How can it be that right now, in NJ it’s not safe to eat inside at a restaurant, go to a movie, go to a concert, or have an indoor wedding–but schools will open? How can it be that right now, just across the Hudson, theaters on Broadway will remain dark until January—but schools will open? Each of those activities is shorter than the length of a school day–and almost all of those activities are done either by adults, or with adult supervision of minors…and yet they are not safe right now–closed–per government orders. And thus starts the never-ending “ what if” questions that plague the mind of every parent, teacher and school leader nightly right now.
What’s going to happen if one child removes their mask and breathes on another child? How can anyone do lab work in a science lab–no lab partners, no sharing lab equipment? What if we can make a school totally “safe” according to guidelines, and then our athletes play a sport against a team whose school has not taken those precautions? Who has to clean up the discarded masks that will wind up on the floors? What if the school says no lunch will be served, but the parent cannot send in lunch? What about allergies? What if two teachers, on two different floors, each let a student go to the bathroom and while in the bathroom they remove their masks?
What about fire drills? How can they stand six feet apart? What do we do if the building goes on lockdown? How can they be kept safe in the designated space-they will not be six feet apart? What if someone forgets their pencil…they can’t borrow one? What if, on the bus to and from school, students refuse to wear their masks? What if someone forgets to wash their hands? How do we teach subject areas that require some contact–P.E., Art, Drama–or do we just not cover these subjects? What about the teacher who goes home to care for his/her elderly parent? What about the coach with a pre existing medical condition? What about the student whose asthma is so bad they can’t wear a mask, but who lives with a grandparent and does not want to risk carrying virus home?
What if schools don’t open? What happens to the child who is being neglected at home? The only child for whom school is their only chance to socialize with their peer group? The children who live with parents who work 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet and who cannot be home to help them learn remotely? What happens to the child who is being abused, and who would look to confide in a trusted school adult? What happens..? What about…..? How do we …? What if…?
The decisions about school in the fall were first put into the hands of individual states/governors and then many governors decided to put the decisions into the hands of the school districts/leaders themselves–with the mindset that those who lead the schools know how to best serve the students and families. Now, all across the nation, we have many voices weighing in; issuing guidelines, saying “it’s safe”, threatening to withhold funds, arguing its impossible to safely open, comparing states where numbers are high to states where numbers are low, comparing elementary school plans to university plans, comparing large districts and small districts–and once again an endless debate rages onward, fanning fires and explosions-pitting people against each other– educators and government–parents and principals–and for what? To what end?
I am a school administrator, of a private school and so a great deal of the planning for September falls to me and the team I have working with me. I can look to my local district for guidance, but what works for their size and space may not work for mine. I’m the parent of a child who has to return to school in some way come September, and so all those questions listed above weigh on my mind in two ways, as they weigh on the mind of any parent who is looking toward September and any teacher who is looking to return to work. It’s up to me and other school leaders to find the answers, to make things “safe”, to reassure, to project confidence, to ensure that each student receives the best possible education and also a welcoming, safe, and caring school environment.
I’ll admit it–I don’t have the answers to all of those questions. I just don’t. And it’s ok for me to admit that, because nobody has all the answers. This is unprecedented. It’s an unimaginable situation–and as the numbers change–the situation could move in a different direction at any given time. It’s as if I am the principal of a school in an M. Night Shyamalan movie–it looks like the regular world, but from out of nowhere pop these unexpected and terrifying scenarios that have to be overcome. So, how could I or any other school leader offer our teachers, our parents or our student a 100% ironclad guarantee that “nothing will happen”, that “everything will be fine”…if I offered that–you’d have good reason not to trust me.
Our students are not merely alphabetical lists of names on a class roster. If I were to lose even one of them, the risk would outweigh the benefit. Our parents who support our school with their time, who trust us with their daughters, are essential in the day to day lives of our children–to lose one of them would be a tragedy.
And our devoted teachers–who will come back in September–they are our own personal “front line”–and they are most certainly not disposable; a good teacher is irreplaceable, not only to the students he or she teaches, but to the family he or she returns to each day. These men and women never signed a contract stating they’d risk their lives; and yet they do it every day–in the event of fires or lockdowns or shootings–and now in the face of a worldwide pandemic, they are once again risking it all to ensure our children, yours and mine get the education they deserve. To lose one of them would be a heartbreaking loss for the school community–one that none of us would ever fully recover from.
Does all of this mean we cannot open schools? No, of course not–we need schools. Does that mean I can guarantee a full, five day a week, 7 hours a day, full roster of athletics and activities and proms and ring ceremonies…and the list goes on. Well, no. I can’t–I just cannot guarantee that right now and I’d be very foolish if I did.
The re-opening of schools, Saint Dominic Academy and across the nation, will happen–in some form. It may be hybrid, it may be shortened days or no lunch–more and more plans come out daily. The only way we can each, parents and the school, do our best to make it “safe” is to have faith in each other and to trust each other. Faith and trust have been very hard to come by since this past March, that I know. But it’s essential right now–
And so, please, put your faith in me and the other leaders of Saint Dominic Academy–we will make the best possible decisions to benefit you and your daughters. Please, trust us–we are their teachers, their leaders, and truly we care about each one of them as if they were our own. Faith, and trust—two key intangible but essential ingredients as we head toward September–coupled with prayer, always, are the first steps back.
Saint Dominic Academy continues to develop plans for re-opening in September, and will update parents in a timely manner on any and all new changes, restrictions, and re-opening plans.