(Image Source: DeepLearning4All)
Grace and Mercy. This sentiment can be heard in almost every zoom call occurring within Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (PLD) as teachers, students, parents and administration try to navigate the logistics of learning during a pandemic. Located in Lexington, Kentucky, home to the University of Kentucky, PLD finds itself in a precarious position of managing pressures from all stakeholders regarding returning to in-person school. All this whilst operating in a city that switches from red to yellow in COVID-19 safety.
On October 12, 2020, the PLD School Board Decision Making Council (SBDM) met up with the intention of finalizing a plan for the second half of the school year. With surrounding pressures to reopen schools, following a parent protest at the district office, a decision best fitting the student body was needed and it was needed quickly.
A draft was finalized on the information to send to parents regarding this plan, which would entail two options. If conditions in the city allow, students will 1) return to school 5 days a week from 8:25 am — 3:15 pm. All classes and lunch periods will have assigned seats for the ease of potential tracking. No loitering in the hallway will be allowed and masks and social distancing will be enforced. Students, however, are also given the option to 2) remain remote with a couple of changes. The Wednesday period for catch-up and teacher office hours will no longer be offered. Synchronous learning will no longer be guaranteed, and it is up to the discretion of the teacher to decide how to manage it. Students were required to submit an indication of their semester two plans by Monday, November 16, 2020.
As expected, this is a decision that garnered many different opinions from different stakeholders including students themselves. All in all, they supported having multiple options as this issue is multifaced. Going back to school requires them to consider what could happen when they return home.
Dahlgren, a PLD junior living with someone considered high risk, made her decision with this in mind.
“I don’t want to accidentally bring COVID home with me. I also fear that some people may not be responsible in following procedure to keep themselves and others safe, so COVID could spread at school. For my safety, and the safety of my family, I decided to stay home for the beginning of next semester.”
Yet what students are giving up in staying home does not go unnoticed, especially by the class of 2021, who have lost much of their senior year to the virus.
Park, a PLD senior, expressed, “ I think it’s a good choice for Dunbar to give students an option to return if they want to. I’m not 100% certain if it’s the safest move, but I ultimately think that if there are safeguards and the school has protocols to ensure student safety to the best of their abilities, it’s not a bad idea.”
Regarding his senior year, he notes “this being my last year at Dunbar, I really had a hard time deciding if I wanted to come back. I wanted to sit in classrooms doing group work, messing around with friends at lunch and actually presenting to human beings one last time”. Ultimately, the school restrictions and uncertainty led him to stay at home.
Concern stems further than just students. A parent of a PLD senior and a freshman at another one of the Fayette County schools explained, “For some students, opening schools in person is best because they cannot learn virtually, especially freshman who need to get used to the new school. But until things are safer and the school can ensure the safety of my children, I don’t feel comfortable sending my kids out there”.
This same concern and uncertainty about the future have been reiterated throughout the entire decision-making process. The balance of educating students and ensuring their safety is tough to find, especially with the constant change of circumstances. Gabbard, a PLD teacher and parent, concisely surmises, “I wish we knew more about the virus so we could make better decisions. No one wins no matter what we do.”
On November 18, with cases of COVID-19 still rising, the governor released a mandate that would, among other things, shut down all in-person schools within red zones for the remainder of the semester including private schools. This new information brought rise to new consideration.
Joshi, a PLD senior, remarks that prior to the mandate, she had selected to go back in person, yet now, her parents do not feel as if it is safe for her. Still, others view the mandate as an indication that more precautions should be taken in containing the virus, ones that do not put returning to school in the foreground.
Furthermore, concerns of student compliance to school set out regulations circulate. With troubles in general mask-wearing habits, McNely, a PLD teacher, says “ I can only control my own actions, and I’m concerned about the disregard that some may have with wearing masks and the potential for spreading the virus to someone who could be compromised.”
The return to in-person learning within Fayette County is a complex issue that will not be solved in one day. All stakeholders involved have a lot to consider as this is not an isolated decision.
As this new semester continues virtually, much remains unknown about what is to come next. Yet the work done by decision-makers, teachers and students alike is met with empathy and applause. The FCPS decision-making board continues to meet and release enouncements regarding next steps.
Patton, a PLD teacher summarizes the thought of many simply saying, “I don’t really think anyone knows what to expect at this point. It will be very different for a while, but I am hopeful it will work and keep everyone as safe as possible.”
Regardless, no matter what is to occur, all stakeholders will truly need “Grace and Mercy” for a long while to come.