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Effort, time and a giant helping of empathy.

That is what local experts are advising to all involved in the starting of the 2020-21 school year.

As Berkshire County's students begin the process of returning to school either remotely, in-person or in a hybrid format, tensions and anxiety are sure to soar. That goes for parents, teachers and administrators as well.

"I would say a huge dose of empathy," said Dr. Andrea Lein, a mental health expert and former leader of the John Dewey School in Great Barrington. "I think many teachers and administrators are also parents, so it should come naturally to understand where parents are coming from. I think it can be harder for parents to understand the other side.

"It's a tough position to be in right now. They didn't sign up to deal with a pandemic, but they did sign up to be leaders in their communities, so it's just stepping up to the plate and doing the hard work."

Reopening plans across the Berkshires are incredibly varied, which has brought about a lot of confusion among families on who is going where and doing what, when. According to Lein, who works now as a consultant, that has made it very hard for accurate planning to take place. The uncertainty adds stress, and anxious parents and teachers make for anxious kids.

Her message: "The best thing you can do is plan with the facts you have in front of you, and then be very flexible. Have a plan B and a plan C. I think parents can do the best they can to have those original plans, and be ready to switch gears. Don't be shocked. Do the best you can to prepare for that."

It's when you only have plan A and you try to hammer that through, she says, that's where frustrations and problems arise.

The recommendation for transparent and consistent communication is one county administrators have been ramping up since March.

In the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, a "COVID-19 contract" was the first major step. There, Superintendent Beth Regulbuto says, they're using anything and everything at their disposal.

"We've done some FAQs for families and provide regular updates to the reopening plan. The COVID-19 contract was right up front. We want to keep that line of communication open," said Regulbuto. "It's an open-door policy, even if parents can't come in. We're making videos about what the campus looks like on the inside, communicating through social media. They know what their child is experiencing once they are dropped off. We want to keep it an open process where people feel safe bringing their children."

SBRSD is utilizing a phased restart with remote learning until late September when a hybrid model begins. She said, all-in-all there were some nice wins during the first week of school, but bumps should be expected.

The "COVID-19 contract" allows all involved to be on the same page when it comes to expectations for everything from mask-wearing to bus behavior and the building's safety protocols.

Regulbuto said everyone is working together to reach the same goal — "the best school experience while keeping everyone safe" — is what will make for the smoothest road.

"We did this in an effort together to open the school doors and get kids back in. It's been a nice, warm experience for families" she said. " It's made us a tighter community."

Up north, things are moving quickly, as the Northern Berkshire School Union has already     gotten some students back inside school buildings.

The advantage, according to Superintendent John Franzoni, goes to the fact that communication has been a top goal for his administration since the beginning.

"On the top of our list of goals, even before the pandemic, is communication with our families," he said. "We want consistent, two-way communication. We encourage our teachers to make phone calls on a regular basis, and we encourage families to call us."

The method of keeping students safe inside those walls is a no visitor policy. Franzoni himself, whose office is off-campus, showed up at Clarksburg Elementary earlier this week solely to stand outside the building and wave to welcome students.

"Each teacher will do some sort of open house presentation, parents will get a login and be able to see the classroom. One of our principals has done a parent call-in every Wednesday since this all started, and she gets 20 to 30 families to call in and ask questions, get updates. It's been a great way to stay connected throughout the shut-down," Franzoni said. "A lot of times, you'll get home and a kid will say something about what happened at school, and parents may have a question about it, and we say just call us. Let us know what we can do to help."

All of this is an effort to not only stay healthy, but also avoid leaving families isolated.

"We want them to feel like they have a place to go. A lot of this was put on the families, kids going to school at home," he said. "We wanted to make them feel like they were supported. Even things like Friday drive-throughs back in the spring, saying hi, to stay connected. They were just glad to see the staff. We hope to show our families how much we care about their kids. We want to listen to them and adjust to their needs."

It has been a long journey for administrators in particular, with Regulbuto noting much of her team hasn't had a break since the pandemic began in March.

"It's been all hands on deck, doing everything from making lunches and dinners as part of the food program, to providing technical assistance, to being in classrooms doing demonstrations. Everyone is willing to pitch in wherever they are needed," she said.

Franzoni echoed that sentiment.

"A lot of our principals have had an even more hands-on role. There are so many things to manage. Their communication to their staff, logistics for meals. Everything they can possibly do to make students feel welcomed in school and supporting the families through online, weekly communication, a forum or call-in," he said. "And then a big part of that is just to have plans in place in case we need to adjust. That's one thing we've learned over the last six months especially, we have to be ready to adjust."

That goes along with Lein's idea of all involved needing to identify plans B and C before they are needed.

"Every step of this, we need, all of us, to be fluid and flexible," Regulbuto said. "Things are going to change quite regularly, things aren't going to go as we planned. Our theme this year has been to have grace and kindness for each other and for ourselves.

"We can't expect to be perfect, no one has ever done this before on this scale. We're all learning, and I think that is something that is good to model for the kids."

All of Berkshire County's educators and parents have an enemy in common, and Lein recommends using everything in their arsenal to defeat it and have a safe school year. The trick is to not let tools like social media fall into the hands of the pandemic.

"I think you have to have a balanced view of how to use it wisely. It can be a great tool and a great way to have community with other parents, sharing concerns," she said. "Sometimes, my worry with adults is that we don't always think intentionally about what we're consuming on social media. It can aggravate those fears parents already have, rather than being grounding and calming, which it can be great for. Parents get stuck on the things they can't control, and then get into a negative mindset about things. The anxiety parents feel will get transmitted to their kids."

That's why, Lein said, all involved must work together.

"When you can't see each other in person, even teachers and kids and parents, it changes things. You can utilize the online tools, and that's great," Lein said. "My sense, though, is that it is really harder for community to form in a strong way virtually. You can build it, but it's different from the feel you get from in-person experience. It's going to take a little more attention and a little more time, and that is a huge, huge challenge."

The benefit is, while some of this is certainly still new and challenging, Lein points out that no one, hopefully, is getting blindsided like the world did last spring.

"The difference is, we've known for months now," said Lein. "We may not have known exactly what it was going to look like, but it's not a surprise there's a pandemic any more."

Mike Walsh can be reached at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com, at @WalshWrites89 on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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