evolve, and the schools who can best adapt will be the ones that survive.

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