Opinion: How one school carefully reopened

The Cobb County School District will begin its phased approach to reopen classrooms on Monday, Oct. 5. Credit: Pixabay
The Cobb County School District will begin its phased approach to reopen classrooms on Monday, Oct. 5. Credit: Pixabay

Credit: Pixabay

Credit: Pixabay

In the spring of 2020, our elementary and middle school shifted to 100% virtual learning as many U.S. schools did. During those last 3 months of the school year, our principal drove to most of our children’s homes, wore a mask, provided a prepackaged care pack and asked how they and their family were doing. She reported back to the school board that many children were struggling, expressing sadness and a depressed mood over not being with their school friends.

Atlanta North School (ANS) is a small, private Pre-K through 8th grade church school in Dunwoody. Our annual enrollment is about 100 students coming from a diverse ethnic, racial and socioeconomic background. The school’s motto is “Shaping Lives for Success.” Unfortunately, last spring we knew our students were not thriving or experiencing success.

In May 2020, our school board appointed a subcommittee consisting of our principal, a teacher, a physician, a health prevention researcher, a lawyer, an accountant, and a church pastor; many members were also parents. We knew that we would have the green light from the state government to reopen in-person school in the Fall, but these were our kids and the safety of our families and community was paramount.

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Credit: contributed

We started with a policy document led by our physician and health prevention researcher that outlined what it would take to safely return to in-person education for the Fall. The policy began with a classroom size limit based on the number of desks that could be arranged to socially distance students, additional outdoor learning opportunities, mandatory masking for 3rd to 8th grade students, recommendations to parents for pre-K through 2nd grade students to mask if they were able, mandatory carpool drop-off and pickup, temperature and symptom screening for all students and staff each day, prepackaged lunches, and evening disinfectants for our classrooms.

After three virtual town hall meetings with parents and staff during the summer, we started our school year on August 11. We had 75 students enrolled, of which 90% returned for in-person education and the remaining joined virtually. We watched as many crowded schools in Georgia reported outbreaks and closures with in-person return to school, understanding this could be our school if we didn’t enforce our policy.

We are 4 weeks into the school year and have so far avoided any COVID-19 infections in our student body and staff. Every Friday we remind students, parents and staff that our behaviors through the weekend will affect our safety in the following week. We know our model is not perfect and we have a sick bay prepared and ready should any of our children or staff develop COVID-19 symptoms. Nevertheless, every effort is made daily to minimize exposure to the virus while providing instruction and promoting community.

Our children need the community for their own emotional well-being and if we do this right, we can continue “shaping lives for success.”

Fadi Nahab, M.D., is an associate professor of neurology and pediatrics, Emory University, and an ANS school board member and parent. Also contributing were: Angeline Weems, current principal, ANS; Patricia Salazar, former ANS principal; Yvionne Joseph, ANS teacher; Villard Bastien, ANS board chairman and parent; Scott Linton, ANS board member and associate pastor, Atlanta North Church; John Satelmajer; ANS treasurer and parent; and Shelly-Ann Bowen, ANS board.