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This page offers all of Delaware Public Media's ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it is affecting the First State. Check here regularly for the latest new and information.

Uncertainty clouds reopening First State schools this fall

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Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
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In most years July offers educators a bit of a break. Not this year.

Their task at hand is figuring out if school buildings can reopen, and if so, how best to balance learning and safety as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

State Education Secretary Susan Bunting is scheduled next week to offer recommendations from 3 working groups that are supposed to offer guidance.

Contributor Larry Nagengast examines what these recommendations may look like, and the challenges districts and charters will face even with this guidance. 

For some Delaware public schools, the first day of class is just six weeks away, but educators, students and their families still don’t have a clear idea of what that first day will look like – or even whether the school buildings will be open.

The picture will get a little clearer next week, when Secretary of Education Susan Bunting will release her summary of the recommendations of three School Reopening Working Groups that spent most of June thinking through how schools should operate under three scenarios based on the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic when the bells toll for the first time.

The working groups examined three key themes: Academics and Equity, Health and Wellness, and Operations and Services. They prepared recommendations based on three scenarios: no to minimal spread of the virus; minimal to moderate spread (roughly the equivalent of phases 1 and 2 of the state’s reopening plan); and substantial spread (comparable to conditions when the state of emergency was declared and schools closed in mid-March). The hybrid arrangements contemplated under a minimal to moderate spread alignment would most likely result in some students attending classes while others are learning remotely because social distancing requirements would limit the number of students who could safely be seated in a classroom or on a school bus.

The working groups’ process has been quite transparent – agendas, recommendations, meeting transcripts and videos have all been posted online – so, other than some tweaks by the state Division of Public Health, it is unlikely that Bunting’s summary of the recommendations will contain any surprises.

“I think she’s just giving us some guardrails within which to operate,” says Matt Burrows, Appoquinimink School District superintendent.

The challenge that lies ahead is this: the working groups are telling the state’s 19 school districts and 22 charter schools what they should do, but it’s up to the districts and the charters to figure out how to do it and, to some extent, how to pay for it.

“The ‘how decisions’ are beyond our scope,” Department of Education administrator Mike Rodriguez explained at the June 9 meeting of the Health and Wellness group. Rather, he said, the groups’ task is to deliver a report that superintendents can use “to make decisions and take action.”

“It’s a little scary,” Rodriguez said at that meeting, “because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Ultimately, it will be Gov. John Carney who will determine what’s going to happen. That announcement, like Bunting’s recommendations, could come as soon as next week, but it will still be subject to change, depending on the progress the state makes in battling the pandemic. The state remains locked into phase 2 of its reopening plan; Carney had hoped to move into phase 3 on June 29, but postponed that step following spikes in the number of positive cases in late June, especially in coastal Sussex County.

The sooner Carney makes his announcement, the more time districts and charters will have to focus on a specific reopening plan.

"It's a little scary, because we don't know what’s going to happen." - Department of Education administrator Mike Rodriguez

But district and charter leaders haven’t spent the first month of summer sitting back and waiting for instructions. “Since May, people have been thinking about August and September,” says Chuck Longfellow, co-chair of the Operations and Services working group, who left his Department of Education post last week to become chief financial officer of the Christina School District. “I don’t think anybody is being idle.”

Sprinkled throughout the meetings of the working groups were references to local school officials taking inventory of their technology equipment, debriefing teachers on their experiences with distance learning and surveying students and families about technology needs and what they can do better.

In Appoquinimink, Burrows has set up working groups for the district – including parents, teachers, administrators and board members – to study the issues discussed at the state level. Those groups will produce their own reports by the end of the month, he says.

Laretha Odumosu, middle school executive director at the Charter School of New Castle, says her staff has been using the agendas of the working groups to serve as a template for her school’s discussions on how to reopen safely and efficiently. The school has already placed an order for cleaning and sanitation supplies as well as personal protective equipment for staff members, and Odumosu is confident that it will have at least a two-month supply on hand when students report on August 24.

Odumosu says the school leaders she has spoken with would like Carney to announce his reopening decision in mid-July, but she believes she can get her school up and running even if a decision isn’t made until the end of this month.

"We've done 'normal' forever, and we got a taste of remote in the spring, but for the hybrid we'll need more time to plan." - Appoquinimink School District superintendent Matt Burrows

“If you had asked me last year, I would have said we need more time, but we turned it around in two days [to transition to a remote learning environment] in March, so I think we’ll be OK,” she said.

Courtney Fox, head of the First State Montessori Academy in downtown Wilmington, agrees that her school, and probably many others, have done enough planning already to enable them to swing into operations quickly. A bigger concern, she says, is giving parents sufficient time to adjust their work and childcare arrangements to mesh with an altered school situation.

In assessing the three scenarios, the arrangement that most concerns many educators is the hybrid alignment, since it would involve having some students in the school building and some learning remotely.

“We’ve done ‘normal’ forever, and we got a taste of remote in the spring,” Burrows says, “but for the hybrid we’ll need more time to plan.”

Bringing all students back to school at once, school leaders say, would essentially be a return to normal, albeit with some extra health and safety measures. And keeping school buildings closed because the virus hasn’t been sufficiently tamped down would represent a return to the distance learning setting that the education community experienced from mid-March through June. While there is general agreement that students didn’t learn as much in the remote learning environment as they would have in their regular classrooms, at least teachers and students have a feel for how remote learning works, and schools have had a few months to analyze that experience and figure out how to improve it.

The working groups seemed to spend more of their meeting time discussing needs under the hybrid scenario than the other two options because it would require not only additional layers of caution for operations within school buildings but also ensuring that students who are learning from home are receiving the same level of instruction as those who are sitting in a classroom.

Returning to in-school learning will bring a set of operational challenges – limited capacity on school buses, social distancing requirements and new sanitation protocols, for example – while remote learning would require a more intense focus on instructional delivery, Fox says. The hybrid scenario would incorporate challenges from both the in-school and remote models. “There’s a lot to think about, and so much uncertainty,” she says.

Many of the planning components included in the work groups’ recommendations will be relevant no matter which scenario is implemented in late August, for example: establishing criteria for families who choose to opt out of in-person learning but want to remain in the public school system; making sure transportation contractors have a sufficient number of buses and drivers; surveying professional staff to identify high-risk individuals; preparing for continuous instruction to take place under all situations; developing plans to assess students’ academic and social emotional needs at the start of the school year; inventorying computers and other devices for student use; developing plans to communicate regularly with students’ families and help them understand changes in operating procedures; ensuring adequate supplies of sanitizing products and training custodial staff for additional responsibilities.

Here’s a look at key components in each of the scenarios. (A full summary of recommendations, as well as videos and transcripts of meetings is available at the School Reopening Working Groups web page.)

Schools open (minimal spread): Families will be expected to check students’ temperature each morning and monitor students for Covid-19 symptoms. Students, teachers and staff should wash hands or use sanitizer before and after every meal. In addition to normal cleaning, desks, playground equipment and frequently touched surfaces should be disinfected at the beginning and end of every day. Staff members identified as high risk should maintain a six-foot distance from others and, if possible, take on modified responsibilities that reduce exposure risk.

Schools closed (significant spread): Remote instruction may be either synchronous (in real time) or asynchronous (able to be viewed at a later time) and include practices that encourage student engagement. Time students spend on line will vary by age level. Additional support services should be provided for students with special needs (English learners, students with disabilities and those with IEP and 504 learning plans). Students and families should receive information on accessing and using all digital systems and tools required for instruction. Systems should be developed to monitor and access whether student are accessing online learning channels, their attendance and their academic performance, as well as providing supports for high school students preparing for college admissions. Communications channels should be available to address mental health and social emotional health of students while engaged in distance learning. School buses should be used to deliver meals and instructional materials to students. Schools should consider designating a staff member (or a member of a parent organization) as a technology liaison to assist families that are having difficulty using technology devices.

Hybrid arrangement (minimal to moderate spread): A hybrid operation would incorporate most of the components of the other scenarios, with additional provisions to account for schools having limited numbers of students. Suggestions include: limiting entrance points to the building, placing students’ desks at least six feet apart and facing all desks in the same direction, installing barrier screens on all desks, keeping classroom windows open as much as possible, establishing one-way traffic patterns in hallways whenever possible, requiring students and staff to wear facial coverings except when eating, encouraging students to bring food from home, serving meals in classrooms rather than in the cafeteria and setting limits on access to the building by parents and non-school personnel. School buses should be disinfected before morning and afternoon routes, students should maintain six feet of social distancing when seated, windows should be kept open whenever practical, and parents should be advised of appropriate social distancing and safety procedures for children waiting at bus stops.

Based on conditions this week, Burrows anticipates that Appoquinimink will open with a hybrid model. “The more time we have [to plan], the better,” he says, “but the time we have is the time we’re going to be given.”

"We're looking to do as much as we can in person, as much as we can do safely. We're working through the scenarios, trying to figure out what is best for families, for students, and for our staff." - First State Montessori Academy head of school Courtney Fox

To provide an extra cushion, Appoquinimink’s school board voted this week to delay the start of school by a week, until Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.

First State Montessori, Fox said, now expects to open on Aug. 26 with a hybrid operation, but the details are still being worked out. While Odumosu, at New Castle Charter, anticipates a hybrid setting with half the students in school and half at home, Fox said she is considering a variety of options.

Younger students, who are just starting to learn foundational skills in reading and math, might benefit from having more time in the classroom she said, while older students, accustomed to working independently and with more computer experience, might adapt more easily to a remote learning environment.

“We’re looking to do as much as we can in person, as much as we can do safely. We’re working through the scenarios, trying to figure out what is best for families, for students, and for our staff,” Fox said.

With just over six weeks to go, Fox is contemplating multiple options and dozens of decisions, but one thing is absolutely certain.

“We have to be ready,” she said, “and we will be ready.”