#schoolsafety | ROB PICOU: Working to safely open schools every day | Columnists

Like a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, we all saw COVID-19 coming, but no one could have predicted what it would mean for K-12 education. Unlike a hurricane that ravages a community for a period of 24 hours and then allows for the rebuilding process, one year into the devastation of this pandemic and we are just beginning the rebuilding process. Many families have suffered unrecoverable loss, whereas the educational community may take a long time to fully understand the impact on academic achievement and social-emotional development. A hurricane and a pandemic both carry an understandable degree of uncertainty and fear.

At this time last year, everyone was trying to decipher the CDC guidelines and figure out what the guidelines meant for schools. Concepts like social distancing and masking seemed alien and impossible to implement in classrooms that were built in 1950 and were already over-crowded. Educators had to quickly learn about hand sanitizer, air purification, temperature screeners, and the quarantine process. The most common response to opening schools during a pandemic was, “No way! It’s just not possible.” But educators in the Tupelo Public School District and all across the nation where schools have been open throughout the pandemic figured out how to make the seemingly impossible not only possible but a reality.

It has been said a goal without a plan is just a wish. The goal in the TPSD School Recovery Plan is to safely open schools five days a week for all students and provide a concurrent virtual option for those students who are not able to attend school. Safety for students and staff is the highest priority. If at any time the data indicates it is unsafe to open schools, the TPSD School Recovery Plan specifies a closure of schools and full transition to a virtual model. In addition to safety, flexibility is a guiding priority to accommodate changing CDC guidelines and adjust as conditions change based upon feedback from principals, teachers, and school nurses. Furthermore, choice is a guiding priority because parents need the ability to decide what is best for their families in a pandemic between a hybrid, all virtual, or in-person school experience. Finally, grace is considered a guiding priority to accommodate the highly personalized responses to the pandemic. The TPSD School Recovery Plan includes a commitment to kindness and compassion: tough on problems and soft on people.

A crisis demands open, honest, and frequent communication. Throughout this pandemic, every Friday the COVID-19 school transmission numbers have been disaggregated by grade and school and published to the community. Numerous early decisions were made that have contributed to successfully keeping schools open, none more important than the decision to hire a nurse at each school and give that nurse independence and responsibility for the contact tracing and quarantine process. Upon review of the cumulative results at the end of the third nine weeks, it appears everyone has done an outstanding job:

  • Reported Positives: 295
  • Close Contact/Quarantine: 2,788

In-School Transmission: 1

  • Out-Of-School Transmission: 294
  • Few definitive conclusions can be drawn from these results because they are dependent on self-reported data. However, the results suggest a number of suppositions. The vast majority of positive cases have been a result of community transmission. The high number of students who have been quarantined may have contributed to the relatively low level of in-school transmission. The ultimate supposition from this data is that schools can be safely opened during a pandemic if a school district follows all of the CDC guidance and establishes a clearly defined and strict contact tracing and quarantine process.

    The One Single Heartbeat represents those moments in time when people work together and do whatever is necessary to achieve extraordinary results. I personally witnessed the One Single Heartbeat after Hurricane Katrina. The collaboration and effort that has been required to keep schools open during this pandemic has been another example of the One Single Heartbeat. At the beginning of this school year, people were making bets about how long we would be able to keep schools open. Some people didn’t give us a week! Schools in TPSD have been safely open every day of this school year. That is a tremendous accomplishment. We celebrate the hard work of school board members, administrators, teachers, nurses, counselors, all support staff, parents and students who did whatever was necessary during this deadly pandemic to maintain a safe place to learn. As we turn to the challenge and promise of COVID-19 mitigation on K-12 education in the areas of academic achievement and social-emotional development, we are committed to working together and doing whatever is necessary to safely open schools.

    DR. ROB PICOU is the superintendent of the Tupelo Public School District. Readers can contact him at rjpicou@tupeloschools.com.

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