Exclusive: Shealy said district is prepared to welcome students back Monday
Published 6:30 pm Saturday, August 15, 2020
Each first day of the school year, Vicksburg Warren School District leaders make their way to each of the schools. They thank the teachers, greet the children and, in the case of Superintendent Chad Shealy, pose for pictures with as many kindergartners as possible.
This year, those photos won’t happen. Those high fives given to students as they pass down the hall will be replaced by smiles hidden behind face masks.
Shealy admits that each first day of school brings with it butterflies, but this year, it brings with it a “running rampant herd of elephants.” The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. It has impacted just about every area of our lives, and with schools set to resume Monday, there is a lot that remains unknown.
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For Shealy, who is entering his seventh year as the district’s superintendent, Monday will put to the test months of planning and preparation that sought not only to protect the students and teachers but also to return to a sense of normalcy and quality education.
“For us, the butterflies are efforts to mitigate every child who comes back, making sure we have (personal protective equipment) in place, processes in place to keep us safe as possible and mitigate any transmission of the virus. All of this knowing that it is statistically impossible to not bring the virus on campus, no more than you can guarantee it’s not coming to city hall, nor to the supervisors meeting, or to a restaurant, or anywhere people go. They are bringing it with them,” Shealy said. “But I know that we will be and are better prepared than places that I have been going, shopping.”
When children return Monday, it will mark 164 days since the district had students in the classroom, and the decision Shealy knows has been tough for parents to make. Do they send their children back to school, in an environment where masks will be required and social distancing mandated? Or stay at home and take part in the district’s distancing learning programs?
“Their voice has been heard and is important,” Shealy said of parents. “We really wanted to provide a solution, to whatever that voice looked like inside that house, that they had a solution here. If you’re a parent and say ‘I just don’t feel comfortable with my child being at school at all. I want them home.’ Then you have that option. If you are a parent that says ‘I’ve got to have my kid back in school, face-to-face. I understand the risk and it is a risk I am willing to take. And I want my kid on campus.’ Then you have that option.
“What I will say to those parents is, wherever you feel you are in that continuum, we can find a way to serve the child.”
As a parent of two children — one with special needs who has a challenged immune system that puts him more at risk during this pandemic — Shealy said it was important and personal that the district did all it could to make returning to the classroom as safe as possible.
“Citing my youngest, who requires hand-over-hand service, he has some in-face instructional services that are required, yet he’s an immunocompromised young man, who spent weeks in ICU lung conditions that we are concerned about, but when you look at his (educational) solutions, he has both,” Shealy said. “There’s days where he will be virtual and days where he will be in-person getting services.”
Schools were set to open in the district Aug. 7, but then delayed until Aug. 17 to allow more time for the district to fully stock up on personal protective equipment, and ensure the processes Shealy said were designed to protect children were fully ready to go.
“To the people who are coming, I will say that we have gone overboard. And when I say overboard, I am saying this from a daddy perspective here, because my kids are coming. And in that, I have to ensure everything that we can possibly do we are doing,” Shealy said. “Just let them know, to that parent, bring them. We are going to keep them as safe as possible. But understand, there is no way to guarantee there’s not going to be exposure to the virus because we are in the community. But in that, know the district has done everything we know to do, everything that has been recommended by the department of health to provide the safest environment, to limit the amount of transmission of the virus.”
As for those who decided to keep their children home, just as much planning went into their educational experience and well-being.
“Specifically to the parent at home, we are going to provide food, we are going to provide wrap-around services that are available, we are going to do everything we can to keep your child connected to the regular environment of the classroom and have personal relations and be able to interact the best we can virtually,” he said.
Shealy also said the safety of the teachers and staff remained paramount in developing the district’s reopening plans, which can be found online at https://www.vwsd.org/site/Default.aspx?PageID=6293.
In developing the reopening plans for the district as a whole, and for individual schools, the district used a Thought Exchange to collect input from teachers, students, parents and district personnel. Shealy said more than 59,000 ratings and comments were submitted, with many of the comments coming about teachers and from teachers.
One suggestion implemented from that feedback, he said, was the purchase of additional PPE and equipment that was far and above what was recommended by the state, including gloves and face shields.
For more from The Post’s exclusive interview with Shealy, view the video included in this story.