My dad served a four-year term on the Dublin City Schools board of education in the mid-to-late 2000s. From my observations, it was a fairly thankless job, but he wasn’t in it for that. He wanted to find another way to serve his community.

As his only child was completing his high school career, he wanted to do his part in helping improve the educational experiences of the students coming up in the system he was a product of. Making some hard decisions, balancing competing interests and facing criticism came with the territory.

I haven’t ever done it, but I can tell that being a school board member is hard work. To be effective and successful at it, much like school itself, you have to do a lot of reading and studying, and you have to be able to process a lot of information that gets thrown at you and comprehend it in order to make a well-informed decision. Having a thick skin would seem to come in handy as well.

Sure, poor decisions — financially and otherwise — get made from time to time across all districts and on all boards. Sure, there is no shortage of school board members around the state and country who are using the position merely as a political stepping stone, are on a local power trip, or are looking to settle some personal grievance. But by and large, most board members I know are volunteering their time to help build a better public education system in their community — because they know, without that, the chances of having a healthy economy and good quality of life in the long run are slim.

Aside from just being on a school board, being an educator and/or being part of a school system’s administration is also not easy work — especially in the middle of a public health crisis and global pandemic. As Barrow County Schools superintendent Chris McMichael has said, there is no precedent or rulebook for what is happening now.

As coronavirus cases have spiked around Georgia again, and in the absence of firm direction from the state level, school districts across the state are having to do their best to maneuver around an ever-changing landscape, take the information that is given to them and make a recommendation to their school board on what plan to implement.

There are no truly easy answers when it comes to reopening schools or holding other school functions, yet you could explore the abyss of social media and come away with the impression that school superintendents, administrators, BOE members, etc. wake up in the morning thinking of ways to screw children and their parents over.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read plenty of reaction from parents to decisions made in Barrow County, Clarke County (where my son is about to start kindergarten) and other surrounding counties. And I’ve wondered to myself whether some of these people actually think before they open their mouth or hit the “post” button.

Here in Barrow, there was some severe backlash to the district-level decision (not a school board one) last week not to move forward with the traditional in-person graduation ceremonies at Apalachee and Winder-Barrow high schools that had been tentatively scheduled for this week. Since then, a group of parents for each school were able to organize their own ceremonies at Innovation Amphitheater (with support of the district), though not all the graduates will attend, guests will be limited, and strict protocols will have to be followed.

With that being said, while I can understand some of the frustration at the graduates not getting a typical ceremony like the classes before them received, I cannot understand the viciousness of some of the comments leveled at the district by grown adults before these alternate arrangements were made.

Last week, I posted an update on the district’s decision to this newspaper’s Facebook page, and for the rest of the night and the couple of days that followed I was inundated with the “ding” sound of comments pouring in. And it didn’t take long for the conspiracy theories to come out. To hear some tell it, the school district, which had put together virtual ceremonies and had teachers hand-deliver diplomas to graduates at their homes on the originally-scheduled ceremony dates in May, had not only “forgotten” the class of 2020, but had personally done them and their families a grave injustice. Inquiries were made to media organizations about a “secret” board vote, when there was no such board vote.

When I was in school, I was always taught to read the instructions on tests and assignments. And since May it seemed pretty clear and transparent that the district planned to hold the ceremonies — if conditions warranted. The district also announced July 6 it would make a final decision on the traditional ceremonies July 20, which it did. The clandestine plot was not there, folks.

We all have to exit out of Facebook and turn off the television at some point and be realistic here; the coronavirus numbers in Georgia and Barrow County are getting worse. The sharply-increasing infection totals are not the mere result of more testing — not by a long shot. The threat is still very real.

School district officials in Barrow had to take the data and trends and guidance available to them in making an undoubtedly painful decision. For anyone who believes they set out to wreck the lives of 18-year-olds, you’re going to have to explain to me the wisdom in going through the motions of holding a traditional ceremony (two months after diplomas were already handed out) when we’re seeing this level of community spread. Even just allowing the graduates of the schools and their immediate family members, faculty, district personnel and BOE members to gather would have meant cramming a minimum of 2,000 people into W. Clair Harris and R. Harold Harrison stadiums, where adequate social distancing would have been incredibly difficult to accomplish and mask-wearing would have been almost impossible to enforce. As we’re seeing longer waiting times for tests in this part of the state and hospitals in the area fill back up with COVID-19 patients, that could have made for an even more dangerous situation.

Just because schools in other counties held in-person ceremonies doesn’t necessarily make it a prudent decision. Yes, Bethlehem Christian Academy held a ceremony almost two weeks ago, but having that for 55 graduates is much different from roughly 400 at each of the public high schools and the corresponding much larger attendance. The percentage of mask-wearing at BCA’s ceremony was also uncomfortably low, no more than 20 percent, and I doubt the situation would have been much better at AHS or WBHS. Most people at Bethlehem Church were also seated closely together, and while there hopefully won’t be any negative results from that, every function a school holds right now comes with a level of significant risk, including these ceremonies, even with the protective measures that will apparently be in place.

In assessing that risk, Barrow and other school districts are navigating the even murkier waters of actually reopening schools and how they go about starting the new year. As much as we crave and would benefit from more stability, we as parents have no choice right now but to be flexible. Barrow County has delayed its start date by two weeks and is offering in-person and virtual learning options. That plan seems as firm as it can be for right now, but worsening developments could push back the date further or completely change the plans. A reported late attempt by Gov. Brian Kemp to push for a delayed statewide opening after Labor Day fell apart last week, but the possibility remains that he could order another closure at some point. And if that happens, we all will have to adjust as best we can and hope that the schools have taken the last few months to put together solid action plans for the worst-case scenario.

In Clarke County, the decision to open schools the day after Labor Day with in-person and virtual options lasted less than a week. The district has now decided to open the year with 100-percent virtual learning like Atlanta Public Schools and several other larger districts in the state have decided to do.

Is that ideal? No. Will the lack of in-person instruction have negative effects, particularly on students and families who are socioeconomically disadvantaged? Yes.

Our family is not facing nearly as dire straits as some (knock on wood), but will the decision place a heavier financial burden on us? Yes. Am I concerned about my son’s educational and emotional progress being hampered indefinitely? Yes. Will a greater mental strain be placed on me for having to help play teacher/facilitator on top of all the other parental responsibilities I have and having to balance all of that with the duties of my job? Yes. Am I annoyed that the schools won’t be open, but high school athletics in the district and across the state are set to continue mostly unimpeded? Heck yes.

But I’m going to try to do my best to remain patient and understand that most of us are all in the same boat of uncertainty. And I’m going to remind everyone I can that we also cannot lose sight of our obligation to do our part to try to stem the spread of COVID-19. That is the quickest way to return to some semblance of “normal.”

I don’t envy the decisions the school districts and boards are having to make right now — in Barrow County, in Clarke County or anywhere else. When I look at most of the school board members I’ve either known or covered over the years — or the ones I currently rely on to make the sound decisions for the district my child is part of — I don’t see boogeymen out to crush kids’ hopes and dreams.

I see my dad in quite a few of them, and I see people trying to make the best of a no-win situation.

Scott Thompson is editor of The Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at sthompson@barrownewsjournal.com.

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