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Rising to the Challenge

What Local Schools Are Doing to Keep Kids Safe Amid the Pandemic

By Justine Lookenott

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought challenges—and changes—to many parts of our daily lives over the past several months, from working in offices to grocery shopping to dining out. One of those areas facing the most significant challenges has undoubtedly been education.

When lockdown began in the spring, parents, teachers and students found themselves in unfamiliar waters as they adapted to virtual instruction. Since the start of a new school year, with state restrictions eased, schools are adopting different measures to teach students effectively and keep them safe.

Remote vs. In-Person Classes

Over the summer, the big questions on most parents’ and teachers’ minds were: What will the new school year look like?Will there be in-person learning? If so, what will that look like? And what safety measures will be in place? The answers vary from one public school system or independent school to another.

Fulton County Schools started the year on Aug. 17 with all students remaining at home and learning online through a program called Universal Remote Learning.

“It is important our families know we have been preparing for this scenario,” Superintendent Mike Looney said in a statement. “We learned a great deal last spring. We saw what was working and what was not, and we used feedback from our parents, students and staff to make changes in how instruction would be delivered remotely. There will be more rigor, more accountability and more support.

Teachers also are receiving more training so they can successfully deliver meaningful instruction in a remote environment.” Starting Sept. 8, the school system began a five-phase approach to return to full face-to-face classes and reached Phase V on Oct. 14.

The DeKalb County School District also started the school year with remote learning, but distributed a survey to parents in early September asking for their input on the possibility of reopening schools. In October the school system delayed its plan to return to in-person classes, citing a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Gwinnett County Public Schools started with all-digital learning at the beginning of the school year, and began phasing students back into the classroom in late August, while providing a remote option for parents who prefer to keep their children at home for the time being.

Meanwhile, a number of independent schools have also adopted a hybrid approach that combines remote and in-person instruction. Some, like Woodward Academy and Wesleyan School, began the year with the lower grades attending classes on campus every day and the higher grades rotating between in-person and remote instruction every other day—while providing a fully remote option for those students whose parents want it.

“Wesleyan offers all families grades K through 12th the option to choose 100% virtual instruction,” says Jennifer Copeland, assistant head of school for external affairs. The Marist School, an independent Catholic school for grades seven through twelve, is also rotating students. “Half of our student body is on campus on any given day while the other half is learning at home,” says James Byrne, vice president of enrollment and operations.

Other independent schools opted to begin the year with in-person classes for all grade levels. Springmont School, a Montessori school with students from 18 months of age through eighth grade, offered some exceptions for students in first through sixth grades. And Lyndon Academy, an independent school in Cherokee County serving kids from kindergarten through high school, offered a remote learning option for families who prefer it.

Learning pods, groups of three to 10 students gathering at one family’s home where a teacher, tutor or parent leads instruction, has traditionally been used for home-schooled children. But during the pandemic they have been utilized by public and independent schools’ parents this past spring and again this fall for school systems that delayed their return to in-person classes.

Keeping Students Safe

For those schools that have opted for some form of in-person learning, extra safety measures have been adopted.

Safety protocols at Gwinnett County Public Schools include requiring all students and staff to wear masks or face coverings, and to isolate and send home anyone with a temperature of 100.4 or higher. Schools are also limiting visitors, serving lunch in classrooms rather than cafeterias and staggering lunch, playground and class-change schedules to minimize large groups. Buses are cleaned and sanitized after each morning and afternoon route.

At Springmont, groups are limited to 12 or fewer students, and masks are required for all staff and students over the age of 2. The school also uses “hand-sanitizing stations, a hand-washing schedule, physical distancing, Plexiglass barriers, daily health screenings, temperature checks, staggered arrivals and departures, and enhanced air filtration,” says Julie Strickland, marketing and communications manager.

At Marist, temperature checks are performed upon arrival at the school. Desks in classrooms are more spread out, and students enact special cleaning protocols at the end of every class.

For these safety measures to work, however, schools need parents to do their part. That means encouraging safe practices at home.

Woodward asks its families to sign a Health and Wellness Family Pledge, which gives an outline of the school’s changes in response to the pandemic and a commitment to each other in the school community.

“We recommend that parents model safe, healthy and appropriate behaviors at home so that their children have an easier time adjusting to the ways in which our academy has adjusted to COVID-19,” says Amy Morris, Woodward’s director of strategic marketing and communications. “We want our students to recognize the importance of wearing masks, frequent handwashing, along with following physical distancing recommendations at home as well as at school.”

Rolling with the Changes

Of course, it’s one thing to make substantial changes to a school’s day-to-day operations, and quite another for everyone to successfully adjust to those changes. But despite the challenges the pandemic has presented, schools have seen teachers and their students rise to the occasion.

“I’ve seen Bitmoji classroom environments”— online classrooms with personalized emoji avatars—“created by teachers that inspire creativity and excitement,” says Shumuriel Ratliff, media relations manager for Fulton County Schools. “I’ve been copied on emails from students to their teachers and principals thanking them for the new aspect of learning where they feel more engaged and empowered.”

Whether these new measures remain in place once things return to normal—whenever that might be and however it might look—remains to be seen. But at least some of the changes schools have put in place are likely to stay for the foreseeable future.

“We will likely stay the course and keep Lyndon Connect”— Lyndon Academy’s online learning platform—“up and running indefinitely,” says Peter Murdock, the school’s chief operations officer and business manager.

Because the pandemic is a fluid situation, it’s important for parents to continue to engage with their child’s school or school system to keep up-to-date on any changes to their safety protocols or instruction plans. Staying informed of the latest developments is the best way to help ensure that your child gets the education they need while remaining safe.

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