Returning to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Some Factors to Consider

By Andrew Hawk

Returning to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic

I can remember when back-to-school planning consisted of hours of discussing how to best prepare students to pass state standardized tests. At the time, the planning process felt impossible. For several years, “annual yearly progress” seemed to be a distant mirage as teachers toiled over the previous year’s assessment data.

Those days were practically carefree compared to the planning process to bring students back to school in the middle of a pandemic. The guidance document that my state of Indiana released for the reentry planning process was 38 pages long. Having read it cover to cover, and some sections more than once, I can say the length feels surprisingly appropriate. I will try to be more succinct as I describe the factors my school focused on when we created our reentry plan.

Who to Involve

Going into the planning process, school leaders have to know that they cannot please all their stakeholders. People’s level of concern about our current situation is a spectrum ranging from feeling very frightened to wanting to get back to business as usual. It is important to include people from a variety of roles in the school and community in your planning process. Groups including administrators, teachers, cafeteria staff, janitorial staff, bus drivers, and parents were all represented in my school corporation’s planning meetings.

Use an Intentional Process

What your process entails will differ based on the leadership of your school system. In our meetings, we split into six smaller groups. Each group had a specific focus and tasks related to the planning process. This approach worked well for us. If you choose to include many people in your planning, you have to employ an intentional process or things can quickly go off the rails.

Choose an Instructional Model

What instructional model will you use in the upcoming year? This is the first big question you have to answer. Everything else depends on this decision. Will you start the school year using e-learning, having all students return to school for the entire school day, or some combination of the two? As we get closer to the beginning of the school year, more and more of the 407 school districts in Indiana have released their reentry plans. The majority that have been released so far include a blended approach. One large school district is going completely virtual. My school corporation is coming back 100 percent in person with social distancing in place. However, we are also offering a virtual option in case students test positive and need to be absent for many days or in case parents are not comfortable sending their students back to school.

When to Wear Masks

Masks are another highly debated factor. Principals in my networking circle have had parents tell them that their children will not come back if the school imposes a mask order and other parents have said their children will not come back unless the school imposes a mask order. Our approach is to require staff and students to carry masks throughout the day. Wearing a mask is optional but recommended. In situations where social distancing is not possible, staff and students will be required to wear masks.

Specials Classes

In music, singing and recorders are out. Music this year will be more of a music appreciation class. Physical education, art, STEM, and technology will all take place with the teachers traveling to students’ classrooms. This cuts down on the amount of sanitizing that has to be completed during the day. However, we could not figure out a good way to do this with our library class.


Riding the school bus is one situation where social distancing is not possible. If students are going to ride the bus to school, they will be required to wear masks. We have predicted that there will be an increase in car riders this school year. This creates another set of challenges to overcome.


Indiana is requiring schools to have a specific space set aside, separate from the nurse’s office, where students who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 can stay while they wait to be picked up. Since multiple symptoms can indicate COVID-19, how to address symptoms is another gray area. How many symptoms does a student need to exhibit before being sent home? If a student cannot be tested, how many days will they need to be quarantined before returning to school? Multiple guidelines are in place to answer the first question. For the second, we are requiring 10 days of quarantine if a student cannot be tested. However, keeping students away from school for this amount of time weighs heavy on our minds.

Positive Cases

How many positive cases of COVID-19 will result in a temporary shutdown of school? How long should the temporary shutdown last? Many school districts are shutting down for one positive case. These shutdowns are intended to last one to three days. During this time, the school will be deep-cleaned and contact tracing will be completed to see how many other students need to be tested. My school corporation settled on 1 percent of staff and students testing positive as our number requiring a shutdown. Many of us acknowledged that this is a question with no correct answer.

Other Layers

My superintendent commented to me that the challenge of planning for reentry is the multiple layers that need to be taken into account for each decision. We will be required by the state to attempt contact tracing. When you peel back that layer, you realize that this requires seating charts in all areas of the school. Where will students eat? If they eat in their classrooms, this peels back even more layers. Throughout this process, answers to questions seem to only lead to more questions, and it is easy to become frustrated.

Keep People Focused

When school leaders sit down with their teaching staffs to discuss all the changes that will take place during the upcoming school year, it will be easy to get discouraged. Are any of us happy about these measures? Of course we are not happy. We liked things the way they were before the pandemic or we would have changed them sooner. Everything we do, we do to bring our students back to school. I urge school staff members to keep this in mind. Is it worth all the extra work? Yes, it is, if we continue to prepare our students for life after school.

Stay healthy, everyone!

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.

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