• Gary Woronchak

What if they opened school and nobody came?

As state and local officials try to figure out how to safely restart our schools in the shadow of COVID-19, one of the most pertinent questions may be: Will students and even teachers show up?

The question of how, if not if, schools will reopen in the fall has probably crossed most minds since the pandemic turned the world upside down.

Challenges of finding toilet paper, paying bills without a job and charting a path back to work have been more immediate, along with mental health concerns brought with the shock of life’s sudden upending and self-imposed isolation. But educators and parents of school-age kids no doubt have kept one eye focused on fall.

Many aren’t optimistic.

A survey published today in USA Today showed 60 percent of parents believe they are likely to pursue at-home learning rather than send their children back to schools, if they reopen. Wow.

Another stunning result: One in five teachers are unlikely to go back to the classroom if they open this fall.

The survey has a significant margin of error and the results will vary widely by region. As one snapshot, though, the results are significant. (Read about the survey here.)

The survey results were published the same day that Dearborn Public Schools announced that Superintendent Glenn Maleyko has been selected to co-chair a workgroup on the Governor’s Return to Learn Advisory Council. The council will provide recommendations on how to safely and efficiently return to school to the state’s COVID-19 Task Force on Education, established by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in early March. (Read about the advisory council here.)

No surprise that Maleyko has been tapped to add his voice in this matter. We see his leadership here all the time, and he was named Superintendent of the Year in 2018 by the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

Meanwhile, a committee to determine how Dearborn Public Schools will operate this fall has been formed, chaired by district administrator Maysam Alie-Bazzi, teacher union president Jane Mazza and William Ford Elementary Principal David Higgins. The local group is awaiting guidance from the state.

Much study and discussion are planned at the district and state levels. Federally, the Centers for Disease Control last week issued some basic considerations to help local leaders in their quest to steady the educational ship in the pandemic storm. (Read about the CDC guidelines here.)

But the time for talk is short. Bona fide plans need to be put forth within weeks, certainly by the time we get into July. And it all needs to get done while we’re still dizzy from the events of the past several months.

The Governor formed task forces related to COVID-19, including one for education, on March 3. She announced on March 12 schools would be closed as of March 16 – Dearborn closed March 13, since we had a half-day scheduled that Friday – and on April 30, Whitmer declared what had become obvious, that the school year was over.

Various attempts at in-home learning were put in place, probably with various levels of success, but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances. Teachers have worked hard to help this along, and parents have been thrust into the role of educators, their aptitude for such work notwithstanding.

We’ve just passed what is usually the unofficial start of summer. We’re about to pass what would usually be the last day of school, along with Graduation Day, a major life event toward which high school seniors have worked for the majority of their young lives. The cut-short 2019-20 school year is nearly at its real end, and our attention turns toward 2020-21.

CDC guidelines and other reports envision classrooms with physical distancing, perhaps requiring staggered classes, maybe half of the class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the other on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Or a morning-afternoon split. With kids wearing masks. And more sanitation, and hand sanitizer. Maybe having high school kids switch to all-online classes, while the rest of the district divides into smaller classes and spreads out into other buildings.

None of which sounds normal. So let’s agree on the one thing that we know: School will not start in the fall normally, as if none of this nightmare ever happened.

Back to the original question. Let’s say these committees and task forces and whatever groups come up with a workable solution to have a generally safe learning environment. So that things will be different, but children can be educated at normal levels.

Will parents send their kids to school? Is there any level of innovation that will make them feel truly comfortable? Remember what’s at stake: Not just the health of children, which is plenty enough, but if one child brings the virus from home, that could spread to many students, who then would take it home, and then it goes with parents to their workplaces. And so on.

I think back to mid-March, even before schools were closed, and coronavirus talk finally got serious. Some kids were being kept home already, and on Thursday, March 12, even before the Governor declared schools would close March 16, some Dearborn parents were questioning whether they could safely continue to let their children attend classes.

With all that’s gone on since then, why would there be any less fear for parents?

The President tweeted on Sunday, “Schools in our country must open ASAP. Much very good information available now.” I get it, he wants a return to normalcy. We all do.

But when it comes to their children, parents are more likely to go with their instincts. The President, the Governor and the Superintendent may all say schools can be opened safely. If the parents don’t believe it, it isn’t going to happen. Some interesting months ahead.

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