COMMENTARY: Before you decide to return to schools, walk the journey of a student, teacher to see COVID obstacles
In south Louisiana, one of the tasks we are accustomed to doing is preparing for emergency situations. We prepare for hurricanes, other major storms, and catastrophes all the time, listening to the information provided by the experts, creating plans based upon their expertise and our experience, and should the catastrophic event occur, executing our plan. We have learned in the midst of the turmoil that we take care of our family and continue to obtain transparent and helpful information/direction from leadership and experts until we are back to normal. One would believe we would have the same course of action as we prepare for schools to reopen with our children, teachers, and staff in the middle of a once in a lifetime pandemic. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Education as well as various school systems seem hesitant whether to follow the guidelines of the experts, the Center for Disease Control. If that fact alone does not give an intelligent person “a cause to pause” with following this leadership’s direction, these agencies, as well as school superintendents, have failed to provide specific details on how and what changes will be implemented to protect all people, most importantly the children, who are being told to return to in-person schooling. Currently, not one Department of Education, School Board, or superintendent in the state of Louisiana has produced a detailed plan created for educating children in the middle of a pandemic for all of the encounters throughout the school day. Case in point, one aspect of their school day— transportation. It is less than a month for most school systems’ first day of school, and no plan for just transporting the children has been produced.
According to the CDC, school children must be seated on the buses, one child to a seat in every other seat. This requirement alone means school systems will need more bus drivers and/or need to extend the transport time. However, let’s take a closer look at the issue of transporting the children in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, as an example. EBRPSS utilizes a transfer spot as a key component of its transportation schedule, whereby one bus picks up children from their neighborhood then takes them to a location where all other buses meet, and the children change to another bus that will transport the students to school. In light of the issue of social distancing requirements, this mechanism for transporting students will certainly have to cease.
In fact, EBRPSS more than likely will need to create an entirely new routing system, since few bus routes are designed to travel from pick up locations and conclude at the school or vice versa. In addition to new bus routes and more frequent traveling between pick up and school to account for fewer children on the bus, NOW, the bus drivers will need to sanitize the buses between each transport to prevent exposure of contamination from one bus trip to another. Hence, the transportation time is extended even longer and requires the school system to properly train each bus driver to complete this task. To add to this laundry list of necessary changes, the buses must be timed properly at arriving at schools for drop off and pick up at staggering times, in order to adhere to the social distancing requirements. One would tend to believe that buses would no longer be able to line up stacked together in front of schools and clusters of children congregate to exit and enter.
More importantly, these plans must be created for two different sets of children for A and B days of travel, since the schools must alternate the days the children attend due to social distancing requirements which prohibits the classrooms filled with previous numbers of 30-40 students per class. And, after considering all these changes, there still must be contingency plans for children that are missed at the bus stop, taken to the wrong school or traveled on the wrong day. And, let’s remember all of these changes must be created for high, middle, and elementary children at public, charter, and Catholic schools by next month. And, considering all things being new, there needs to be time for bus drivers to be trained and routes timed to determine how to complete all these tasks and have the children at school timely. Quite frankly, there has not been one explanation regarding just the issue of transportation. So, how can parents as well as school systems’ faculty and staff trust there are proper plans in place in other aspects of the school day, when the one task of transportation has not been addressed?
Before any superintendent asks parents, faculty, or staff to attend school this year, that superintendent should walk the journey of an actual school day of a student, teacher, and a staff member, see all the COVID-19 obstacles involved at each area of the day and do his/her best to create preventative solutions to address those problems. Once that information is obtained, provide those instructions and explanations to everyone involved. At that point, most people will be able to make better decisions regarding what is best for their family. However, without this type or some similar type of information, most people will not feel safe with the most precious of our world, our children, returning to the unsafe school environment.
Anna M. Jackson, JD
Community activist and concerned citizen