The pandemic essentially upended every aspect of everyday life back in March 2020. Practices like social distancing and masking became the norm. Businesses of all sizes shut down, employees worked remotely, and schools delivered instruction through virtual learning. As students, teachers, parents, and staff begin another school year, district administrators across the country are re-evaluating their 2020–2021 COVID-19 health and safety plans to determine what worked and what didn’t. This information is used to develop and implement reopening plans for the new year with the goal of maintaining safe in-person learning environments as the ongoing pandemic continues to change.
A look at private high school
Dr. Maria Kreiter, Executive Director of Fairwold Academy—a licensed private school serving an exclusively special education population in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania—said her school with 235 students was completely virtual as of March 2020. Virtual learning was particularly difficult for Fairwold’s students, many of whom didn’t have access to in-person resources and support they have at school. “Kids responded in one of two ways: They either did really well, or they struggled,” Kreiter says. “Our students in full-time emotional support did well because being at home limited the distractions they would have in a typical classroom. What was difficult for kids was their social interaction was limited to the screen. I suspect we’ll see some long-term effects of that this school year.”
This year, students at Fairwold have fully returned to school with no virtual program option. “We have a health and safety plan required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and we feel it’s been effective,” Kreiter says. All staff and students have daily temperature checks, masks are readily available, and they do contact tracing, but the biggest challenge will be getting off campus for things like field trips and job coaching. “In special ed, transitions are important,” Kreiter explains. “With things like employment and job coaches, that’ll be limited.” Fairwold Academy’s parent organization, PHMC, is under a public health umbrella, she adds. “PHMC has a very comprehensive COVID response program. We feel our response has been extremely efficient. We work with a great organization that’s tuned in to public health.”
A look at public high school
Unlike most schools across the country, Big Foot High School in Walworth, Wisconsin, did not shut down at all in 2020. Instead, they increased cleaning efforts, had their HVAC system cleaned, and enforced six-foot distancing. Big Foot is a high school district, so all their students are of eligible vaccination age. “We’re encouraging [vaccinations],” says District Administrator Doug Peters. “We offered a few [vaccination] clinics in the fall.” Peters explains that this year looks very similar to last year, except the school went down to a three-foot distance rule. “We’re doing all the same things as last year—proper hygiene, washing hands, Plexiglas barriers. Our tables in the cafeteria are round, and we’ve installed Plexiglas barriers so it’s like a pie.” It’s those common times that are the biggest issues, Peters says. “A lot of it is just education. We remind the students the virus is still here, so be an adult—wash your hands, and if you feel sick, stay home.”
Although most districts now have virtual learning resources in place, administrators are dedicated to keeping classes in person and taking the necessary safety measures to make it happen. “We’re back to full capacity but still offering a virtual option to those with medical justification,” says Ron Agostinoni, Principal of Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, New York. Shenendehowa High School has 3,200 students, and they went from having 950 virtual learners last year to only 42 this year. “It’s ever-changing; we’ve learned to be flexible,” Agostinoni says. “New York has a new governor, and the Department of Health came through with a policy of masks for all students regardless of vaccination status.”
The recommendation for spacing at Shenendehowa is also three feet, though they don’t sacrifice learning for spacing, Agostinoni explains. “We are three feet 90% of the time…We’ve ordered about 50 more tables for lunch. We have two cafeterias, and we don’t have any academic areas around the café, so we put tables in hallways.” Additionally, a masking policy is in place at the school, requiring them to be worn at all times. Teachers combat this by conducting classes outside to allow everyone regular mask breaks throughout the day. According to Agostinoni, “Students have been pretty good about it. We have a lot of kids, and I can probably count the number of issues we’ve had on one hand. I thought the masking would be more difficult.”
A look at secondary technical school
Berks Career and Technology Center (BCTC) in Leesport, Pennsylvania, relied on adequate spacing and altered traffic flow as major components of their mitigation efforts, according to Ray Jenkins, Assistant Principal and School Pandemic Coordinator. “Our health and safety plan was almost 60 pages,” he says. Last year, some of the many protocols in the document included maintaining six feet of space, one-way seating in the café, slowed-down arrivals and dismissals to avoid a logjam of kids entering the building, and grab-and-go in the cafeteria with kids eating in classrooms, which are large enough to accommodate them. The school also had an altered schedule with Wednesdays dedicated to virtual learning and cleaning. This gave teachers time to prepare lessons since they were teaching on two different platforms. “It helped tremendously,” Jenkins says. “It gave teachers time to plan accordingly, and it kept things moving because they only saw students half the time.”
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued a mask mandate for the state’s school districts right before school started this year, but “We were wearing masks before the mask mandate came into play,” Jenkins says. “That was helpful for us [because] according to the new COVID guidelines, if someone is wearing a mask, you don’t have to contact trace if someone gets sick.” BCTC works with 16 sending schools that all had different policies in place before the mask mandate, resulting in quarantine situations. “We were a little ahead of the curve here, so that helped us start the school year off right,” Jenkins says.
Communicating with parents and students
Administrators are doing their best to keep parents and students informed about new or revised policies in various ways. Fairwold Academy hosts monthly parent meetings, while Big Foot High School has a reopening plan that’s on the school board agenda every month, with the board meeting streaming on Facebook Live. They also have email blasts, a COVID-19 resource page, and an open-door policy for parent questions. At BCTC, a copy of the school’s full 60-page health and safety plan is available on their website. Districts have protocols in place that include contact tracing and quarantine requirements should a student test positive for COVID-19. Students’ adherence to mask policies also factors into next steps. At Shenendehowa High School, “The process is a little more seamless this year,” Agostinoni says. “The quarantine number is reduced a bit—it seems to be working so far.”
At many schools, it’s a team effort to develop and implement an effective health and safety plan. Agostinoni credits his district’s leadership and faculty for working together. “The superintendent set the vision and the building principals carried it out. It’s been a good process,” he says. “I have to give credit to the leadership we have. It definitely shows the importance of contingency plans.” Though the pandemic has made seasoned educators feel like brand-new teachers at times, schools around the country have strengthened as teams and are working hard to ensure their students are receiving the best education in the safest way possible as the pandemic continues.
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