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School reopening plan: Not perfect, but workable – and safer

Dr. Ann Levett is Superintendent of Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools.

UNPRECEDENTED. That seems to be THE word for 2020.

We are in uncharted waters in many areas, and education is no different. Reopening schools will be one step in defining the “new normal” for our community.

Rest assured...there is no “one size fits all” plan for reopening. We must be prepared to pivot for any situation and stay abreast of what is happening across the nation and world. Several countries have begun reopening schools and we’re watching their progress with optimism.

Our plans reflect what we know currently about COVID-19 and its effect on adults and children, while honoring our own expertise and understanding of the benefits of in person education for children’s mental, emotional, and physical health. Along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, our goal is for students to be physically present for school.

Yet COVID-19 remains an active public health threat that influences our decisions about when and how to reopen safely. The ability to deliver instructional and other services effectively, while maintaining health and safety standards, is critical for our school families and our community.

To help understand the needs of our community – students, staff and their families, as well as the community at large – we listened through our School Reopening Task Force. Over 110 community members discussed how reopening should look in this new world.

The group – a diverse assembly from all walks of Savannah leadership in business, government, health care, military, and nonprofits, as well as parents and educators – met three times and their recommendations helped shape the plan that will be presented to the Board of Education at the regular meeting July 16.

The reopening plan has been crafted to provide the best solution for as many students as possible. It won’t be a perfect solution for everyone, but it will be for a workable solution for most.

In preparing for the new school year, several instructional models have been considered: Traditional in-person learning, Hybrid (in-person learning with an online component) and Virtual.

The final recommendation to be presented at the July board meeting includes a delayed start of school to allow appropriate preparation for the year and planning for virtual instruction. Given the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, it is simply is not safe to open school for in-person learning at this time. Thus, we propose to start the school year with virtual learning and hope to switch to in-person learning when the number of cases subside.

Your Board of Education approved the purchase of 14,000 Chromebooks at their June meeting. We are reviewing proposals for SmartBus© technology to address internet connectivity in specific areas and are procuring portable personal wireless devices.

The launch of a learning management system the Board approved has been successful. We are better prepared for effective virtual education.

When it is confirmed that the spread of the virus is in decline, we will return to in-person learning with appropriate safety precautions. Our facilities and buses have been studied for capacity with physical distancing requirements.

Some spaces may be modified to achieve appropriate distancing and manage reduced classroom sizes; meal delivery will shift to classrooms to further prevent exposure. Other classroom and movement practices may change when we use this model to keep the environment safe.

There may be time shifts and a change in the way we view the school calendar. We have defined protocols for staff and student safety should there be an outbreak, and we are able to shift to distance learning, as necessary in such instances.

All of this must be accomplished within the current budget guidelines. In addition to technology expenses, we must consider investments in transportation, staffing, PPE, building modifications and more.

We promise to provide frequent, regular communication. We aim to be clear and concise, and to utilize all channels available to keep you informed about changes to schedules and processes, and anything else that may arise due to the pandemic.

We want to stay connected. We need your informed support if we are to succeed.

We WILL face this virus and win, but it will take all of us to achieve our goal.