As school started last year, I made it a point to be out on the frontlines to hear directly from our students, teachers, and school leaders. I was in more than seventy schools – likely more than any other Georgian. Schools in different parts of the state were deploying similar and different practices to mitigate COVID-19. All these efforts were undertaken with the intent of keeping in-person teaching and learning going. Despite different approaches, I felt safe in every building I walked into. Though the State School Superintendent position is not granted the constitutional authority to run local school systems (and it shouldn’t be), it was important to respect the guidelines established by those I visited.
From dividers and curtains in classrooms to directional arrows and hand sanitizing stations in hallways, schools were working hard to keep their doors open through shifting quarantines, case counts, and instructional models. As a leader, I felt it was important to model expectations – wearing a face mask, sanitizing hands, and practicing social distancing. When I became eligible for the vaccine, I got it at a school site and publicly encouraged other eligible Georgians to do the same.
Prior to the start of this school year several weeks ago, I tested positive for COVID-19. Despite all the time I’d spent in classrooms last year, practicing mitigation strategies and getting the vaccine as soon as I was eligible, I got a breakthrough case of COVID prior to entering classrooms this year.
I did experience severe symptoms and had to spend the beginning of the school year in the hospital, instead of in classrooms. I personally experienced what thousands of our fellow Georgians have been through or are now going through. I had a loved one, my wife, who was experiencing COVID during the same time I had it. Like others, she wasn’t able to visit me in the hospital and we could only interact through phone calls and FaceTimes. I would not want anyone, or any loved one, to experience what I went through.
Though my symptoms were severe, and I did experience a breakthrough case, my doctors fully believe that the vaccine assisted in mitigating the effects of the virus and kept me alive during the ordeal. I am not just speaking to you as State School Superintendent, but as a fellow Georgian, when I say: I encourage all who are eligible to consult with their doctor and prayerfully and thoughtfully consider getting vaccinated. These medical professionals have been on the frontline of the battle against this virus since day one. The decision to get vaccinated is a very personal and private one, but I urge you to consult trusted medical professionals and information, considering your health and the health of loved ones.
In the hospital, I regularly checked in with Georgia Department of Education staff as we worked to support districts and schools starting the new year, but I also heard from parents and teachers.
Governor Kemp gathered feedback as well in a recent call with district superintendents from across the state. The purpose was to get an on-the-ground assessment of school reopening, part of the strong commitment the Governor has had, since coming into office, to listen to school leaders. Superintendents on the call stated they appreciated and needed the continued flexibility from the state to respond to the events happening on-the-ground.
Though there is a renewed challenge this school year due to the Delta variant, school leaders are in a much stronger position than last year: vaccines are widely available; our schools have become more accustomed to, and experienced with, quarantining and mitigation practices; there are additional resources to deploy; we are better prepared and have better infrastructure for remote learning.
From the U.S. Department of Education to the CDC, to a host of other organizations and agencies, there is no shortage of reopening plans, guidelines, or opinions – but all plans must have the faith and buy-in of local communities. As superintendents and local boards of education implement their local plans, they must continue to communicate with, respond to, and engage those they serve — their communities. We must remain responsive not only to the virus, but to our communities.
Though issues like mask mandates can divide us, there is more that unites us.
One unifying belief shared across spectrums is the critical need for in-person learning. From the White House to the State Capitol; from the U.S. Department of Education to the Georgia Department of Education; and from educational, child development, and other experts, there’s a shared belief that in-person learning is the most effective learning environment for our kids.
However, the safety of all must be our priority.
As school leaders do everything possible to keep their doors open and in-person learning going, we have a responsibility to do our part, too. This virus cannot be strangled by mandates or planned into non-existence, but we can work together to overcome this common threat.
Even though we as Georgians are fiercely independent minded, we have always rallied together as one in times of need. In facing natural and national disasters, we have always pulled together to face and overcome the challenge at hand.
Let’s join and beat this together – Georgia’s students deserve no less.
Richard Woods, a former teacher and school leader, is Georgia’s State School Superintendent.