Thank God almighty—schools are looking to reopen

‘Schools weren’t built to be empty, and fields and gyms and theaters weren’t erected to stand silent’

By George Valadie

I don’t know about your world but I think things in mine are actually getting a little better. I think.

After all, it is still 2020. Don’t want to jinx anything.

Though only in her early 40s, our oldest daughter, Katy, is one of those folks who lives life in the “pretty susceptible” category; immuno-suppressed is, I believe, the technical term.

A Crohn’s sufferer for many years, a brilliant surgeon—and her daily meds combined to return to her the sort of life she thought she’d lost.

But as often happens, the long-term medication also weakens the immune system. It’s a trade-off she’s welcomed. But from day one of this pandemic, she’s had no choice but to be very, very careful.

Like many, for these last three months she’s not been inside a store or a restaurant. She’s barely left her home—neither have her children. Her husband was assigned shopping and carry-out-dinner and margarita-retrieval duties, after which she douses him in a variety of disinfectants—a lesson she learned from her mother.

It took a while, but she finally conceded to a weekly “happy hour” of sorts with her sister, her sister’s boyfriend, and her mother and me. We all gathered in her cul-de-sac, safely and socially distanced, sitting in the street each in our own lawn chairs, sipping on an afternoon libation, and catching up on each other’s lives.

It was so much better than Zooming them!

At our first outing, we’d been there a bit when nature called, and I asked permission to use her bathroom. Seemed like the polite thing to do.

“Don’t even think about it,” she fired back. “You’re not coming in my house.”

“But I’m not kidding, I really have to go.”

“Look down there, Dad,” as she pointed at the construction port-o-potty a block away, “They’re gone for the day; they won’t mind.”

With a look of incredulity on my face and a look of you-better-not-cross-me on hers, I set off on a hurried walk.

Didn’t seem all that polite to me.

But I knew the world must be healing when after a few weeks she relented and has now begun allowing us to use her bathroom … provided we don’t breathe or touch anything.

None too soon since the construction is now finished.

But there’s more good news: in addition to the reopening of businesses, we’re talking about resuming schools, too.

Thank God! Thank God almighty!

But I won’t lie, planning for the unknowable might be the most challenging thing we’ve ever done.

One thing’s for sure, this summer’s preparations won’t be like any of the others we’ve known. We’re usually cleaning classrooms, waxing hallways. We’re always hosting camps for the little kids and reunions for the old ones.

Turns out we’ve been cleaning since March so we’ve about got that part knocked out. The rest got canceled.

The plans we’re piecing together now don’t resemble any we’ve compiled before. We’re re-thinking and gearing up for school “the old-fashioned way”; we’re also trying to improve our recent experience with school the “at-home way”; and lastly, we’re dreaming of the sort of school where we try to keep 400 teenagers six feet apart.

Imagine that if you can. I’m struggling to.

We spent two-and-a-half hours today alone trying to figure out the best ways for our students and staff to serve and eat lunch safely.

Microwaves or not? Fountain drinks or not? Refills or not? Coke machines or not? Eat in the classroom or not? Eat in the gym or not? Eat outside or not? Clean your own space or not? Longer lunches? Shorter lunches? Split lunches? Queue lines or footprints on the floor? Cash or not?

And I’m still not sure.

Whatever we decide, that just covers 30 minutes of their day.

I didn’t have to make the calendar decision, happy to pass that along to higher powers. But our input was requested.

Start early or on time? Fall break or not? End the semester at Thanksgiving or not? Long weekends or not?

And if we do open in some form or another, what exactly should the new normal look like?

Like most, we’ll be taking temperatures, asking questions, and logging answers for posterity and contact tracing. We’ll have one-way traffic in the halls and hand sanitizer dispensers in every nook and cranny.

We’ll clean desks after each class and doorknobs all day long. Kids will wear masks and teachers will wear shields. If that’s not enough to separate us, we’ll install plexiglass to make sure.

We’re doing away with … well, just about everything. No wind instruments. No shared paint brushes. No Mass choir. No sign-in pen at the desk. A teacher asked me if they should collect student papers and then return them after they had touched each other? I didn’t know what to say.

It’s bordering on the insane. I know I am.

Is some of this overkill? Maybe so. Probably so. But a school superintendent was quoted as saying, “The world will never know if we over-reacted. But it will be painfully obvious if we under-react.”

I think he’s dead on.

But I’ll take it all, every bit of it, the smart things and the you’ve-got-be-kidding-me things if we can just get them back. Schools weren’t built to be empty, and fields and gyms and theaters weren’t erected to stand silent. We are better— much better—when we are together.

I can’t wait.

Dear God—Please guide those who have to decide anything. We have no idea what we’re doing. Amen.


George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.

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