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Robichaux: Other districts’ experiences should help guide St. John schools

Public school doors are opening after Labor Day in St. John the Baptist Parish, and I truly feel that school leaders have been given an impossible task. With some children returning to school physically and some returning virtually, leaders are challenged to develop an infallible plan to safely accommodate both groups during a time of so much uncertainty.

The last time the United States dealt with a pandemic that mandated facemasks and other protective measures, the world was a vastly different place with a much smaller population. Gone are the old days of schoolhouses with one teacher and a dozen children. Today’s students come into contact with hundreds of people in the course of a normal school day. We can’t rely on experience in our decision-making.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand it is so much easier to criticize a plan than it is to put one in motion. I commend our district for the thought that has gone into every decision in the Strong Start plan. The safety measures detailed on the School Board website make sense. Disinfecting buses and classrooms, encouraging frequent hand washing, requiring face coverings and limiting capacity are all necessary components of a safe return to the classroom.

My concern is whether teachers and principals will be able to put this plan in action and actively enforce it. I’m picturing social distancing in the classroom going out the window when children stampede down crowded hallways. I imagine children launching masks across the classroom to hit other students in the head. I predict some kids will treat their masks like trading cards and exchange them during class.

Other districts have already returned to the classroom, and their experiences give us an idea of how St. John Parish schools will operate in a few weeks.

Our neighboring St. Charles Parish Public Schools returned to the classroom on Aug. 6. My 14-year-old sister, Brianne, told me this new way of returning to school has separated her from most of her friends since all students at Destrehan High School were divided into Garnet and Gray groups. She said she has to branch out and talk to new people, which isn’t a bad thing.

It’s still early, but her experience thus far indicates that the Strong Start plan could function better than I have predicted.

All of Bri’s classes have between five and 14 students, and all children and teachers wear masks the entire day. She has assigned seating in her classes and will return to the same desk every day. Lunch is served in her third period class, leaving no opportunity to congregate in the cafeteria or near lockers. She told me lockers aren’t even being used right now.

The only time social distancing is difficult is when students are walking in the hallways between classes, but Bri reported that the rules are being enforced. She told me there are teachers “yelling” at them to stay six feet apart at all times.

Other changes to her school routine include temperature checks upon entering school and sanitizing at the start of every class.

“We’re making the best out of a bad situation,” she said. She admitted she is a little disappointed that she might lose out on the traditional high school experiences of Friday night football games and attending homecoming with friends.

“At least it’s not my senior year,” she said. “I feel really bad for the seniors.”

The time for back to school planning in St. John Parish is quickly winding down, and the only way for this year to be successful is if safety rules are strictly enforced. These procedures aren’t ideal, but they are the only safeguards against the virus completely spiraling out of control among our school populations. It seems inevitable that someone (more likely multiple people) will test positive soon after school starts, so the challenge will be limiting the spread as much as humanly possible.

Brooke Robichaux is the news editor for L’OBSERVATEUR. She can be reached at 985-652-9545 or at brooke.robichaux@lobservateur.com.