Flexibility key as schools look to reopen
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.
“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.
In Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, students will have three options when classes resume Aug. 26: in-person, a combination of in-person and distance learning or taking all their courses online.
The traditional classroom setting will look a little different this year. Because COVID-19 cases in the Upper Peninsula have remained lower than the downstate areas, they are currently in Phase 5 of the state’s six-phase plan.
Even so, schools are prepping for the possibility that if cases rise, they could be downgraded back to a lower phase.
“We have plans for Phase 4 and Phase 3 with some additional safety protocols,” said William Traber, grades five through 12 principal for Iron Mountain Public Schools, which served 918 students in the 2019-20 school year.
He said the schools are aligning with the recommendations, but “in some instances, we are going above and beyond with cleaning procedures.”
The hybrid model for students will involve the use of Zoom “or video recording of lectures, and posting that on a learning management system like Google Classroom,” Traber said.
The district has been offering online courses for four years for students, so those will continue.
“It’s the same standards, but it’s a different curriculum than what our in-building teachers use,” Traber said. “The rigor is still there; the content is still there; it’s just that the delivery method is a little bit different.”
When schools closed in the spring, in-building teachers began teaching their curriculum online as well.
Traber expects most students to return to the classroom, but he noted that all students would have the same access to school resources, including career counseling and guidance counseling, regardless of which learning option they choose.
Many teachers have been coming up with ideas to implement in the classroom in response to the new setup. Many have learned how to use new online programs since going fully virtual in the spring.
“It’s definitely going to be improved,” Traber said of the learning platforms going forwardl. “The teachers are preparing their curriculum for in-person instruction, and what does that rigor look like if we have to go online, or if we have a certain portion of their students that have to be out of the classroom.”
He said there is a level of anxiety that goes along with all the new procedures and the unknowns, but the district is ready to adjust as needed and teachers are ready to get back in the classroom.
“Oh, I would say if anyone’s not nervous right now, they’d be lying,” Traber said. “I mean, even I’m nervous as a building administrator because we want the kids at school, we miss the kids at school. But they are excited to get back to educating their kids.
“They are nervous,” he added, “but I think it’s an anxious nervous where they’re just ready to get back and do what they love doing.”
“Our teachers are planning five days of instruction for every student,” said Mark Johnston, superintendent of Shenandoah County Schools in Virginia.
The district plans to start classes on Aug. 17 with a blended model. A steering committee consisting of parents, principals, a teacher and various department heads recommended giving the youngest of the district’s 6,000 students the most time in the classroom because “they’re the least able to do distance learning,” he said.
Although some regulations say social distance in classroom settings can be lowered to 3 feet, Johnston said Shenandoah elected to stay at 6 feet so children wouldn’t have to wear masks all day. Based on that, the committee began to fill the space on their three campuses – each of which has an elementary, middle and high school – from the lowest grades up. Pre-kindergarteners through fifth-graders will attend four days a week, with the fifth day of classes conducted online. Sixth-graders through seniors will, in most cases, attend in-person one day a week.
Shenandoah also has a technical center and a governor’s school dedicated to environmental science that have their own plans.
Johnston said the district has been communicating to parents that the model going forward will be different from what they experienced in the spring.
“We were forced into a virtual learning environment that we weren’t prepared for,” he said.
The end of the spring term gave officials with the School District of Lee County in Florida a clearer direction of what parents want from a virtual platform, said Rob Spicker, assistant director of media relations and public information for the district.
“It prepared our teachers and our students for virtual learning,” Spicker said. “It gave us confidence that if we have to quickly pivot from the models we are offering to distance learning for everyone, we know what to do and how to do it, Health and safety has changed. We are requiring masks on the bus and in the hallways during class change when social distancing is hardest to maintain. We are recommending masks during the rest of the day.”
Spicker said the Florida Department of Education is requiring schools be open for students five days a week. The district, which serves more than 95,000 students in 120 schools, has developed four instructional models for students, who are slated to return to class Aug. 31.
In the first, students come to school five days a week for face-to-face instruction.
Spicker said the schools have separated desks as far as possible in every classroom and are designating hallways and stairs for one-way traffic and doors for either entry or exit.
“We are increasing our cleaning protocols and adjusting custodial schedules so high-traffic areas can be disinfected more often during the day,” Spicker said. “We are increasing the cleaning of our buses to between every route. We are using higher standard filters in our air and heating systems and changing them out more frequently. We are establishing more outdoor and indoor areas where students can eat lunch. We are establishing isolation rooms should a student demonstrate the symptoms of COVID-19.”
He said they are trying to create the safest environment possible and are checking temperatures of every student as they arrive on campus.
The second option is Lee Home Connect, in which students will be assigned a teacher for full-time online learning that includes a daily schedule that is more structured than the digital model used last school year.
“Students will be required to log on to Google Classroom or Google Meet at specified times during the day for different subjects with their teachers and peers,” Spicker said.
The third option is Lee Virtual School, one of Florida’s top virtual schools.
“Students choosing this model are self-paced and have flexibility around when they log on to complete assignments,” he said.
Students have the option of returning to face-to-face instruction at certain times, depending on the model.
The fourth choice for students is homeschooling, where they will be placed in the district’s full-time Home Education Program and a parent or guardian will teach the student at home.
“Flexibility is going to be key this coming school year,” Spicker said. “Our schools and teachers need to be flexible should the need arise to change the way we provide instruction. And our families are going to need to be flexible should there be a temporary or long-term change to their child’s learning environment.”
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.
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.
Nashua School District Superintendent Jahmal Mosley stated in a recent letter to the community that local health officials said returning to in-person schooling is not safe. The school is looking to a combination of remote and in-person learning and a fully remote learning model.
“It is our goal to work toward a hybrid model; however, should science and data dictate otherwise, we will be fully prepared to shift to remote learning,” Mosley said. “Gov. (Chris) Sununu released reopening guidelines. Essentially the guidelines allow school districts to create their own guidelines, tailored to local epidemiology.”
He said they are taking a nimble approach and are continuing to look at the issues through the lens of health and safety for students and staff.
“Our COVID-19 pandemic reentry plan will be deliberate, pragmatic and systematic in order to maintain the safety of all our students and staff,” Mosley said. “With continued understanding and collaboration, we will balance our mission to teach our students with the realities of navigating a pandemic.”