Ruta Smith

Charleston school leaders are hashing out the details of reopening schools for the fast-approaching fall semester as plans shift with COVID-19 case numbers and health recommendations. But, district leaders and teachers prepping classrooms are the ones doing the adjusting.

“We have kind of a flowchart approach to figure it all out,” said Ron Kramps, the district’s associate of facilities management. “It starts with a conviction, then we talk about alternatives A, B, C and so on. The overwhelming conviction was that the students needed to be back in the classrooms.”

Kramps’ work focuses on the facilities of local schools, including maintenance and custodial work. During a pandemic like this, the organization and sterilization of the buildings are the center of attention. But, few people are clear on how the buildings are going to look.

Some plans are decided, however. In-person classes are set to begin Sept. 8, but parents will have the option in the K-12 Virtual Academy — a nine-week commitment for K-8 students, and a semester-long commitment for high schoolers. Other plans include distancing desks, either through physical space or the use of partitions to separate students.

“It’s just that flowchart method of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ that just naturally drives you to a solution,” Kramps said. “So far we think we are going to be able to get all the kids back in, in theory. The decision of the exact plan is still a little uncertain.”

That uncertainty is the root for many concerns teachers have right now as their return to schools looms overhead.

“It’s hard to tell what the plans are because I don’t think they are very clear,” said Sydney Van Bulck, a teacher at W.B. Goodwin Elementary School in North Charleston. “I know a lot of parents who have reached out to me and asked if I can explain it to them, but the only thing I can say is, ‘Your guess is as good as mine.'”

Van Bulck works closely with children as young as 4 years old in her pre-K classes.

“I’m trying to imagine a preschool class and thinking, I don’t know how we are supposed to social distance when one of the things we are trying to teach them is how they are supposed to play and interact with each other,” Van Bulck said.

Not only is social distancing a challenge for students and teachers alike, but it seems more than likely that students will be expected to wear masks at nearly all times, a less-than-comfortable idea for most.

“We are of course sympathetic to the idea of kids wearing a mask all day,” Kramps said. “We are trying to alleviate that in every possible way, like with these partitions and 6-foot spacing. In some cases, masks are recommended regardless.”

Fortunately, the methods used to make things easier on those in the classroom are relatively simple to implement across the board, even for schools that have gotten the short end of the stick in the past.

“It’s pretty easy for us to be equitable,” Kramps said. “It might be hard to know how to spend a specific amount of time with a particular student, but if the roof is leaking, you know it. It’s simple really to assess the conditions of the facility and apply the resources needed equitably based on that need. We are applying the funds where they are needed the most.”

Kramps said that one misconception of the work he and his team are doing now is that it’s a new effort. While the pandemic may have added a sense of urgency, the health and safety of students has always been at the center of what they do.

“It’s not as though we just woke up six months ago and started working on making our schools better,” Kramps said. “I’ve had a purpose statement for the last five years to have safe, healthy and comfortable facilities that enhance learning. I want people to understand that we are really focused, not just now but all the time, on this.”

Still, there is only so much that can be done in the face of an emergency, and some teachers feel as though they are bearing much of the weight themselves with little recognition of their efforts.

“It’s really frustrating when I get online and I see comments like, ‘These teachers are just lazy. They just want to stay home,'” Van Bulck said. “They have no idea how much of my money I’ve spent and how much of my own time that I’m not getting paid for prepping and planning.”

Van Bulck recently bought disposable masks and face shields for her students. Her thoughts were that no matter where each individual student is coming from, she needed to be prepared for anything, including the school running out of stock.

Another worry for teachers comes down to how they are going to enforce the health recommendations to students, especially those in earlier grades.

“Look around at Charleston — there are adults that can’t follow the rules,” Van Bulck said. “If old George in Walmart can’t bother to put his mask on, how can we expect a 4 year old to stay 6 feet away from their classmate when they hadn’t even learned what a foot is?”

Despite the challenges, Van Bulck said she and other teachers are ready to keep their students healthy and safe. It’s part of the job they signed up for.

“You don’t go into this career for any reason other than wanting what is best for kids,” Van Bulck said. You don’t get paid well, you aren’t treated as professionals and you go into it knowing those things. But we are professionals, and there’s no teacher that wants to stay at home on their couch right now. We want to be in the building with our students.”