Brenda Smoker headshot

Brenda Smoker

As we approach a new school year, my heart — as a grandparent and former school superintendent — is with all of the students, parents, support staff members, teachers and school administrators in Lancaster County.

“Uncertainty” seems to be the best word to describe the 2020-21 school year. There are many questions, few clear-cut answers and great potential for new direction, all of which provide challenges like no other school year on record (even last year’s pandemic-shortened one).

We are fortunate in this county to overwhelmingly have strong districts with dedicated employees and caring parents. The districts in Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 are some of the most collaborative in the state. Although each district must prepare its own plan based on its particular needs, the planning is done with learning and ideas shared among all the districts. This provides some comfort when making decisions that are the equivalent of snow-day determinations on steroids.

I empathize with parents who are making educational decisions for their children. For some, the decision is made by necessity.

As a single parent raising my own two children, I would have had no choice but to work. I had to have my teaching position to provide for my family. Many parents will find themselves in similar circumstances.

Other parents may be highly skeptical about sending their children to a school building this fall because of members in their families who are at elevated risk if they contract COVID-19.

It is theorized that children do not seem to contract COVID-19 at the same rate as adults, and the mortality rate is not the same as for other age groups. However, that does not mean children are immune from COVID-19 illness or death. It is true that there is risk in everything, including riding in a car, but we know far more about traffic accidents than we do about the long-term effects of this disease.

While some have declared definitively that all children should physically return to school or no child should, I ask you to entertain the idea that parents know what is best for their own children and families. We should not be telling them what to do — or judging them for their decisions.

Virtual option

It’s important to point out to those who were disappointed by the online education their child received in the spring that this is not what they will get if they choose a virtual learning option for the fall.

Developing online learning takes time and significant training for teachers to create lessons that are not only effective but engage students. This is not a criticism of what teachers did in the spring — most did the best they could without the necessary training. (Note to universities with teacher preparation programs: Effective online teaching should be a skill all your graduates have acquired.)

For those who opt for virtual learning, the course content has already been created specifically for online delivery so your child’s experience should be more robust than it was in the spring.

So many questions

I have no doubt our districts will do all they can to provide for a safe experience for students, but there are many questions that remain.

What will happen when a student refuses to wear a mask where required? What happens when a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19? How do you handle social distancing and masks for students with special needs who may not understand? How do you ensure that parents are actively screening their children before sending them to school each day?

Obviously, these are just a few of the many questions that must be answered with planning and policy.

I suspect districts may struggle with filling all of their positions, particularly among support staff. Prior to the pandemic, there was already a shortage of bus drivers and food service workers. Substitute teachers are always in short supply. All three of these groups do not make high wages and often consist of people who have retired but were not ready to completely stop working. And older folks are at higher risk for serious outcomes if they contract the virus. This may make it even more difficult to fill those positions.

Above and beyond

Having worked in several districts in this county, I can attest to how much administrators, teachers and support staff members truly go above and beyond for their students. These are the same people who voluntarily created videos, organized drive-bys through local neighborhoods and distributed lawn signs to graduating seniors in the spring — all done to provide comfort and care to their students.

Some of these individuals are dealing with genuine fear for their own well-being and that of their families, students and colleagues. For individuals who are in high-risk categories, the decision may be excruciating: Do they continue to work while living in fear or do they give up their dream job?

Experienced teachers are well aware that if they resign now, it will be difficult to be hired at a later time as districts often cut costs by hiring new graduates at lower salaries.

As a former superintendent, I well understand the difficult challenge all current superintendents are facing. They are looking for the best guidance available, but there is no manual for this. Some recommendations have been politically co-opted and, without a county public health department, there are no recommendations specific to our county.

Districts are to be commended for having developed options so parents can choose what is best for their families. Multiple options also create multiple logistical challenges as the leaders must navigate how to do bus runs, how to move students in a building, how to handle parents who change their minds — to name just a few of those challenges.

The guidance from the state has changed as new information has emerged, which is to be expected, but this also creates a moving target that school officials are trying to hit. Even as superintendents present their plans to their school boards and communities, they do so acknowledging that it could all change on a moment’s notice.

So, what is left for all of us to do? I suggest that we offer compassion and support to students who will experience school in a way that is different from what they have known. Give compassion and support to parents making difficult decisions about what best to do for their children. Give compassion and support to teachers and support staff members trying to adjust to a new normal. Give compassion and support to superintendents and administrators who are doing their best to gather information, seek input from local stakeholders, formulate plans and communicate as much as possible, even when they do not have answers to all of the questions. Give compassion and support to school board members, as they are tasked with giving final approval to a district’s reopening plan.

We can get through these challenges if we are nimble, flexible, committed to using the best available information and working collaboratively. I believe Lancaster County will rise to the occasion.

Brenda Smoker (then Becker) retired as superintendent of Hempfield School District in June 2015.