It's time for Iowa schools to step up

Bruce Lear: To ease the worry of parents, educators, and students, public school districts must clearly communicate how they plan to slow the spread of COVID-19. -promoted by Laura Belin

In a normal year, after the Fourth of July, elementary teachers start to knock on the schoolhouse door so they can organize their classrooms to get ready for a new batch of kids. At about the same time, middle and secondary teachers start thinking about their class lists, and some ideas about new ways to deliver old instruction.

But this year isn’t normal.

This year educators, parents, and students are left wondering what school will look like and how they will cope with the new reality of COVID-19. School districts were required to file a “Return to Learn Plan” with the Iowa Department of Education on July 1. Most of those plans presented three options for returning: return to the classroom five days a week, a hybrid online and in person format, or a complete online curriculum.

That left the community still in the dark regarding specifics on how school will begin. I’m not blaming anyone here; school administrators and board members are in a no-win position and keeping three options may be needed to react to the changing conditions of the virus.

I do believe the best option, if safe, is to have kids in front of a qualified teacher in school. I also think the vast majority of Iowa schools will begin in person. 

I also strongly believe schools need to do what is medical best practice and ignore the temper tantrums from President Donald Trump, incompetence of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and lack of leadership from Governor Kim Reynolds.

To ease the worry of parents, educators, and students, it’s time for Iowa school districts to step up and clearly communicate how they plan to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some of those specifics are tangible actions that need to be implemented to keep everyone safe. Others are intangible, yet essential.

Here are a few of the tangible basic safety protocols most medical and educational professionals recommend. Schools need to provide face coverings, hand washing stations, and social distancing when possible.

Schools need digital thermometers to take temperatures to spot fever and personnel to do it. Although rarely mentioned, schools need to increase the pool of substitutes by paying them “hazard pay.” In addition, schools may need to hire additional personnel for continual cleaning and additional nurses to monitor student health.

How should districts pay for these measures? The federal government should specifically earmark additional stimulus funds to assist in reopening. If that doesn’t happen, districts will need to tap into the money saved from the two to three months students did not attend last year. These safety measures are not a luxury; they are a lifeline.

People will still be at risk from COVID-19 even with extra cleaning and temperature checks, but such basic precautions will go quite a distance to keeping schools open and safe.

Still, on top of these basic actions, there are a few fundamental human interactions that might bring a little more comfort for students and for educators as school begins and they don’t cost a lot.

  • Schools need to be clean and well ventilated.
  • There needs to be a strict protocol for cleaning.  Also, saving money on cooling and heating needs to surrender to assuring the air quality is breathable for students and educators.  People need to be comfortable that the air they are breathing won’t make them sick.

  • Communicate with students, parents, and educators.
  • Schools should not act like meatpacking companies that refused transparency. It is essential to tell the truth, even if that truth is ugly.

    Without identifying the individuals, all stakeholders have a right to know how many have contracted the disease and what steps are being taken as a precaution.

    The first time an administrator uses “happy talk” instead of being honest, educators should use their sick leave to protect their own health, and parents should have a ready batch of excused absence notes ready to send.

  • Administrators need to listen to educators and be flexible.
  • Even though a number of politicians believe they are experts on how school should open, they aren’t.

    There must be a high degree of flexibility and listening to educators in the classroom to understand what must change and how that can be done.  When I say educators, I am talking about all of the professionals who interact with students hourly.

    What worked one day may not work tomorrow. School nurses and educators know their students.  Most can spot a sick student a mile away.  If they say the student needs to go home, he/she does.

    They are trained and competent.

    If an adult says they are ill and need to leave, administrators shouldn’t guilt them into staying just another hour.  That shouldn’t have happened pre-pandemic either, but it did in some buildings.

    Central office staff should listen to principals.  If they say something will help the people in their building and they can show how, do it even if it doesn’t fit every building.

  • Parents are partners; they are not customers who are always right.
  • If a parent refuses to have their child wear a face covering for some weird political reason, administrators should strongly suggest they try online learning. But also listen to parents if they offer constructive ideas that no one has thought of yet. It takes a whole community to pull this off.

    Tell parents they are not allowed in the building and neither are college reps, sales people, or anyone else not directly working with students.

  • Offer each other some grace
  • School is stressful without a virus. Everyone should try to have each other’s back.  Even the colleague you despise needs a little break, because you don’t know if that person might be the next to get sick and need help.

    There will be missteps. Even with these safeguards, there still will be many unknowns. But together we can protect Iowa’s most precious resources: its children and its public schools.

    Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for Iowa State Education Association the last 27 years until retiring. 

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