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When Can School Return to “Normal”? Educating through COVID

There are no easy answers when it comes to navigating the return to normal in the midst of COVID. While many of us are acutely focused on returning our students to pre-pandemic normal, a painfully pessimistic question looms. When will life return to normal for our students? When will we be able to return every student back to the classroom, every day, without the fear and restrictions of COVID-19?

There is no easy answer. There is no single timeline, metric, or silver bullet.  We are tired, frustrated, and exhausted. Our children have suffered during this pandemic; they have endured a year of hardships unparalleled to anything we have experienced in our lifetime. As parents, educators, and community members, we want our students to have every opportunity to fully engage in all the experiences that schools offer; hence our default is quite clear. We long for the return to normal. 

When will we get there? For starters, we need to learn how to navigate the hurdles and barriers in our journey through COVID. This includes adhering to the four basic health and safety rules mandating in-person instruction for schools across Washington state: masking, daily attestation, sanitizing, and social distancing. While some people feel that this is a broken record, it is our legal requirement if we are to maintain in-person instruction. Until our state changes these rules for in-person instruction, this hurdle is the most difficult to navigate. In the state of Washington, we have over one million students enrolled in our K-12 Public schools and currently, only 5 percent (63,004 students) are receiving some form of in-person instruction.  As schools across our state start returning their students to in-person instruction, they too will be faced with the mathematical dilemma of how to safely maintain 6’ social distancing between twenty (or more) students in one classroom. For schools with large classrooms and small class sizes, this may be possible. 

While I remain cautiously optimistic that we will be able to add an additional layer to our hybrid model, these next few weeks will be a critical factor in determining when and how we can do this safely. Many people have held out hope for the highly anticipated vaccination with promises that the vaccine is the answer. And while vaccinations are an essential tool in our fight with this virus, they are not the silver bullet. Vaccines are not required, and vaccinations are not intended to become a replacement strategy for the other required protocols. How long will schools be required to adhere to these protocols? With all things COVID, it depends on what we are seeing in our communities, across the state, and in our nation. Vaccinations, along with these health and safety protocols, could potentially extend beyond the school year and well into next fall.

So why can’t we at least return co-curricular activities to our students? The research is abundantly clear; students who engage in co-curricular activities such as clubs, sports, and music have stronger attendance, make better life choices, and are academically more successful. Many would argue that these activities are the backbone of this community. We look forward to singing along to the music at our school concerts, honoring our veterans in our Veteran’s Day Celebration, partnering with our community in our Celebration of Student Learning, lining up at the snack shack to quickly grab a baked potato during half time so we don’t miss a touchdown or shot. This is what we long for the most, for our students, for our community, and quite honestly, for ourselves. For now, we need to figure out how to work together as a community to keep the hopes and dreams alive for our students. This includes being ready to jump on the field or on the courts as soon as the Governor lifts the ban on prohibiting all indoor sporting activities, practices, and games. This will require us to work as a team; with the help and support of our coaches, students, and families. Let us turn to, and not against, one another to figure out a way to make this happen.

When we work together, we can see the power of our work. When the majority of the state shut down, we, as a community, banded together to bring our COVID-19 numbers down so that we could return our students to school. We, as a community, have repeatedly stepped up to support our families with meals, jackets, technology, WiFi, and more. We, as a community, have been the first to test staff and offer free testing to our students. And we, as a community, can reach out to our local and state leaders to advocate on behalf of our children. I know first hand, our local legislators are working tirelessly for the children of our community. I have met with our local elected leaders and state representatives to share our stories of COVID successes and COVID challenges. I have also discussed the financial and decision-making flexibility we need at the local level to provide our students the support they need to be successful. As our local legislators head to the legislative floor in January, they will need to hear your voice, to learn from your personal stories, and keep in their hearts the voices of our children and our community. We, as a community, have navigated these barriers together because we know the importance of safely returning our children to the classroom and the power to re-engage in those activities we know, and believe, are essential to their growth and development.

Our children have had to learn how to survive and adapt during this historic period in time; we must remember this. When we are finally able to return all of our students to the classroom, we need to let their stories be told and allow their personal experiences to serve as opportunities for us to rethink how we, as a community, educate our children and embrace new ways of thinking and learning. Our enemy is COVID. Let’s come together as a community to fight the enemy, advocate on behalf of our children, and redefine our new normal.

We wish to extend an invitation for you to join our Supper with the Superintendent on Wednesday, January 13, 2021 at 6:30 pm for a community ZOOM focused on “Our Return to Normal- A Conversation About Our Next Steps In Our Journey With COVID”. The ZOOM link will be sent to families on Monday, January 11th.

Michelle Kuss-Cybula

Our Friends and Partners