As if Mother Nature somehow knows the Upstate New York calendar, the passage of Labor Day ushered in cool evenings and cloudy days — giving us the “back to school” fall feeling even though there are still a few weeks before the season is truly upon us. The abrupt closing of schools in the spring due to COVID, and the scramble to get remote learning up and running made all of us keenly aware of how critical schools are not just to the academic experience of children, but for nutrition, exercise, socialization and mental health. The hope that shutting down would stamp out the virus didn’t pan out, and now even though the risk of community spread right now is higher than it was in March, everyone is feeling the need to get kids back to school.

So who will step forward to bring kids a sense of normalcy in a pandemic, to provide reassurance in a socially-distanced way, to supervise classroom breakfast and lunch, to calm separation anxiety and other fears, to re-envision teaching methods and hands-free instruction all while delivering academically sound lessons to dozens at a time? Teachers, teachers’ aides and all the school support staff (including the bus drivers!).

Are there a lot of challenges? Yes! Have there been glitches? Of course. Is every day a new adventure for everyone? Certainly. But all of the adults who work with children day in and day out are dedicated to making the best of things, and we should all take some time to think about what they are doing to make things work — the risks they are taking, the ways that they are adapting their methods and trying to meet a variety of unique needs.

We’ve all heard about the stress that families are under as parents juggle their kids’ needs alongside work schedules or being out of work, associated financial stresses, and worries about staying healthy. It’s amazing to me how resilient the community has been in responding to needs and filling gaps in services. In fact, seeing how service agencies have innovated to meet people where they’re at has been a bright spot in an otherwise dark time. But the complete overhauling of schooling as we know it — from temperature checks at the front doors to distribution of Chromebooks and wifi hotspots to kids — has been a feat that I am still trying to wrap my head around.

At our house, we have opted into remote learning, meaning that all instruction is happening online. This choice made sense for us and was a way to help the school community (I hope!) by de-densifying the classrooms to reduce the number of students coming into contact with faculty, staff, and each other during the school days. But we also assumed that the remote option would be asynchronous — with materials posted online for viewing and completion in a self-paced way. That didn’t seem ideal, but manageable. Instead, what the Geneva City School District has been able to pull off thus far are classes in real time for students at home. It allows students to see their teachers (and sometimes other classmates) as if they were sharing a physical space and being taught in-person. The IT department must have been working overtime to get equipment placed in classrooms that allows teachers to address students simultaneously, regardless of location, so that neither group feels secondary to the other.

I understand that the choice to be back in the classroom is a risk, a trial-by-fire for our new superintendent, and a true voyage into uncharted waters. It’s very much an exercise in community trust and cooperation as we all count on each other to exercise caution, wear masks, and minimize unnecessary contacts with people outside of our own households. If circumstances change and in-person instruction is no longer an option, the district has laid the groundwork for maintaining meaningful connection between teachers and students remotely. Nothing about our present circumstances (or all of 2020 for that matter) is perfect, but I think teachers (and support staff) have shown clearly that they care about our kids and are working to make this episode the least-traumatic, most-successful it possibly can be. Please accept this column as a token of my appreciation.

Jackie Augustine lives with her three children in Geneva, where she served on City Council for 16 years. An ethics instructor at Keuka College, she also is co-director of the Seneca7 relay race. Email her at writethingcolumn@gmail.com.

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