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Kentucky by Heart: In-person school is best, but we must have the resolve to do it safely and right

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

From my perspective as a teacher, getting Kentucky’s elementary/secondary young people back into physical classrooms in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is important and for many reasons.

Obviously, students need to learn and grow mentally, physically, socially, and emotionally, and for most—a live classroom setting works best. And as any experienced teacher can tell you, there is generally a bit of a learning deficit that occurs with a summer off. Most recently, the deficit has worsened when we add the couple months this past spring when Kentucky schools changed to remote classrooms as the virus spread.

Besides the already baked-in deficit, there are other vital reasons for students to return to school. For families with both parents holding jobs (or single parents with their job), the issue of finding affordable childcare is a challenging concern, and the consequence might mean wage-owners having to leave the workplace. That situation negatively affects both the family’s livelihood and the sustainability of the overall economy. Additionally, there’s evidence that when kids stay in-home for long periods, more child abuse occurs, and adequate nutrition suffers.

Shawn Murtaugh, Louisville, former attorney and now freelance writer, made another point about the importance of in-school learning. “Unfortunately, the ones who most need to be in school as they have parents who are working or otherwise unable to be involved in teaching are the ones with the least voice. And they are also the ones who have no access to Internet-so virtual school isn’t going to happen.”

The case for being in school is strong, and I would like our children to be in the school building and learning this fall. I believe most people long for that to happen, too. But having said that, it should only be under the right conditions, and that means making the educational workplace as safe as possible. Just as crucial, the community surrounding the open school must also prioritize safety by taking the actions to prevent community spread outside the school life. It will take both initiatives with full buy-in by all parties involved – to make a “successful” return to school in the buildings possible. Anything less could spell disaster.

Hope I’m wrong, but from what I’ve noticed across the state and country in terms of communities complying with Covid-19 safety guidelines, I’m not sure we are up to the task.

Those in the school community, I know, have mixed feelings. They want to do what is best, yet it’s not easily discernable what “best” is. Naturally, teachers and administrators would like to be educating people in a school building setting. That’s what they are trained to do. Contrary to common thought, I believe students want to be there also. All mentioned, however, do not want to put their lives on the line to do so, and they don’t want to be the reason someone else’s life is threatened.

I predict that if and when kids go back to in-school, the school community will, regarding the need to do things differently, “get it.” They’ll understand that there will not be a “normal” day of activities, but that there will be a preoccupation with the safety of all that will require energy and sacrifices. Teachers, administrators, and classified staff such as bus drivers, secretaries, lunch workers, custodians and others will do their part with the new reality. Social distancing, wearing masks, and frequent handwashing and activity changes will take valuable minutes away from prime lesson time, at least until the training of such daily rituals become automatic in the school culture. Educators will cry “ouch” but will do what it takes.

They’ll act carefully and will fervently hope that appropriate measures will largely prevent Covid-19 infection. As a teacher in Kentucky schools for over four decades (28 as a full-time teacher), I’ve seen my colleagues weather many storms; this gives me confidence about their part in confronting Covid-19.

Here is the kicker, however. I believe that most in the general community will support the effort, but not all. And merely “most” might not be good enough. Those who regularly don’t follow health guidelines can easily upset the apple cart. When looking at the high contagious rate of the virus, it takes but a few acting irresponsibly to increase the spread exponentially, especially as the product of the negligence moves into the schools.

So where are we?

Allow me to suggest a few questions that those in our communities need to answer in the affirmative so that educators and classified staff can do their jobs and provide effective instruction with safety at school:

First, can the community demonstrate that it has a relatively low virus spread. . . and certainly, is not a hot spot? In short, the chances of infection in schools — even with schools acting in a safe manner — is greater when many people from the community are already infected.

The seriousness of measures that the community takes in doing regular hand sanitizing (washing of hands, cleaning surfaces, etc.), keeping get-togethers to small numbers, and social distancing and/or masking will be essential. As mentioned, school communities will deal with the good or bad consequences of those measures.

Secondly, will parents and others connected directly to students’ lives support their school’s efforts in modifying ways of instruction and addressing school safety culture? Conversations around the supper table should-whenever possible-be supportive of what is happening in school. That would also mean extending some grace when mistakes are made. With the complexity of the situation, some human errors are bound to happen. All involved are learning how to do something exceedingly important in an exceedingly different way.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

As I write this, Kentucky has been trending significantly higher in number of COVID-19 cases. That does not bode well for our economy or for the wisdom of soon opening our educational institutions. Some Kentucky school systems have decided to open later than usual, others are doing a “hybrid” opening (some remote, some in-school), and some have not decided yet but are making contingent plans.

In any case, school plans must be flexible. Even with a relatively noneventful start in-school, the process can turn on a dime if, for example, a cluster of teachers are infected at the same time. Will subs be able to effectively come in and continue the work, especially with such a different protocol? And, in general, what if new ways of teaching are not effective and must be adjusted within the parameters of safety guidance? Is sustained social distancing even possible, especially with there being too many bodies in too small spaces?

Honestly, I am a bit afraid that we’re not prepared at this point to open our buildings for any serious, sustained learning that fits the safety precautions we seek. But having said that, I believe Kentuckians are as capable as any others to eventually lead in constructing an effective way to make it happen.

Foster Ockerman, who directs the Lexington History Museum, figures that we need to think outside the box. “It is a difficult balancing act-safely educating children while allowing parents to work,” he said. “Even Fort Harrod had a schoolhouse during the period of Indian attacks. My wife, Martina, suggests enlisting the churches, who have Sunday school rooms by the dozens unused during the week to allow smaller class sizes.”

He also mentioned using teachers-in-training from colleges to staff the “mini-schools,” saying that “the old norm of having hundreds of students in one building is not going to work interim. Leverage the opportunity instead of fighting it. Think of all the restaurants that converted to curbside quickly, the T-shirt companies who converted to making masks. Encourage app developers to make interactive teaching apps for lessons. Get the game developers to convert warfare games into lessons on historic wars. How do you get Hannibal over the Alps?”

Foster’s ideas and many others may take some time to implement; but then, the virus will likely be around for a good while, too. We must confront it head-on with resolve, with safety first until we get it right. And in some respects, our challenge to do so may well be as huge as Hannibal’s.

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