When Reopening Schools Safety Must Come First

As more and more states and countries reopen their respective economies, schools will soon follow. Early lessons can be learned on how to do this successfully where this has already happened abroad.  Even though remote learning might continue in some form preparations for in-person learning have to be made. In a recent post, I outlined eight specific focus areas that should be considered as part of any re-entry plan.  The theme of health and safety was weaved throughout, but not emphasized in the image I had created.  After receiving feedback from several educators on social media, I rectified this oversight, but it also got me thinking a great deal more about what is on every educator’s mind. When school does reopen will it be safe?

Safety is at the top of everyone’s mind. A poll conducted by USA Today sheds some light on what essential stakeholder groups are thinking.

In an exclusive USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, 1 in 5 teachers say they are unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopen in the fall, a potential massive wave of resignations. While most teachers report working more than usual, nearly two-thirds say they haven’t been able to properly do their jobs in an educational system upended by the coronavirus. A separate poll of parents with at least one child in grades K-12 finds that 6 in 10 say they would be likely to pursue at-home learning options instead of sending back their children this fall. Nearly a third of parents, 30%, say they are “very likely” to do that. 

Reassurance that schools will be safe has to be backed up by action, and planning must begin in earnest now.

I want to take my original question a step further. When schools and districts reopen will it be safe for everyone? Up to this point, the majority of conversations I have witnessed on social media, news pieces, and articles have focused on students’ health and safety. It goes without saying that this is an extremely important group and should be emphasized. However, we must not forget all of the people that support kids both directly and indirectly, such as teachers, administrators, secretaries, instructional aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, groundskeepers, and other support staff.  The planning and step-by-step process of reopening have to be inclusive of, and sensitive to, everyone who plays a role in the functioning of a school or district.  

Even though those in power are ultimately responsible for developing a re-entry plan, successfully implementing it relies on all of the groups listed above.  Not only does it take a village in this case, but empathy and understanding need to lead the way. People need to feel valued, and the key is to have all stakeholders be an active part of the planning process so that health and safety concerns are not only addressed but acted upon. Below are some critical areas to consider as you or others lead a process to reopen schools safely.


Engage

It is vital to create opportunities for all stakeholders to be active participants in the planning process. If face-to-face meetings and town halls are not an option, set these up virtually. Also, consider creating polls or using tools such as Google Forms and social media to elicit input.

Listen

Engagement only matters if people feel that they are actually being listened to. The best way to illustrate that you have really listened is to act in some way so that the other person, or people, know that they were actually heard. The action could be moving an idea forward or explaining your decision to go in another direction. Share minutes and poll results. Respond to questions and pertinent comments on social media or through email. There will be times during the process when people just want to vent and be listened to. In these cases, the most important thing you can do is show you care. Listening is a lost art that needs to be embraced. 

Prioritize

The purpose of the engagement and listening process is to develop a list of action items to be considered.  When it comes to the health and safety of all, many valid ideas should be considered. Nonetheless, they will need to be prioritized in order of importance with health and safety given top billing.

Consensus

Sometimes decisions have to be made at the drop of a dime, but this does not. For the big decisions that will dramatically alter school culture post-COVID19, it is imperative that all stakeholders be represented, and their input is taken into consideration. Consensus means coming to a general agreement with those who have offered their perspectives and voices on how to open up schools safely.

All means all

No stone can go unturned when it comes to developing a course of action that impacts every person in a school or district. Inclusivity and equity need to be emphasized with a laser-like focus on the foundational levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, of which health and safety fall into. There will also be unseen issues that staff are grappling with. Sound plans must also account for the mental health needs of kids and adults.

Opening schools back up requires a team effort. People must not only be invited to the conversation, but their input has to be valued. The best way to do this is by following the guidelines listed above and show them that their concerns and contributions have been threaded into a re-entry plan.

Be sure to check out my entire #remotelearning series