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