America’s K-12 educators, students, and families have all been victimized by COVID-19, even if the pandemic has not directly affected their physical health. Brick and mortar school doors were abruptly shuttered as school boards and governors across the nation moved swiftly to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus by social distancing Americans from large groups and gatherings. Children were sent home, teachers were tasked with becoming overnight experts in crisis online learning, and parents abruptly became homeschool teachers as they, too, were also banished to work and live in a new stay-at-home normal. But while school leaders continue to adapt to crisis online learning, they must also begin preparations now for the eventual return of children and educators to their schoolhouses.
Students lose school safety nets, exposed to greater harm
The closing of school doors has much broader implications than the creation of wider achievement gaps alone. Schools serve as safety nets for many children and their families. For example, many school districts around the country continued to provide meals to students, who depend upon their schools to eat each day, until incidences of school staff being inflicted with the coronavirus forced many school food services to shut down.
The shift to crisis online learning, a phrase increasingly used to distinguish professionally developed online learning programs from our current hastily created K-12 online operations, has led to even greater learning challenges for children with special needs who already face daunting challenges due to their learning and other disabilities. Additionally, children who once experienced schools as the safest place in their lives have been sent back to homes filled with dangers including domestic violence, child abuse, sexual exploitation, drug and alcohol abuse, and other social ills. Communities across the nation are reporting increases of 20 to 30 percent in police domestic violence cases, while children services agencies report substantial declines in child abuse reports as educators are no longer in a position to identify and report incidences of suspected child abuse and neglect to authorities.
Teachers, support staff, SROs, and others dramatically impacted
Children are not alone in facing increased stress, anxiety, and harm. Some teachers and administrators across the nation are reportedly working 10 to 12 hours a day to develop, deliver, and grade assignments, while also learning how to use new digital tools, make personal contacts with each of their students, and homeschool their own children. COVID-19 has also taken the lives of numerous teachers, principals, coaches, school-based police officers, and family members of both students and educators. Education associations, teachers’ unions, and other school leaders are reporting great concern about the mental and physical well-being of those educators who have so selflessly stepped up overnight to meet the needs of America’s homebound children and their families.
School leaders must begin operational, not just instructional, planning
Many school administrators and their teams are struggling day-to-day to keep online learning operations afloat while navigating ever-changing future predictions and changes to our daily lives. While we applaud their valiant commitment, planning for today will not be enough. These same school leaders must also begin planning today for the eventual reentry of students to their brick and mortar schools.
- Will school bus drivers greet students at their stops wearing masks and offering on-board hand sanitizer dispensers?
- How will school nurses deal with children having psychosomatic health episodes?
- Will schools be prepared to record and track mass illness reports and absences to detect potential clusters of health concerns?
- Are the schools adequately staffed with school health professionals to manage these needs?
- How will principals manage large number of teacher absences for those who are afraid to return the first week of school?
- Will there be enough substitute teachers?
- What will students be told when their favorite school police officer abruptly retired, died, or chose not to return to their jobs as school-based officers?
- How will these issues be communicated to parents?
These, along with many other questions and issues, need to be talked through now as part of a major strategic planning effort for student reentry to school when COVID-19 restrictions are eased. Waiting until the week before schools reopen will not suffice. The social, emotional, physical, and educational well-being of students and staff on their first day of return to school will best be determined by the success of school leaders’ planning today.
Learn more here about our COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Student and Educator Reentry Planning and Preparedness (SERPP) Services.
Ken Trump is the President of National School Safety and Security Services
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