Flexibility key as schools look to reopen in fall
The spring of 2020 was unlike any semester for school districts around the country.
And while plans for the upcoming school year are still in flux, many expect the return to classes to be just as different as educators deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and experience gleaned from an unexpected shutdown.
Ralph Moore, superintendent of Monroeville Local Schools, said the 610-student district found they were very well prepared when taking on the pandemic.
“Frankly, we handled the situation better than even we could have expected,” Moore said. “What we did was not perfect but we were able to respond quickly to the various needs that came up. All this was possible due to the work we did, which was focused on embracing instructional technology rather than putting change off or ignoring it.”
Moore said a 14-member committee consisting of parents, teachers, union representatives and school officials have been working for more than a month on a return-to-school plan they believe “will cover most contingencies presented by COVID-19.”
Monroeville will offer a 100 percent online option for parents who are not comfortable sending their children back to school on Aug. 25.
“We also have a blended instructional model and a full-time individual student attendance model in place should they be needed,” Moore said. “Overall, we are better prepared than before and have tweaked the things that needed tweaking based on past experience.”
He said stakeholder surveys were conducted throughout the stay-at-home order and they used that information to make appropriate changes both at the time and to help prepare for the coming school year.
Based on state guidelines, all school staff must use a face covering when social distancing isn’t possible, said George Fisk, superintendent of Norwalk City Schools.
“In terms of cleaning, we have a phenomenal team of OAPSE (Ohio Association of Public School Employees) members who will remain responsible for our cleaning protocols,” he said.
Fisk said if any staff members have a confirmed COVID-19 case, Huron County Public Health would give them directives to follow in order to control the case.
“Staff in the situation would have the option of using sick leave or any eligible provisions under the C.A.R.E.S. Act,” he said. “Guidance on whether or not to quarantine the class would be provided by HCPH.”
Fisk said before the school year ended, there were two incidents of students being close contacts to laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases and the affected families were notified.
Fisk said the school district, which has more than 2,700 students, has created three teams to lead the district in the school year, which begins Aug. 24.
“One of those committees is tasked with (social-emotional learning) issues,” he said. “This committee will develop protocols to assist and support our students, staff and families.”
The Ohio Department of Education’s Reset and Restart school reopening plan said any students exhibiting symptoms while physically attending school should be placed in a separate room, away from other students, and monitored by school personnel maintaining physical distancing and wearing personal protective equipment.
Families, caregivers and staff should notify schools if they have been exposed to COVID-19 or if they or household members have been diagnosed or presumed to have COVID-19. Those with known exposure to the virus must self-quarantine at home for 14 days.
The Department of Education also said school policies need to be adjusted to not penalize students and personnel for required quarantine periods. Remote learning plans should also be considered for all students. The department also said to expect flare-ups of COVID-19 cases as schools reopen. In some cases, entire school buildings may need to close to clean and sanitize.
When the 950-student Wirt County school district shifted to virtual learning this spring, teachers at its primary center, middle school and high school used a variety of methods.
“It was kind of just a hodgepodge of things … so we saw the need to come up with a single online platform for the district,” Superintendent John McKown said.
The district selected Schoology as that mechanism, and training on the program will begin in August.
School officials have planned a gradual return to classes when West Virginia resumes instruction on Sept. 8. There will be three weeks in which students are divided into two groups – one attending Mondays and Tuesdays, the other Thursdays and Fridays. After that comes three weeks where all students attend every day but Wednesday.
In both cases, Wednesdays will involve remote learning while buildings are cleaned and sanitized. If there are no spikes in cases and conditions allow it, the goal would be to have students back in school five days a week by the seventh week of classes.
“This is fluid for a number of reasons,” McKown said. “Our understanding of this virus is constantly changing. … Local health and wellness data is going to determine what’s going on.”
When virtual learning is part of the equation – or all of it, if another shutdown is implemented – there will be some students in the rural county without Internet access. The district acquired wifi hot spots in the spring to help with that, but those don’t work in all areas.
The district does have a 1-to-1 student-device ratio, so children without Internet access at home can download the material and work on it offline, McKown said.
“The kid wouldn’t be able to interact with their teacher virtually but at least they would have the material covered,” he said.
“We learned a lot of lessons from the spring, for sure,” said Michael Ginestre, superintendent of the Sherman Central School District in Chautauqua County, N.Y.
In adapting to sudden, school-wide distance learning, an emphasis was placed on engaging with students a couple times a week via phone and video-conferencing, Ginestre said. While the hope is to have its 440 students back in the single pre-K through 12th-grade building as much as possible, it’s expected in-person learning will be part of a hybrid model that also utilizes online components.
Whatever form it takes will be much more organized, Ginestre said – with grading, accountability and a schedule.
“Our goal, at Sherman anyway, is to make it look and feel as much like school as it was prior to the pandemic … whether we’re in person or not,” he said.
Sept. 8 is expected to be the first day for in-person instruction in New York, Ginestre said, but a final announcement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo is anticipated during the first week in August.
Around the country, districts large and small, rural and urban, are preparing for the start of classes, knowing their circumstances could change quickly, as they did in the spring.