Forging a stronger school district within the crucible of COVID

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Forging a stronger school district within the crucible of COVID

April 08, 2021 - 16:18
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The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

School boards have been challenged this year in a whole new way. When we made the decision to close schools on March 13, 2020, ahead of the governor’s decision to do so, we never imagined that our year would be full of so many twists and turns.

From the very beginning of this journey, we have listened to the science and balanced the safety of students, staff and families. It has felt like putting together a giant puzzle with pieces missing. We initially jumped into the deep end without knowing how to swim and figured out how to best teach students remotely, provide lunch to students, celebrate the end of the year, graduation and staff retirements, return our students’ belongings to them, close off playgrounds…the list went on and on.

The worry of navigating education during a pandemic meant many sleepless nights. How do we keep everyone safe when we don’t even know how the virus spreads? How do we keep our teachers safe? How do we make our schools safe? Where do we find desks for Willow School so students can be separated, and what do we do with the tables we won’t be using? How do we introduce new principals at Churchill and James Hart?

Our initial plan to start the school year with both in-person and remote learning was extremely well thought out. I was very excited to welcome students back in August and cancelling that plan at the 11th hour felt like a sucker punch. We were determined to offer our students the best possible experience this school year and spent hours and hours planning, collaborating, and pivoting (a word I never want to use again.)

It’s my nature to focus on what we have gained rather than what we have lost this year.  Schools are so much more than a place to learn academic subjects, and the recognition of this has never been more obvious. The support from our community for our schools has been remarkable. I can’t remember a time that our schools, teachers and staff have been so appreciated. When something is taken away from you, it gives you a new appreciation of the role it has in your life. I am hopeful that when we return to normal it will be with a continued sense of respect for our teachers, staff, and schools.

We have made tremendous gains in the use of technology; gains that I believe would have taken years to accomplish. Both our students and teachers have gained new tech skills and become very creative problem solvers. Just like many of our parents, our students have learned to work from home. 

Our teachers, aides, nurses, secretaries, custodial staff, lunch staff, and every administrator has worked so incredibly hard to get this right for our kids. They have found new ways to teach, to show compassion, communicate, and to connect with their students. One thing they have not found is enough sleep!

As a board we constantly ask ourselves how to meet our mission statement, All children will learn; all children will be served. This year the key word has been “all.” Along with what we’ve gained is the reality of what we will need to do when we return to full-time, in-person school. As we focus on returning to normal, perhaps in stages, we will focus on what our students need when they return. We will be paying special attention to our students’ social/emotional needs.

We have done our best to listen. We have listened to guidance from the CDC and the state. We have listened to our incredibly talented and professional staff. We have listened and learned from districts in our area, around the state, and across the country. We have listened to parents and students. We have listened to each other. Listening does not always mean agreeing, and one thing we have heard is the vast difference in thought about what is right for our district. Ultimately, we have made very difficult decisions from a list of choices that are far from perfect. I really appreciate those that have approached us with a sense of understanding for the difficulty of our role and an understanding that we are making decisions for many situations, not one situation.

Needless to say, this has been an incredibly hard and challenging year for everyone. I’m very proud of my board and school boards everywhere who have worked hard to find creative solutions to learning during a pandemic. These talented volunteers have spent countless hours working to find the best path forward. I’m especially grateful to our dedicated team of administrators and leadership team who have led us through a year we will never forget. As I look back on this year it is with a sense of awe for what we have accomplished and determination to move forward knowing that this experience didn’t break us, it made us stronger.

Shelly Marks is president of the Homewood District 153 school board.