Commentary By: Joseph Conway
A firefighter rushes into a burning building. An EMT responds to a person in cardiac distress. A FEMA worker prepares for hurricane relief. And a teacher greets students in September, 2020, for the start of a new school year in a pandemic. The similarity among all of these personas is their role of first responder. And the organizational duty behind all of those professions is to plan.
The educational profession dramatically changed last March as our students left physical schools and became virtual learners. Our teachers became virtual educators responsible for not only their children’s academic needs, but their social emotional and all of their other needs as well in the middle of a pandemic. Now we are battling with the start of a new school year in the inevitable return of face-to-face instruction. And with that comes an incredible amount of uncertainties as well as responsibilities as we ready our schools. Anxiety mounts for students, parents, and educators alike.
Just like first responders, the most important element that needs to have been accomplished for a school’s successful reopening is planning. A firefighter would not be able to do their job of going into a burning building without the planning, training, and equipment necessary to do their job. Nor would the EMT or FEMA worker. Nor should the educator. Every first responder profession has a team that plans: equipment is purchased, table top discussions are engaged, scenario training is accomplished, and more planning contingencies are created.
In preparation for the start of the new school year, Restart Committees and Pandemic Planning Committees across New Jersey have been working hard and preparing diligently for the reopening of schools. These committees have been tasked with turning The Road Back, the document provided by the State of New Jersey, into an actual living, breathing strategy that will address the myriad of issues facing schools as they reopen.
These committees have had to account for every eventuality. Facilities have been scrutinized in terms of square footage and social distancing. Entrances and exits have been studied and procedures reviewed. PPE has been purchased for students and staff. Isolation rooms have been scenario trained out. Hallways have directional arrows and distancing logos. Buses, cafeterias, and classrooms have all been analyzed for optimum usage. Academic programs have been modified and calibrated. From ventilation systems to students sharing calculators, evaluations, protocols and procedures have been proposed and adopted.
Of course it is natural to have anxiety and stress over all of the possibilities before us. This can be seen bubbling up in the discourse over the preparation and reopening debate as teachers express their concerns.
Some schools are ready with their plans while others are still in process. The success of the school year is dependent on the plans created, communicated, implemented, and adapted to the issues encountered.
As we look at the 2020-2021 school year, COVID 19 in our school buildings is a reality. It is not a question of will there be a member of the school community coming into school with COVID. It is a statement of when.
It is the preparation and planning that will allow frontline educators to address these events as they happen for the safety of our educational community and to the benefit of our children in their education.
Dr. Joseph Conway is the superintendent and co-founder of the Camden Charter School Network that includes four schools in the City of Camden.
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