Today is the end of 2019-2020 school year. What we would have expected to see were students celebrating the beginning of the summer break, teachers saying good-bye with some regret but taking a big sigh of relief as they finished packing up their classrooms and thinking about what they were going to do the first day of their summer break. Not this year.

COVID-19 changed all of that, and I expect changed it forever. I remember the fateful morning of September 11 while in the drafting lab at Lake Placid High School and having the news on. I said to my students “The world as you know it has changed forever.” COVID-19 has done the same.

So, what will happen when school is scheduled to resume next August? Quite frankly, I don’t know, and many of our school leaders don’t know either at this point. One thing we do know, the health and safety of our students and staff is the number one concern. How we deliver and conduct the education of our students will meet that concern first.

An editorial in last week’s paper was insightful. As we open up and loosen the restrictions of stay-at-home orders to restart our economy, we should not open our schools too quickly. We as adults can make decisions about what level of risk we want to take, but children rely on adults to protect them. We have pioneered distance learning on a grander scale than ever before. Is it perfect? No, but we have learned what works and what does not. We can make it better.

I have been in this school district for over 20 years in a variety of roles. I’ve been a classroom teacher, administrator, and union president and chief negotiator. I believe I have a well-earned perspective of the people and programs we have. We have talented and caring people from top to bottom. We have many who could have gone on to better more lucrative situations, but they didn’t. They like it here in Highlands County for the less hectic life style, the folks they work with, and the commitment to be the best we can with whatever limited resources we have. I have never been more proud to be a part of our school district than any other place I have been, and I have been around many others in my 50 years of teaching. Especially now.

I say it now because our COVID-19 crisis is something our school staff and teachers can handle. We have for so many years provided a quality educational system with limited resources and other challenges. We know how to innovate, solve problems, and work as a team to get the job done. I have seen it time and time again. They did with this current challenge. Thanks to all the teachers, staff, and parents who worked hard to make it all work.

So, how will school begin next August? It will take a combined effort of our community to understand the challenges of keeping everyone safe and provide a quality education for our students. We are not alone in this challenge, every school in our nation is facing similar issues. We have an advantage since we have a smaller school district, a track record of meeting challenges, and community that can work together to solve problems.

It will take more space than I have for this column to detail all the specifics that will need to be addressed. Please understand that bringing all our students and staff back into “brick and mortar” buildings, riding school buses, and having large groups of people in close contact with each other is a very efficient way to continue to spread the virus throughout the community. There is no disputing that.

As we move through the summer, our school administrators are working hard with all the stake-holders to develop plans to meet the needs of our students and keep everyone safe and secure. We will need to keep an open mind and understand that the number one goal is to keep everyone safe and healthy. It may require us to continue with some format of distance learning until we have a better understanding of the COVID-19 virus in our community.

We were thrown into the deep end of the COVID-19 swimming pool and had to learn quickly how to swim with the sudden school closing and stay-at-home restrictions. We have become better swimmers, and we may be doing some laps before we get out of the pool and get back to “normal.” Remember we are in this together, and together we will meet the challenge.

John Rousch is the director of the Highlands Aviation and Aerospace Academy, a community partnership between the School Board of Highlands County, the Sebring Regional Airport, EAA Chapter 1240, and Career Source Heartland, and other community groups supporting youth. He can be reached at johnrousch73@gmail.com, call or text 863-273-0522.