Woog's World: Another COVID school year is about to begin

As students head to class next week, COVID’s Delta variant is causing increasing concern.

The opening of school is traditionally a time of optimism. It’s a fresh start for everyone. There are new teachers and new classmates. No one has yet failed a test, forgotten homework or been sent to the principal’s office. Even the floors are sparkling clean.

Last year’s start was the strangest ever, though. Six months earlier, doors suddenly slammed shut. Students spent the final quarter at home, staring at computer screens. Teachers improvised lesson plans, learned new technology (with, occasionally, help from their kids), and juggled professional responsibilities with those in their own personal lives.

It was a dark, lonely time. Summer was not much better. September — with live, in-person school — promised a relief.

Except it wasn’t to be. In theory, only half the students would be in school at any one time. In reality, the number was lower, with a significant percentage opting for full remote learning.

Classrooms were arranged differently, to minimize interactions between teachers and students. Recesses were curtailed. Plexiglas separated cafeteria seats. One-way hall arrows served as constant reminders of a crisis.

Teachers once again improvised. They learned how to direct part of their attention to a few students sitting in classroom seats, part to disembodied faces filling squares on a computer screen.

Schools are usually exciting places. They pulse with youthful energy. A unique stew of intellectual discovery, personal and group creativity, social development and physical movement turns what is just a brick or metal building into a frothy pot of activity. Youngsters grow tall and grow up; they also fall down, get up and find their way forward. Adults push, pull, prod. They are proud of what they do, even as they are exhausted from the astonishing number of tasks they are asked to perform.

For most of last year — until in-person learning resumed, almost-but-not-quite fully in March — that was missing from school.

But Westport ended on a high note in June, with a semblance of concerts and performances, and an actual, wonderful, outdoor Staples High graduation. Nearly every teacher was vaccinated at district-sponsored clinics in the spring. And when vaccines were made available — first to anyone over 16, then 12 — hopes were high for a nearly normal start to the 2021-22 school year.

Westport educators earned high marks for their handling of the pandemic. From March 2019 through today, they’ve been asked to rebuild an airplane in mid-flight. They’ve juggled an insane, and constantly changing, number of challenges.

These range from the delivery of instruction to management of daily schedules; from cafeterias and cleaning protocols to transportation; from athletics and arts to attendance. They’ve managed the fears of parents and students that there was not enough safety, and the howls from others that there was too much over-reaction.

How our administrators, teachers and support staff have done it (and done it so well) is truly mind-boggling.

Now they’re at it again.

What does the coming school year hold in store? With the vast majority of high school students vaccinated — and nearly every teacher, too — can Staples go back to “normal”?

Players plan a fall production of “Grease.” Sports teams are gearing up for tryouts and games (with, once again, spectators). Plans are underway for a return-to-the-stage of the Candlelight Concert. How realistic is all that?

The reopening of Coleytown Middle School last year took pressure off of overcrowded Bedford. Many — but not all — middle schoolers are 12 or older, and presumably vaccinated. Will that help give those youngsters — whose intellectual and emotional development is so tied to social activities — an experience that more closely resembles 2019, not 2020?

Elementary schools — with their unvaccinated students, longer exposure to each other in the same classroom, and lower ability to learn independently and remotely — are an enormous question mark.

Kids will be back at recess, and in the cafeteria. Yet this age is seen as increasingly vulnerable to the Delta variant. Can they get the nearly full educational experience that — after 17 months — is so crucial to their development, and the next several decades of their lives?

For the next few months, Westport will thread a needle we did not see coming just a few weeks ago. We will postpone some events, and move others outdoors. We’re going back to wearing masks indoors. We will fine-tune our decisions about everything, including how we get our children to and from school, what level of extracurricular activities we’re comfortable with them participating in, and what to do when they, a classmate or friend, coughs or looks tired.

Buckle up. This is not yet over. And if you have not yet been vaccinated: What on earth are you waiting for?

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.