Even in common years, the first two weeks of school would have hiccups. Buses run late routes, kids go to wrong classes, kindergartners’ butterflies turn to upset stomachs. It all eventually works out and the year falls into rhythm.
But this is 2020, which has seen most everything thrown our way — earthquake, anyone? — except locusts. Although there were murder hornets for a bit.
It would be great if all we had to contend with is a kid getting left on a bus or an unexpected fire drill. But the coronavirus global pandemic of the past five months has us contending with a public health crisis that science still has yet to fully comprehend. Five months ago, North Carolina closed schools when conditions — and consequences — were far less severe.
Now, we are returning to class, which we support. We cannot put the education of our children on hold while we wait for the medical world to get on top of COVID-19. But we must be flexible, forgiving and ready to adjust as conditions present themselves. And we must hold our decision makers accountable when tough calls need to get made.
The Challenge Ahead
The school district appears to be in better shape than it was five months ago in being able to handle online learning, which will be the majority of learning for students. Children whose parents have opted for in-person learning twice a week will still have their kids on school-owned computers three days a week. But this time, teachers appear better organized and ready with strategies for ensuring participation, especially for almost 4,000 kids whose families opted for full-time online learning.
In meetings over the past month, officials have demonstrated for the Board of Education how teachers will approach lesson planning and execution. And while nothing can beat that one-on-one interaction with a teacher kneeling at a child’s desk, the teachers appear ready to connect with their students as meaningfully as possible.
The real challenge, then, for the district, will be on the operational side. Can schools stick to the daily, regimented health-screening protocols for every student walking through the door? Will bus drivers know what to do? Since kids will be eating in classrooms instead of cafeterias, will meals get delivered properly and in a timely manner? And can schools ensure social distancing will be monitored and, to the extent possible, enforced? Or will we end up on national television like that high school in Georgia with packed hallways of maskless students?
We anticipate many moments of grace and forgiveness ahead.
Optimism, with Vigilance
But while all these questions are legitimate, what will happen when positive coronavirus cases occur among students and staff?
“We need to rely on facts, supported by data and the guidance we receive from experts with local and state health departments,” Superintendent Bob Grimesey told the school board last week. “As each new confirmed case presents itself — and there will be confirmed cases — we will act prudently and measuredly with the health and safety of our students and staff as our top priority.”
We take him at his word, but who will be calling those shots in Moore County? Normally, this isn’t a matter of dispute; the state says the county’s health department director is supposed to decide whether to close a class, grade or school.
But in a meeting last week with Robert Wittmann, Moore County’s beleaguered public health director, it appeared he doesn’t want any part of his authority.
“I would evaluate this on a school-by-school basis in collaboration with school administration,” Wittmann said. “Dr. Grimesey would be making the final decision on whether they need to close the schools or not.”
With all due respect, Grimesey is not an authority on health risk assessment. Wittmann is. So that’s why we worry about how decisions will get made as cases develop.
The plans are made. Now we execute, moving forward with optimism — and vigilance.