ASHLAND A national poll taken earlier this week shows only about a third of principals in American schools are confident measures to keep students safe from COVID-19 will be effective, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
However, principals contacted by The Daily Independent say they are determined to ensure student safety. They say precautions continue to evolve and making them work will require constant vigilance.
Some also pointed out that administrators, teachers and other staff have a vested interest in safety because their own children and grandchildren attend district schools.
The poll, conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, surveyed elementary, middle school and high school principals. Of 1,450 respondents, 35.2% said they were “somewhat confident or extremely confident in their school/district’s ability to preserve the health of staff and students as schools physically reopen in the fall,” according to the association.
Further, 34.9% said they were somewhat unconfident or not at all confident, according to the association.
“A principal’s primary and foundational duty is to keep students safe in school. Without that assurance, little real learning can take place,” said NASSP Chief Executive Officer JoAnn Bartoletti in a statement from the association. “That only a third of principals feel confident they can provide that assurance under the current conditions should give us pause. They are being asked unreasonably to bridge a chasm between the realities of face-to-face learning and the need to safeguard the people in their school.”
Principals were concerned about maintaining social distance, keeping students compliant with mask requirements, and providing sufficient personal protective equipment.
They also worried about staff safety, particularly older staffers and those with health issues making them more vulnerable to the virus.
Principals contacted by The Daily Independent believe safety measures will evolve as educators learn more about the almost unprecedented necessity for controlling a pandemic.
“I really think we are going to do everything we possibly can to make kids safe,” said Wurtland Elementary principal Steve Branim. “The biggest thing is, we’re all going to have to learn how to do this the proper way together. Morehead State never had to prepare me to do this.”
His school is in the Greenup County district, which will allow families to opt for at-home education via computer or in classrooms.
Indications are that enough families will choose the virtual option to thin out the number of children in classrooms, making adequate social distancing possible, he said.
All staff will be masked daily and children will be required to wear them when social distancing is not possible, he said. Masks will be age-appropriate.
Respondents to the poll worried that it may be difficult to keep very young children compliant with mask requirements. Branim said teachers and administrators will model appropriate mask behavior and explain why they are important.
It is likely some children will not wear masks correctly all the time, he said. “They're kids. You're going to have to model and teach them how it works.”
Ashland schools will follow extensive guidelines supplied by the Kentucky Department of Education and health authorities, Ashland Middle School principal David Greene said. “Based on what we know today, I feel safe in having my own daughter in school,” Greene said.
Administrators currently are honing plans for use of masks, maintaining social distance, cleaning and other issues. “All these things we are working through right now. The KDE guidelines address specifics for all these things,” he said.
Ashland’s bus plan allows for full capacity, two per seat, but with precautions including for extensive cleaning and masking of all occupants, transportation director Mac McDonald said. All students will be required to wear masks and if they board the bus without one a mask will be supplied, he said. Also, students will have teemperatures checked when they board.
Buses will be sanitized three times each day, including before the first run and between any multiple runs, McDonald said.
Students will load from back to front to minimize contact and siblings will be seated together. The seat behind the driver will remain vacant and the front seat to the driver's right will be left vacant and reserved for any student who becomes sick while on the bus.
Monitors on each bus will enforce the mask rule.
The district has made provisions for keeping children as safe as possible, McDonald said. However, there is one stumbling block: “We still have a lot of people who are not taking this thing seriously,” he said.
That mirrors a fear some poll respondents expressed: “My fear is that the public will be looking at each measure as a political statement, and some will ignore the advice of health officials in regards to their kids just to prove a point,” one respondent shared. “I’m not looking forward to arguing with those who don’t take this seriously,” one said.
Social distancing discussions at Russell High School focus on how to make it work with 700 students, principal Anna Chaffin said. Administrators will meet next week to firm up plans, but some of the problem areas already are clear, she said. They include common areas like the cafeteria where students tend to congregate before the first bell, dropoff points and hallways. One option to consider is making halls one-way to avoid contact, she said.
Locker access may have to be controlled to prevent students from crowding together, she said.
Respondents to the poll said they were concerned about maintaining sufficient personal protective equipment. Russell has laid in a stock of masks, sanitizer and other supplies, Chaffin said.
At least one of her teachers has squirreled away — at her own expense — individual-sized bottles of hand sanitizer to provide students who need it, she said.