Expert Perspectives

What It Will Actually Take to Get Students Safely Back to School

More than half of parents are uncomfortable sending their children back to school. Here’s how schools can help.

The debate is raging: How can we safely send our kids — and, just as important, our educators — back to school? Most districts have chosen their paths and are today in the middle of their reopenings. But only one thing is for certain: They will need to make a constant stream of new decisions in response to very fluid changes on the ground.

Sending students and staff back to school is not a one-time, binary decision. Policymakers and educators must act like first responders and be prepared to adjust. At every step they need to listen proactively to students and staff, and then take action to rebuild public trust.

Listen and Act to Build Community Trust

An August 10 Qualtrics study of more than 1,000 parents with school-aged children showed that 53% are uncomfortable sending their kids to school right now. Discomfort doesn’t entirely map to decision-making, though: 63% of parents say they’ll still likely send their kids back to the classroom. Only 27% report they are unlikely to send their children to classrooms at all.

What should leaders at the district or school level do when confronted with this kind of feedback? Explore what would make parents more comfortable sending students back. In this study, parents provided encouraging ideas about outdoor learning, better testing protocols, and socially distant bussing.

They also gave standard answers about social distancing, mask wearing, and classroom disinfecting. But gathering this information allows education leaders to promote trust through: listening, implementing promising solutions, and communicating to families what actions they’ve taken and why.

This particular pulse deals with school reopening but that’s just one stop on the line. Leaders must continue to listen and act to see what’s next. For example, symptom testing and contact tracing will be essential practices as we work to contain the virus. Planning must start now. Rolled out correctly with input from the community shows that you’re thinking ahead and builds community trust.

Fort Worth ISD, Listening and Acting

In May, the Fort Worth Independent School District heard from more than 20,000 parents and students as it planned for how best to reopen in the fall. The feedback helped the district understand what it calls its ‘digital divide,’ and led them to purchase 24,000 laptops and, perhaps more importantly, ZIP-code targeted Internet hotspots for students.

In July, realizing even that significant investment wouldn’t be enough, the district purchased 10,000 more hotspots. Whatever the virus does next, leaders are closing the digital divide in Fort Worth.

In these next critical weeks and months, nobody has time for blue-ribbon commissions and 80-page reports. Students, families, and community leaders will demand transparency and contingency planning — all delivered as the situation changes. Not next school year.

Not Just Students, Listen to Every Stakeholder

While students and families are critical parties in school reopening, school staff and faculty are joining nurses and grocery clerks as 2020’s essential workers. We cannot educate anyone without them, but we also cannot expect them to create compelling socially distanced and virtual education experiences on their own.

Unless we listen to them and act on their concerns, we risk them offering their feedback as protests in the street rather than conversations in our schools. Education leaders must constantly ask how they feel about doing so. From symptoms to curricula, from internet access and meals to mental health, schools must ask key constituents like teachers. Continually.

For example, in Fort Worth, after listening to teachers and administrators, the district decided that for the best possible educational experience, teachers would work from their school buildings whether they’re instructing in person or not. By understanding teachers’ experiences and then using their input, that important decision became a community collaboration and not just a mandate.

Most of the toughest decisions will be made as school and district leaders listen — deeply, regularly and proactively. From students to teachers, from families to staff, understanding stakeholders’ experiences, and then baking them into decisions and processes, has never been more vital.

Listening and acting is the only way to flex during this time and to build not just a “new normal,” but a “new better.”

About the Author

Omar Garriott is Global Industry Lead for Education, Qualtrics. Omar co-founded a new business for Salesforce in K-12 education, as Senior Director for Education Cloud. Garriott previously launched and led the student/university team at LinkedIn and led iPad marketing for K-12 and higher education institutions at Apple. Garriott started his career as a Teach for America teacher. He holds an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley and a B.S. from the University of Virginia.