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Hurray, it’s back-to-school! Now what?

Excitement about in-person learning tempered by resurgent virus, mask controversy

Erin Albanese, Beth Heinen Bell and Morgan Jarema contributed to this story.

All districts — As guidance counselor Lori Koza got ready last week for her students at Grandville High School to return to school today, she felt “dissonance” in the air. 

Yes, she felt excitement and joy at seeing students again, felt their hope to get back to games, dances, productions and hanging out with friends inside school. But she also sensed “a looming dark cloud” – can you guess what that is? 

“While we are hopeful for normalcy, and while summer did provide much needed rest and rejuvenation, we are prepared as we can be to run that marathon again,” Koza said.

Ah yes, the marathon: that exhausting race against the virus we’ve been running since March 2020. For just a minute this summer we thought we were about to hit the tape, with real social gatherings, masks off, actual restaurant meals! Alas, the Delta variant had a different scenario in mind. As COVID cases tick back up, the masks have started to come back on. Could school closures be next? 

Dear heaven, let’s hope not. And so do educators like Lori Koza as Kent County students return this week to school – and to a looming cloud of questions. However, Koza knows one thing for sure. 

“Students are ready to show up and be students again!” she said. “As adults, I think it is imperative to do whatever it is that is within our control to make this a reality.”

‘The idea is to embrace change. We have to be on the cutting edge of that change.’ – Jason McGhee, GRPS Innovation Central High School principal

Masks Off, Back On  

Whatever being a student again means this fall will in large part be dictated by the resurgent virus. Just a few weeks ago most area schools were letting parents decide on masks. But following a strong mask recommendation from the Kent County Health Department, as well as from state and federal health officials, Grand Rapids Public Schools promptly required masks for all students and staff — vaccinated or not — and a few other districts quickly followed suit. By Friday, the Kent and Ottawa county health departments had ordered masks for all pre-K-6 students and staff. 

Throw in the uncertainties around the highly contagious Delta variant, breakthrough infections of vaccinated people and the vulnerability of unvaccinated children, and the back-to-school buzz gets a little fuzzy. But school leaders insist that they and their students have learned from the marathon and are determined not to hit the wall again.  

“In March of 2020 we had to make a sharp right turn,” said Jason McGhee, newly named principal of GRPS’ Innovation Central High School after six-plus years at Coit Creative Arts Academy. “It was so amazing to watch what we were able to do in such a short amount of time. We created new systems that were never there before. If we can do that, we can do anything.” 

McGhee sees his and his staff’s task now as basically being ready for anything, even if it means a return to hybrid learning.

“The idea is to embrace change,” he added. “We have to be on the cutting edge of that change, embracing the things that have worked and the things that are to come. This is a tough time for a lot of people. We still have to hold out the idea of grace as we do all of this work.”  

‘Our priority is in-person learning for each and every child.’ – Kentwood Superintendent Kevin Polston

Prioritizing In-person Learning 

Grace seems like a keyword for the challenges ahead, from student health and learning to teacher lesson plans and district leader decisions on masking and in-person instruction. Pressure from parents on all fronts and political battles put superintendents in even hotter seats than usual. 

In Kentwood Public Schools, leaders are hoping for a year of 100% in-person learning.

“Our priority is in-person learning for each and every child,” said Superintendent Kevin Polston. “We are committed to implementing whatever mitigation strategies are necessary to do that.” 

Those include last week’s decision to require masks in schools and on buses, a response to the “unique challenges” of the Delta variant, he said. “In-person learning is what we know is best for kids, and we are going to continue to offer that for each and every child.”

But without mandates from health authorities, superintendents have been left to make tough and controversial decisions when it comes to requiring masks or making them optional, Polston added: “If a public health official believes that the community is in imminent danger then we expect that the public health officials will use the authority given to them to ensure that the community can be safe.”

‘I’ve just been yearning to have those little humans right next to me.’ – Lana Tran, Forest Hills first-grade teacher

Ready for Virtual if Need Be 

For teachers like Lana Tran of Forest Hills, her students’ safety and learning go hand-in-hand – though the dance can get awkward. 

Tran was busy last week preparing Room No. W4 for her first-graders at Knapp Forest Elementary. She greets the school year with both excitement and a new kind of nervousness. 

Because she is immunocompromised, Tran taught from home and her locked classroom for remote students last year. This year, vaccinated and more confident despite the uptick in children testing positive, she plans an in-person school year. 

“This year it’s a different level of excitement than I have ever had,” Tran said. “There’s just nothing better than in-person connection with them. I’ve just been yearning to have those little humans right next to me.”

If they have to switch to virtual again, Tran said she has a year’s worth of hour-by-hour activity slides so she isn’t up late again creating them from scratch. Another plus: Students who learned from home last year can help her lead when it comes to using technology. “It was so fun to see how tech savvy they were at the end of the year,” she said.

‘I know students are ready to enjoy the days that feel ‘normal’ and are ready to dig deep on the days that may not.’ – Lori Koza, Grandville High School guidance counselor

Students Come Prepared and Energized 

At Grandville High School, counselor Koza is encouraged to see students signing up in huge numbers for sports and clubs. Over 100 of them come equipped with credits earned over the summer to make up for lost learning last year. She sees them more prepared to deal with whatever the virus throws at them and more determined to take care of each other’s struggles. 

Her job will be to help them manage COVID’s collateral damage: stress, anxiety, loneliness, anger and anything else that gets in the way of learning. “My biggest goal is to teach students that whatever they are feeling is okay to feel, and how to not let any barriers stop them from living their fullest, most authentic lives.”

It’s a wonder how teachers and other educators deal with the day-to-day demands of students with all their different learning styles, personalities and problems – let alone with a global pandemic in the mix. Lori Koza has a pretty powerful perspective on all that.

“At GHS, we truly get to work with some of the most talented, courageous and amazing young people out there,” she said. “That is my motivation to keep going — being surrounded by such dynamic students every day.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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