After the First Day of School
Our world is changing by the minute; what we know as fact at noon might change by the end of the day. This is certainly true of COVID-19; as we learn more about the disease, we adjust our processes and procedures to do our part in mitigating the spread. This myriad of changes is why the district partnered with Essentia Health and Fargo Cass Public Health to ensure we make decisions based on expert advice and data. When it was time to make the decision for how to start the school year, the expert advice and data pointed to starting the year in a hybrid. This model provides two days of onsite learning and three days of online learning for two cohorts of students. It allows us to maintain the recommended six feet of physical distance between individuals, which reduces the number of potential close contacts if we have a positive case. With our top priority being the health and wellbeing of our students and staff and our main goal being to return everyone to onsite learning fulltime as soon as safely possible, this was our best option.
I know that not all of our parents, staff, and community stakeholders believe that last sentence, but as I write this at the end of our first day of school (September 3), I am more confident than ever that this was the best option. Allow me to paint a picture of what I saw today in our district…
If you drove by an elementary school on the first day, it would have looked and sounded like a party. Each school’s entire staff was outside to welcome back their students after five and a half months apart. Once inside, you would notice the desks, chairs, and tables spaced six feet apart. You would see signage directing students and staff on how to move about the building, where to stand when in line, handwashing protocols, and the like. All students and staff are wearing masks unless they are seated six feet apart and the teacher has provided a mask break. Custodial staff, teachers, and students are all working together to ensure our spaces stay clean, sanitized, and disinfected.
This may sound sad, but as I toured multiple buildings, I was not sad at all. In fact, I was joyful. Even with masks you could see the twinkle in the eyes of our students and staff as they greeted each other. Students ran and played at recess just like they always do. There was no crying, arguing, or confrontations, unlike what you would have expected if you watch the news. I am not saying that those things won’t happen, but right now, our children want to be back. Our teachers want to be back. Everybody is willing to do what they need to do to make this work.
Upon entering a third grade classroom, I learned that the teacher was quarantined and would not be returning to school for 14 days. The team devised a plan that allowed for the teacher to teach in real-time from home using technology while a paraeducator supported the students onsite. I'm sure this felt different for the students, but they did not show it. They engaged with the teacher back and forth during the lesson just as they would if they were all together in the same room. The paraeducator was skilled at handling the technology and was able to problem solve when an issue arose, and they did not miss a beat. It was obvious to me that our district team and building level teams had worked collaboratively to find real solutions to real problems in real time. They did not throw up their hands and say, “this cannot be done.” They found a way.
The teacher I referenced above is one of over 50 staff and students that were unable to join their cohort on the first day of school because they were quarantined. Learning to adjust on the fly as our students and staff come in and out this year will be one of our greatest challenges. Ensuring each classroom of students has a highly qualified teacher in charge of their learning is critical and may become another challenge if too many of our teachers are quarantined and our substitute teacher pool is too shallow to meet the needs. These challenges are more reasons why our best option was the hybrid, which allows us to mitigate the number of close contacts that require quarantining by staying six feet apart from others.
The only way we can get our students back in school full time is to limit the number of students and staff that have to quarantine. We do that through the six feet of physical distance, by wearing a mask, and by washing our hands regularly. If you walked into any of our schools today, you would recognize immediately that we are taking every precaution. It is because of what I witnessed on our first day that I remain optimistic that we will return our students to onsite learning fulltime sooner than some might believe.
As the superintendent of our #districtofchoice, I am privileged to see firsthand more than 11,500 students from preschool to grade twelve gain the skills necessary to become our future teachers, entrepreneurs, doctors, scientists, engineers, public workers, and the like. I am blessed to work with a team of the hardest working, most creative, and truly innovative thinkers in the state. COVID-19 is our current reality, but it is not who we are, nor will it stop us from moving forward. Our education system has been turned upside down, but we will land right side up with innovation beyond what we have imagined. You might think I stay awake at night worrying. Yes, this is sometimes true, but more often than not, I stay awake because I can’t quit thinking about all the ways we can bring the guaranteed viable curriculum to our students no matter what is happening in our world. I think about the words I will use when I announce we can return to school fulltime. This day is coming, but in the meantime, we will problem solve and innovate to keep our students and staff safe!