Schools can reopen safely if they do it right

Washington Examiner
Congressman Rick W. Allen

Our nation has faced many new challenges this year, and though we will undoubtedly encounter more in the months to come, I’ve seen people meet these challenges with a resilience and strength that gives me hope for our nation’s future.

I’m eternally grateful for our dedicated healthcare heroes and those working on the frontlines, and as the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, I’ve seen through our students, teachers, and school administrators that the commitment to provide everyone the opportunity to achieve the American dream is still alive and well.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to visit schools in Columbia County, Georgia, and last week, I had the opportunity to tour two of the schools in the county. I visited Grovetown Elementary School before taking a walk down memory lane at my alma mater, Evans High School. During my visits, I saw firsthand how the school district has adapted to learning in the age of the coronavirus.

While they understand that in-person instruction is best for student learning, they also acknowledge that COVID-19 has placed great difficulties on their ability to provide face-to-face instruction as their sole method for teaching. Some parents can’t return to work full time if they don’t have a safe place to send their children. Some parents may have medically fragile family members, and they are not comfortable sending their children back until a vaccine is developed.

That’s why the school district left the decision to the family on what will work best for each student by offering two options: in-person learning, with new guidelines based on the Georgia Department of Public Health’s guidance that help protect the health and well-being of students and staff, or learning from home with explicit expectations set forth by the school district. The majority of parents, 75%, chose to send their children back to the classroom for in-person learning, with 25% opting to learn from home.

I had the opportunity to see how they have smoothly transitioned to teaching some students virtually, but my biggest takeaway was seeing the joy on each student's and teacher’s face as I walked the halls, joined a few classes, and stopped by the lunchrooms. It did some good for the soul to see how excited everyone was to be back at school.

This is only possible because of the hard work and discipline demonstrated by the whole school community — parents, students, and the district. After my tours, I received a briefing from the Board of Education outlining its detailed sanitation initiatives such as installing and utilizing Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization Modules throughout the entire school building to clean the air, requiring face coverings during transitions, when gathered in large groups, on the bus, and, of course, social distancing whenever possible.

Now that we’re a few weeks into the school year, we can see that these measures are working. Columbia County is being transparent, publishing all positive cases every week. As of their most recent report, numbers are less than 0.06% positive for students and 0.14% for staff. These rates are extremely low, showing that Columbia County has safely reopened for the school year. However, the school district has reiterated its commitment to the health and safety of everyone and will constantly be reassessing its plan and adapting as needed.

This is the example that school districts around the nation should follow. While this is not the school year we expected or that our students deserve, their futures are too important, and we cannot let their education or their future hang in limbo. As we always do, we must continue to adapt and overcome, and I’m so proud of Columbia County for doing just that. I look forward to the success of more counties in Georgia’s 12th Congressional District reopening soon.

While the rioting and looting we see on the news and on social media is disheartening and must be condemned, I don’t want stories like that of Columbia County Schools to be lost in the noise. We are still a nation of laws, filled with overcomers, and a land of opportunity for all.

I hope we can all take some time to thank our teachers, parents, and students who are working diligently to ensure our next generation doesn’t fall behind academically. I will continue working to ensure their safety so that each student has the opportunity to receive a good education and live out the American dream.

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