This time a year ago, the local school news found on the pages of The Times was very much what you would expect for the time of year. Classes winding down in anticipation of the holiday break, teachers of the year being honored, students helping out local charities, plans being made for the big annual basketball tournament. Talk at the state level about teacher pay raises, and what the budget might allow.
No mention at all of pandemics, novel viruses, remote learning, A/B school days, mask mandates, quarantines or super spreader events. Just 12 short months ago, our local schools were more likely to be discussing health classes than the need to be on the forefront of a life and death battle in the public health arena.
That was then, this is now.
Both county and city school systems were forced to stop some classroom instruction a few days earlier than they had hoped last week, finding it impossible to continue doing the delicate dancing between the need for in-person learning and the reality of mandatory quarantining of students and staff as a new wave of COVID-19 infection continues to sweep through the area.
That they were able to hold as many in-person classes as they did, for as long as they did, is remarkable in itself.
There’s not much debate to be had over the intrinsic value of instruction in a classroom as opposed to students sitting in front of computer screens at home. Nor is there any replacing the social and life skills that come from being part of a student population at school.
That said, what has been accomplished via remote learning is pretty impressive as well, considering the demands put on both students and teachers to master the process and make it work.
For months, our local schools have struggled with how to maximize educational opportunities while reducing as much as possible the health risks to students, staff and their families. Overall, they’ve done an incredible job handling a crisis for which no one was prepared just a year ago.
No, the decisions made by school leadership have not always been convenient, nor popular. Sudden closings of schools create problems. Remote learning demands changes in family dynamics and scheduling that are disruptive and difficult. Forced quarantining of students and staff impacts lives and families. Masked students and school personnel are hard to accept as the new norm.
And yes, policies and procedures have changed as time has gone by. We’ve learned a lot about this coronavirus since it first came on the scene prior to the end of the last school year, and recommendations by health officials for dealing with the pandemic have changed repeatedly over the past 10 months.
But looking at the big picture, it is amazing how well both the Hall and Gainesville school systems have coped, and a tribute to the leadership of both that they have been able to advance the cause of education while keeping school-related outbreaks of the virus at a minimum.
While certainly not the routine to which we are accustomed and a long way from any pretense at normality, the first half of the current school year went remarkably well considering the thousands of people involved in the local educational process, from bus drivers to teachers to cafeteria workers and custodians, in addition to students.
The current spike in cases of the virus may have forced most local schools to move to remote learning for all students a day or two early, but doing so was both logical and necessary.
And while not popular, the decision to not allow fans at the county’s big annual holiday season basketball tournament makes sense as well. We are in the midst of a major increase in the numbers of people diagnosed with, and in many cases hospitalized by, this coronavirus. To encourage crowds in a confined area like a basketball gym would have been dangerously irresponsible at a time when area hospitals are overrun and COVID-19 patients are, themselves, being treated in a gym of a different sort.
To their credit, local schools also have been transparent about the actions being implemented, policies being put into place, and the reason for doing so. Through a variety of different platforms, school leadership has tried to keep students and parents informed about a constantly changing academic landscape.
Now we look ahead to the beginning of the second half of the school year after the holidays, and can only hope the virus cases are dropping sufficiently to allow a return to schools. Based on what happened after the Thanksgiving holiday, there may not be sufficient data in early January to decide whether it is safe to return to class immediately after Christmas. If not, remote learning may again be the norm rather than the exception, though the hope is that classroom instruction can quickly begin again at most schools once the break is over.
Difficult times and hard decisions demand strong leadership. We’ve seen plenty of that in both the Hall County and Gainesville school systems this year.
Times editorial board
Norman Baggs, general manager
Shannon Casas, editor in chief