Bravely and Safely Navigating COVID 19: School Opening for Students with Learning Differences
Within the next few weeks, students across the country will be returning to school. The number of questions to be answered before schools open — where kids should attend, how they should be served, the impact on their social and emotional health, the ability of teachers to build essential relationships with their students when starting the year remotely — can be overwhelming for families and educators alike.
The data collected from our great distance learning experiment of last spring indicates that by the end of the term many students were simply unable to sustain momentum. In some large school districts up to a third of students simply stopped logging on. We must bear this cautionary tale in mind as we move bravely into the new school year.
Most all of us are concerned about our health and safety during this time of pandemic. That includes educators. It is hard to turn away from the daily reports of increasing test positivity and mortality rates, but if we take the time to look beyond the headlines, another story begins to emerge.
As the leader of a small, independent school that serves children with learning disabilities, I have been watching the measures educators have taken to bring students back to school around the world. It was only April when the first articles appeared from Denmark, where elementary students and educators had already returned to school. They took precautions — they socially distanced, practiced good hygiene, spent time outdoors — and they set the tone for the rest of us. Those educators and the families they served took a great leap of faith, committed themselves to doing what was necessary and made it work. They chose bravely.
As the year continued, successful examples emerged closer to home. Child care facilities caring for the children of essential workers managed to put structures and precautions in place. They, too, were successful in containing the outbreak. Even more interesting, many of these facilities never closed at any point during the pandemic. Never. How did they do it? They followed CDC guidance to the letter and they stayed the course. They chose bravely.
This summer has been a roller coaster for those of us in schools. In June, we started to feel more comfortable. In July, our community got too comfortable. As August approached, many schools planned to begin bringing their students back. Then, in a matter of a week, new cases spiked even higher than the first time. It became time to bravely face the reality of the virus and rethink our plans.
I am blessed to lead a small school that lives in a big footprint. Together with my faculty, I have taken the lessons of educators from Denmark and South Korea, as well as from child care facilities across this country. With the continuing decline in the positivity rate in our area, my school has made the decision to bring our youngest learners back into the building while our older students launch the year virtually. It was an agonizing decision, and every school administrator is grappling with these same choices.
Like it or not, we are living through a time of upheaval that will unquestionably change the future of education. For now, each teacher, administrator and school employee, each student and their family, must weigh the benefits and risks of the options before them. I hope that we will be able to manage our anxiety and set aside our fears, looking the reality of this situation squarely in the eye.
As difficult as it is right now, a post-COVID future lies ahead. If we can focus on that future and stand together, if we can stay the course and follow the necessary guidelines for a while longer, if we can as a society choose bravely, we will come out stronger on the other side. I look forward to the new school year and all that it will teach us.
Judy Jankowski, Ed.D., head of school for Chesapeake Bay Academy, has dedicated her career to the education and well-being of children who learn differently.
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