Retired Local Principal Says We Cannot Go Back to School as Usual

"The pandemic, fear of catching the Covid-19 virus, and its consequences are very real. Until the day when we have universal vaccination, their presence must be the given in any equation that suggests a reopening of schools," says Margot Durkin.

Mrs. Margot Durkin, retired Head of School at Browne Academy in Alexandria, Va. (Courtesy photo)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – Career educator and former head of Browne Academy in Alexandria, Virginia, Margot Durkin has taken to social media to weigh in on reopening schools in September.

On both her Twitter and Facebook pages Durkin has been actively posting examples in the news that display “failures” of national leaders in the news, and she is now offering somber advice on schools, recently releasing a vision statement warning, “Physically returning American’s children to school will not only require the logistical support usually reserved for military invasions, but a school bus load of cash for every district, diocese and independent school to deploy their strategy.”

Durkin sent her statement to The Zebra Press, and it is reprinted here:

A Vision Statement by Margot Durkin

Mrs. Durkin is a retired educator with experience in teaching, administration, finance and governance in public, Catholic and independent PreK-12 schools.

SUMMARY

School as we have known it must change radically if we are to have any chance of opening in September of 2020. Modifications made to plant, personnel, and budgets will be necessary until a major public health solution is found and implemented. While we await a vaccine and proven therapies, education must continue with risks mitigated. School administrators must be hiring now. There may be need for federal funds similar to business bailouts. Public School superintendents and state Governors may need to address the fiscal needs of their systems with Members of Congress, and elected officials at the city, county and state levels. Religious, independent and other private schools may see increased requests for financial aid, which are not sustainable within current budgets. Tuition and fundraising must be evaluated focusing on needs. Schools fortunate enough to have reserves or unrestricted endowments may call upon them. All school officials and communities must communicate clearly and transparently to parents and students about all changes made.

Envisioning a New School Year

Children arriving on sanitized buses, sitting alone every other row, wearing masks, carrying lunches and supplies in disposable containers, tape on playgrounds, showing kids where to line up, teachers greeting classes with a wave of a gloved hand, wearing masks and washable aprons/smocks over their clothes. Trained health aides or school nurses taking each student’s temperature. Will this be a typical back to school scene in September? Physically returning American’s children to school with not only require the logistical support usually reserved for military invasions, but a school bus load of cash for every district, diocese and independent school to deploy their strategy.

School Buildings/Physical Plant and Campus

The usual procedure in most systems is to refurbish paint, clean and repair over the summer months. The new, more thorough, more frequent disinfecting now required will necessitate more janitorial staff. Classrooms, desks, surfaces, bathrooms, halls, all high touch areas will have to be constantly cleaned. Amounts of cleaning and paper products used could triple.

Classrooms will be stripped of many display items that could create surfaces for viral spread. Expect less on bulletin boards, fewer interest corners. Kindergarten and preschools will eliminate shared costumes, soft toys. Hard centers like play kitchens and trucks and doll houses will be continually wiped down. Books will be covered in plastic or oil cloth for ease of sanitation. Electronic devices must be cleaned upon entry, use and storage. Each student must have his/her own implements, pencils, pens, rulers, crayons, kept in a plastic container, all of which must be wiped down after each use. Teachers will wear masks and gloves and need lavaliere microphones to be heard by students.

Class size must be halved. That means more teachers and more aides.

Some furniture will be replaced. Tables will give way to individual desks that can be spread  out. Hand sanitizer and/or hand washing stations will be placed around the building, especially at points of entrance and exit.

Communal water fountains will disappear and give way to water coolers that students use to fill their personal washable jugs or bottles. Cafeteria service will require amazing vigilance in preparation, distribution and sanitation. Again, students will sit far apart, possibly calling for additional lunch times, impacting scheduling. More adults will be needed for monitoring, cleaning. Hand washing and bathroom breaks will become ritual and have defined times to avoid too many students using sinks/toileting areas at the same time and to allow for  continuous cleaning.

Gymnasiums, sports and physical education will become much more individually centered to allow for distancing and safe fitness. Any books, equipment or materials used or checked out from libraries/media centers must be thoroughly sanitized upon checkout and return.

Schools may install commercial size laundry facilities to provide clean masks and smocks on a daily basis. Buildings that have been empty may have pest control problems that require elimination.

Staffing

Personnel will be a major issue. Many more teachers and support staff will have to be hired. Employees will be tested for Covid-19, and will have their temperatures taken daily. Sick employees will stay home, and Dr.’s notes will be required for return. Substitutes will have the same requirements. As school personnel have always been background checked and fingerprinted, most will willingly comply for their own safety.

A trained health aide or school nurse must be in every school. Students who show signs of illness will be isolated and cared for until parents can pick them up.

HIPPA and other privacy concerns will be a factor in what can be disclosed if a teacher or child should contract the virus. Guidelines used for head lice or conjunctivitis could be used for notification.  Administrators must establish guidelines in advance as to what ceilings/numbers  of cases would signal school closure and for how long.

Districts and individual schools must begin the hiring of additional staff in all areas immediately if they are to be ready to receive students in September. A new type of employment contract will be needed and teachers’ and support staff unions may be involved in necessary modifications to duties and responsibilities of all employees.

Parents and Guardians

Parents may be hesitant to send their children to school.

They may wish to drive their own children. Schools should prepare for more private cars dropping off and picking up. Carpools may be abandoned from fear of close contact. Most parents will cooperate, but some may resist measures put in place for the safety of staff or students. Frequent communication is essential to convey changes and expectations. Parent conferences will be online using programs like FaceTime and Zoom. Back to School Nights will also be online. Attendance policies may change.

Daily Schedules and Academic Calendars

There are many ways that smaller class sizes can be accommodated through scheduling. Split shifts where half the student body goes to school on alternating days is one way. Two daily sessions-morning and afternoon is another. These modifications were used in the 1950s as baby boomers overcrowded buildings. The drawback is child supervision during non-class   time. In the 1950s, many parents did not work outside the home. School schedules could also work in blocks of time where one group would go to school for four weeks, then receive online or televised instruction (use of public-access television could eliminate some technology equity problems) at home while the other learns on campus. Even with these modifications, more personnel would be mandatory.

Student Life

This is the area where families will feel everything is different and may believe some restrictions to be unfair. There could be push back. Here is a partial list of daily life at school items and activities that will be postponed, change or temporarily cancelled:

Pre-School and Elementary Grades

Show and Tell

Costumes and Dress-Up Plays and Performances Birthday Parties at school

Halloween and Valentine’s Parties Distribution/sharing of food or toys from home Group Physical Education activities

Field Trips

Hugging, hand-shaking, touching others Group projects

Middle and High School

Contact sports

Traveling for sports and competitions like debate and Model UN Large groups watching sports

Group physical education activities Field Trips

Plays and Performances Group projects

Dances Assemblies

Shared food like commercial pizza

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