I believe every educator approaches the beginning of a new school year with energy, optimism and excitement. Most return refreshed and eager to kickstart the year with new ideas in their annual opportunity to do it over and to do it bigger and better than before. The smell of the crisp fall air, the anticipation of the first home football game, and seeing our friends after a long summer leaves educators feeling nostalgic, and we long to be the artist creating the perfect backdrop for our students so they too have those wonderful memories of the first weeks of school.

Sadly, this year feels so uncertain, but I still write this editorial with optimism as I look forward to my 28th year serving students and their families in West Fargo Public Schools.

I have always believed it is my job as a leader to bring people to the table, on equal terms, and facilitate conversations that result in solutions. I try to create an environment that is safe for people to speak with enough silence for people to be heard. Never in my tenure as an educator has this task felt so hard to accomplish. By listening to all of the voices, I believe two things are true: we all want an end to COVID-19 and we all want our children back in school full time. While the “how” and the “when” of a full return has divided communities around the world, the staff and families in our district were able to come together to create a plan. We conducted 12 surveys and 20 virtual forums from March-June, and more than 40 meetings in the two weeks immediately following the release of the ND K12 Smart Restart guidance in mid-July, to develop a plan that considers both the physical and emotional wellbeing of our students while keeping both students and staff safe.

Even with all of that information to guide us, I have felt that the table is not big enough, some voices overpower others, and the challenges have seemed insurmountable. How will we ever get our kids back in school while keeping our staff and students safe? Should students be going back in full, as a hybrid, or should there be distance learning for all? What are the ramifications in each scenario? Who should be making these decisions and what data should be considered?

We have been grappling with these questions for months, and I can assure you there are no easy answers. Each scenario has its own set of pros and cons, and without a crystal ball, we have had to make the best decisions based on the information available today. This is why the plan is fluid; instructional models will change with the conditions in the state, county, community and district. District administration will meet with medical experts weekly to analyze the 14-day rolling average of percentage positive cases, death rates, and hospital utilization rates. We cannot promise that no one will get COVID-19 at school, nor can we promise that no one will get influenza, strep throat, lice, chicken pox, or pink eye at school. I can promise we will take every precaution to mitigate the spread and keep students and staff safe. I can also promise our families a choice in learning models so they can make decisions that are best for their family.

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The phrase “during these uncertain times,” has been overused, but it is the best descriptor of our current state. Regardless of all the aspects of our world that are uncertain, I am certain of this: we must get our children back in school full time and we must keep our students and staff safe. We have all lost a great deal the past five months, but no one has lost more than our children. It is time for us to pull together, while remaining six feet apart, to prepare today’s learners for tomorrow’s world.