By Heather Allmendinger
On Dec. 31 at 11:59 p.m., about 1 billion people attentively eyeballed the iconic, handcrafted sphere made of 2,688 dazzling Waterford crystal triangles as it gracefully dropped, second by second, toward its final destination to ring in 2020.
Weighing in at 11,875 pounds and extending 12-feet in diameter, the New Year’s Eve ball is a universal symbol of welcoming the New Year in New York’s Times Square. Since 2014, Waterford has introduced themes within the design of triangles that adorn each section of the mesmerizing ball. Three pineapples reflecting “hospitality and welcome” represented a theme of goodwill for the anticipated landmark year of 2020.
This year has certainly been historic and anything but expected. The friendly, helpful, or cooperative feelings or attitude known as goodwill is a much-needed objective since a disorderly, unwelcomed guest has entered this year’s party like no other party-pooper in recent history, wreaking immense havoc at an unprecedented rate.
When a never-before identified virus entered the United States, disruption occurred in all facets of daily life. From government and business affairs to education and family life, processes and procedures were forced to change for people of all ages, in all stages in life and all over the world. Just as children don’t come with instruction books, neither does a novel pandemic. COVID-19 is a newly discovered type of disease caused by a virus within the coronavirus family. This family of viruses causes infections from seasonal colds to upper-respiratory illnesses — some more serious than others. The more common and milder coronaviruses are passed from human to human. Other coronaviruses, such as MERS-CoV (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS-CoV (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, 2002), and now SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) are coronaviruses that originally evolved in and among animals and uncharacteristically transmitted to humans and became a new, more severe type of the human coronavirus.
By March, COVID-19 was deemed a national emergency as it rapidly and mysteriously made its way across the country. Scientists worked quickly to find answers and cooperated with government officials to strictly guide the country on how to safely manage and avoid a catastrophic impact that would deplete necessary resources and clog our health care systems to the point of collapse. Arkansas, one of only five states that did not issue full lockdown orders for residents, remained steadfast in a plan to accomplish a flattened curve without crushing the state’s economy. Arkansas educational systems followed directives to move in-classroom schooling to a virtual model for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year in an attempt to slow the outbreak.
As the summer now comes to a close, and a new academic year quickly approaches, parents anxiously weigh learning options and contemplate concerns that have never been factors involved in school preparations. The unknown of what could be just beyond the horizon for students, their academic experience and their safety has created emotionally charged topics (the when, where why, how, how long, how much or if at all) that seeks any type of directional affirmation.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson checked off the front-runner of questions in mid-July by announcing that the 2020-2021 school year will start no later than Aug. 26. The green light given by the governor to open schools was also a goal advocated by both the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). According to the AAP, while children are out of school and away from their supportive services, it is more difficult for schools to identify and address critical learning discrepancies, as well as signs of physical, or sexual abuse, depression or suicide. The AAP states that, “Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children.”
Little Rock School District (LRSD) superintendent Mike Poore says, “Our young people need us more than ever. Schools typically help everyone find their voice, have places where they can talk in safe environments and have a greater understanding of bigger pictures.”
Administrators and health officials across the state have collaborated to maneuver a logistical learning obstacle course, figuratively and literally. Every minute of the school day with each potential interaction, with any given number of students, faculty and staff within all locations on campus had to be considered to attempt effectively providing valuable instruction while maintaining the well-being of everyone involved. To accomplish both, along with concerns of parents not yet ready for their children to enter a classroom, many schools are offering both in-class and virtual learning, with some also offering a blended version of both.
The governor and key cabinet members along with about 130 educators created the Arkansas Ready for Learning initiative during the pandemic. The goal is to assist in the implementation of blended learning systems that deliver curriculum, instruction and assessment through multiple approaches integrating both on-site and off-site teacher interaction. This statewide system of blended learning aims to ensure that all K-12 students are connected to high-quality instruction and engagement, regardless of location, and are prepared for extended school closures, if necessary, in the future. It’s education à la carte – serving up instruction to meet the needs of all family comfort levels or circumstances.
“While realizing there’s a risk of students getting sick, there are a lot of other reasons — mental and physical health, even social — that are important for children to be in school,” says Dr. Joel Tumlison, medical director for Child and Adolescent Health at ADH. “[These are] reasonable arguments for being back in school. Parents have to make that decision for their children, and that’s why I’m glad to see that many school districts are making various options available.”
Regardless of the educational approach chosen this fall, parents may see their child’s school incorporate new supplementary tools to enrich the overall learning experience. LRSD, with an enrollment of more than 23,000 students, will use a new tool called Schoology that will enhance in-class instruction and also drive the virtual classroom environment guided by an assigned LRSD teacher. “It will allow our teachers to work with one another and interact with their students, whether in a virtual or traditional setting, in a more comprehensive way. This is just good stuff, even if we didn’t have a pandemic,” Poore explains. Parents will also be able to access grades and communicate directly with teachers through the Schoology tool. According to Poore, a silver lining has emerged over the past six months. “It’s made us all realize, from a parent, administrator and teacher perspective, how much we all need each other. To educate a kid, it really does take all of us. We’re trying to put our teachers back more in the mix this fall, [with] parents as more of a partner, whereas in the spring, the parents had a heavier load. I think everyone understands there needs to be a balance.”
That balance goes beyond the parent and teacher partnership. With multiple learners, various methods of teaching and large numbers of students, it’s also imperative for educators to have a team mindset. The teaching approach is different today than it was five to 10 years ago. LRSD executive director for Curriculum and Instruction, Hope Worsham explains, “We’re no longer tied just to our classroom. Any child that walks through that school’s front door is my kid.”
For those choosing to walk through the front doors, the educational component is only one side of this complex problem. Remember the mathematics rule? Solve for the variables on both sides of the equation. Safety is as equally important for all involved as delivering or receiving a quality education. Protocols being implemented throughout districts across the state have been created with students and teachers in mind. Teachers, particularly those within the age groups most impacted by COVID-19, will be screened and monitored for their protection and for the safety of their own relatives and children at home. School visitors will be limited and must meet strict criteria. So, think twice before making a delivery to drop off forgotten items or a surprise visit to share lunch with your birthday boy or girl.
Similar to efforts imposed by corporations, schools are implementing routine processes to minimize opportunities that nurture the spread of COVID-19.
Masking, social distancing and regular hand-washing are considered the most effective defenses against infection. Masks are highly effective since the virus spreads person-to-person by transfer of airborne particles or droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. These particles travel through the air, enter the nasal passage or mouth of a nearby person, float inside the passageway until binding to a lung cell where it replicates and the infection begins. Covering the nose and mouth is key to effective mask-wearing. Although masking is not required by all school districts, it is recommended by the state. Several larger districts, such as the LRSD, Springdale Public Schools, Fayetteville Public Schools and the El Dorado School District, are requiring masks to be worn by students and staff. Students are asked to provide their own masks, but attempts will be made to provide masks for those students without.
“We realize that some young, school-aged children cannot keep a mask on for any good length of time,” Tumlison notes. “For 5- or 6-year-olds, a teacher might spend a whole day telling children to put their masks back on. That’s not a good education. This is why the recommendation says that masking is not required for children under 10. But, a 9-year-old or 8-year-old might be able to do it, especially based on their maturity level. We want everyone who can wear a mask to consistently do so.”
Although air travel is the main vehicle for infectious particles, they may also be transferred by touching surfaces with virus droplets and then touching the mouth and nose. Therefore, teachers will build time into their schedules to disinfect highly used equipment and surfaces, as well as remind or assist students in hand- washing or sanitizing. Hand sanitizing stations may be added throughout school buildings for students to utilize when transitioning is necessary. Including a miniature bottle of hand sanitizer in your student’s backpack will save students the time from standing in line at a school sanitizing station. Be aware that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently noted a considerable increase in sanitizers containing methanol, which can be extremely toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested. The FDA recommends using alcohol-based, name-brand sanitizers with an alcohol content of at least 60 percent. The FDA investigation of misleading and dangerous sanitizers is ongoing, and the list of recalled sanitizers that should be removed from store shelves is steadily growing.
Expect slower car traffic during drop-off and pickup times, as well as slower-moving foot traffic as students file through health screening stations at school building entrances. Spacing is being addressed in the classrooms, lunchrooms, recreation areas and hallways to follow the CDC and ADH recommendations of social distancing — keeping a minimum of 6 feet apart. To reduce exposure during class transitions, many middle and high school teachers will transition to students who will remain in their assigned homerooms, or for larger schools, students may shift to a block schedule. Some schools will add lunch periods to dilute and better stagger the number of students entering the lunchroom at any given time. Other schools are choosing to serve lunch within the classrooms to reduce interactions among students.
Having a certified nurse on campus has always been appreciated. Given the number of precautionary recommendations and new requirements, school nurses will evolve to take on more than their regular duties of attending to cuts and bruises, administering breathing treatments, daily medications and insulin treatments. School nurses are now tasked with creating a space, separate from that of other medical exam rooms, for attending to those students experiencing fevers or other symptoms that might indicate a COVID-19 infection.
College-bound students should also come to expect big changes on university campuses. The University of Arkansas and the University of Central Arkansas have enlisted special response task forces to assist in policymaking and to align efforts with guidance from the CDC and ADH, the COVID-19 Response Team and Pandemic Planning Team, respectively. Be on the lookout for on-campus move-in dates and times to be added to decrease volumes of students and parents massing in small quarters. Quarantine housing will be available if your student, or another, should test positive for COVID-19 while attending college. Students at both state universities will be required to wear face coverings while in enclosed spaces on campus or where social distancing is difficult to maintain.
Also, many courses at both universities are offering in-person classes as space allows to meet distancing guidelines, hybrid class options or online lectures. Amanda Hoelzeman, UCA’s director of media relations, says, “Our Academic Affairs and the UCA Center for Teaching Excellence are working on six different instructional model options for professors to implement in their classes this year.” These extended model options will be finalized prior to UCA’s fall term start date of Aug. 20. “No matter the format of classes this fall, we intend to provide our students with high-quality, engaging academic instruction while ensuring they have a rich, fulfilling and safe college experience.”
Of course, even with an abundance of preparation, plans can change at any given time. “It’s hard how to predict how the epidemic here in Arkansas is going to go between now and when school starts or within the first few months of school starting,” Tumlison says. “We just don’t know.”
Concern has grown among parents that schools will open and quickly close if the number of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas increases. However, Tumlison suggests a more likely scenario may be that only schools within communities experiencing high rates of transmission or that only schools experiencing absences due specifically to COVID-19 will dismiss or move to an online platform only temporarily, not statewide as a whole. “It would be a shame to dismiss schools statewide because one or two areas were having significant difficulty,” Tumlison expresses.
Parental attentiveness and open communication with children entering school this fall, no matter the age, will be essential in the final weeks leading up to the start of school as the landscape of operation is fluid and centers on the status of COVID-19’s virulence. School districts may adjust school supply lists or protocols based on state and local recommendations up until or even after school doors open. Before school gets underway, visit your school’s website and carefully review all information regarding school operations and new measures.
Regardless of the changes that have occurred or may occur in the upcoming months, educators are enthusiastic, if also anxious, about connecting again with their students and preparing them for a brighter future. LRSD’s Worsham emotionally says, “Teaching has its challenges, but I can remember every day that I walked into my classroom while I taught high school. [The students] made me feel many times like I was the most important person in the world to them, and sometimes you are the only stable thing in their life. Good teachers really do make a difference.”
As tempting as it might seem to hit rewind and reset on this year by smashing that beautiful New Year’s Eve ball to start over, like Waterford designers do when the crystal fixtures don’t align as planned, 2020 may yield a fruitful outcome for the students in Arkansas after all. Then, we’ll hospitably welcome 2021.