The state’s public school districts and charters have now largely settled on how they’ll approach beginning the new school year.
Delaware Public Media contributor Larry Nagengast provides an overview of their various plans and walks us through the knowns and unknowns.
The Early College High School at Delaware State University began offering classes Monday, the first in the state to start the new school year.
There were no students in any of its classrooms – and those rooms will remain empty until after Halloween.
"It was tough not physically seeing our students in classrooms,” Principal Evelyn Edney said. “We know it is not the same, but we are trying to make it still feel like we are near each other and this is still our school, even in a little box."
Edney’s experience is one certain to be shared by educators throughout the state in this year of Covid-19, with most schools opening on August 31 or just after Labor Day, with a few delaying their start until September 14 or 16.
“Looking at this through a realistic lens, this year is not going to be a typical year,” says Courtney Fox, head of the First State Montessori Academy in Wilmington.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that everyone is doing things more than a little bit differently. They’re proceeding with caution and a lingering fear – the expectation that another coronavirus outbreak in the state or, worse, within a school, could cause a repeat of this spring’s shutdown.
Virtual or hybrid?
As of Friday, 14 of the state’s 19 public school districts and 13 of its 20 charter schools had announced they will start the school year offering only remote instruction. Most of the others are planning a hybrid launch – with some students receiving face-to-face instruction and the others receiving their lessons online. Several charter schools had not yet made their final reopening decisions or posted plans on their websites.
Most of the districts that are planning a remote opening anticipate a transition to a hybrid format in six weeks. The most common hybrid format splits students into two groups, with each attending classes in-person for two days a week and receiving online instruction for two days, with the fifth day designated for cleaning buildings and an array of online activities. While regular school days typically have about six hours of instruction, but online learning will amount to about four hours a day for high school students and less for those in elementary and middle school grades. Districts and charters operating in hybrid format are giving families the option of all-virtual instruction.
Las Americas Aspira Academy, a dual-language charter school near Newark, is taking a different approach to its virtual-hybrid transition. Classes will begin virtually on August 31, with a switch to hybrid on September 28 and a return to virtual from November 30 to the end of the first semester in January.
The reason, explains Margie Lopez-Waite, the head of school, is concern over exposure to the coronavirus during holiday periods – Labor Day, Thanksgiving and the year-end winter break.
“Labor Day weekend, people have barbecues and go to the beach. For Thanksgiving, they travel out of state, sometimes outside the country,” Lopez-Waite says. Delaying the hybrid launch until late September reduces the likelihood of coronavirus spread contracted over the Labor Day weekend and returning to remote instruction after Thanksgiving eliminates concern of transmission to students and staff after the long weekend.
Some districts and charters are tweaking their hybrid programming to account for the needs of different age groups. First State Montessori, for example, will bring its kindergarten through third grade students into the school for four half-days a week, while those in fourth through eighth grade will receive in-person instruction for three half-days. The Lake Forest district in rural Kent County is prioritizing in-person instruction for students with special needs and those whose homes lack internet access.
While all districts and charter schools are following the broad reopening guidelines issued by the state Department of Education, no two plans are alike.
But educators up and down the state are in agreement on one essential point: whether the instructional plan is hybrid or remote, it’s going to be more demanding than it was in the spring, when Gov. John Carney declared a state of emergency on March 13, forcing the education community into a remote learning environment with little time to prepare.
“Last year, there was not a lot of accountability for kids. That’s going to change,” says Dan Shelton, the new superintendent of the Christina School District, which will launch virtual instruction on September 8 and expects to transition to a hybrid model on October 19. “We have more of a set schedule, higher expectations, more live teaching and we’re making sure every student is connected [to the internet].”
While those “set schedule” models may vary from school to school, many districts and charters – but not all of them – are taking a similar approach.
“The goal is to have teacher prioritize what students need to be learning – give them quality more than quantity,” says Eric Anderson, head of the Sussex Academy, a charter school in Georgetown that this year is adding elementary grades to its middle and high school program.
“If you’re scaling six hours of in-person [instruction] down to four hours of remote, something has to give,” Lopez-Waite says.
“At all grade levels, we’re focusing on the most important items, bulking it up with what kids have to know,” says Jeff Menzer, Colonial School District superintendent.
At the high school level, this means restructuring classes so that students take only four per semester, instead of the usual six or seven, with class sessions lasting up to 90 minutes, instead of the usual 45, so a full year’s work is packed into one semester. These classes would meet four times a week; in a hybrid arrangement, two days would be in-person and two days remote.
“It was a big lift for our teaching staff – to trim, chop restructure what will be taught” at William Penn High School, says Menzer, a former principal there.
Cutting the number of high school classes down to four per semester also simplifies scheduling and makes it easier for students to keep track of their responsibilities.
For the primary grades, the changes tend to involve a greater emphasis on two core areas – reading and math – while developing new ways to deliver instruction in the so-called “specials” – art and music – that aren’t easily transferable from in-person to a remote platform. “This will be the first time we’ve tried that online. I’m excited to see what it looks like,” says Sally Maldonado, head of the Kuumba Academy, a K-8 program in downtown Wilmington’s Community Education Building.
Hybrid operations pose a special challenge for the state’s vocational-technical schools, since hands-on learning is an essential component of career preparation.
“For every career area, there is theory and practical application,” says Joe Jones, superintendent of the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District, which will have a virtual start before transitioning to hybrid in mid-October. “For remote learning, our teachers will go heavy on the theory,” he says, “but sooner or later, our automotive students will have to look under the hood and cosmetology students will have to work on a mannequin.”
Find district and charter school reopening info at a glance here.
The higher expectations that Christina’s superintendent mentioned come in response to the realization that, with teachers having little time to prepare for the spring’s forced venture into distance learning, many students were merely treading water academically and some just checked out altogether, either for lack of internet access or general indifference.
Schools are now making clear what they expect of students – letting them know when they are supposed to log on for scheduled classes, how to complete and submit homework assignments.
For example, the first bullet point in the Brandywine School District’s expectations for students states that students will “access, attend, and participate in all scheduled classes remotely as if being on-site and in school as done during a traditional, in-person school year.” Other items require students to participate in training on how to use school-issued computers and the district’s online learning platforms. Expectations for parents include “providing a supportive learning environment including time, space, and resources necessary for learning” and “monitor[ing] student engagement through planning, prioritizing, organization, goal setting, and time management.”
The combination of simplified scheduling and significant planning time over the summer and during the week or two before classes begin will also mean more live teaching – in the classroom when possible and online in the form of synchronous lessons. To improve hybrid learning sessions, Lopez-Waite says Las Americas Aspira has purchased swivel devices – essentially a tripod that holds a laptop computer. Teachers can set the swivel so the camera on the computer can follow their movements, giving students learning remotely the same view as their peers in the classroom.
Before the start of each school year, teachers routinely report for a week of professional development and to ready their classrooms. This year the training is being done remotely, with much of the emphasis on remote instruction techniques, including familiarization with the online platforms – usually Schoology or Google Classroom – being used for online lessons and classroom management.
Also during the summer, districts and charters have inventoried families to determine whether they have computers and internet access. Most are now one-to-one on tech devices – meaning that all students have their own laptops or devices, or one issued by the school. Upstate districts have been working with Comcast to make sure all families can obtain a low-cost basic internet package. With internet access still spotty in some rural areas of Kent and Sussex counties, school systems have worked to set up internet “hot spots” so students can learn online from home.
The inevitable outbreak
As schools prepare for their first classes, educators are steeling themselves for what they know is likely to happen – a surge in coronavirus cases that could once again disrupt their operations.
A lot of the scheduling has involved breaking students into smaller groups – called pods or cohorts – that would stay together for the entire school day, with little interaction with students from other pods. Creating these tight-knit units is meant to minimize the spread of the virus if someone tests positive and to facilitate contact tracing as well. If the strategy is effective, it could limit the extent of any shutdown – to a small group, or perhaps a grade level, but not the entire school.
A larger concern for school leaders is what happens if a teacher contracts the coronavirus.
They have a little more confidence now than they did earlier this month, as the state has arranged for free testing for all school personnel – first a week to 10 days before entering a school, and then one-quarter of the school staff each week for the rest of the fall semester.
While that may help identify problems sooner, it does not solve the staffing problem that could occur. “We’re not a football team. It’s not like we have a bunch of players on the sideline ready to step in,” Lopez-Waite says. Recognizing that there could well be a shortage of substitute teachers this year, she says her school is exploring alternatives, for example, using paraprofessionals as short-term classroom fill-ins.
Vocational schools face similar problems because of the limited number of teachers qualified to teach career subjects like allied health, auto mechanics, plumbing and electrical. Jones, at New Castle County Vo-Tech, says the district is fortunate to have four high schools. If a trades teacher is out for an extended period, the district could do something that has worked successfully in the past – shuttle small groups of students to another school for their trades classes.
School leaders say their first step when a student or staff member tests positive will be to contact their liaison at the state Division of Public Health to assess the situation. After that … it depends.
“We’ll do contact tracing, and we’ll follow the guidance we receive,” Menzer says. “There is not a straight-up playbook for this.”
For all the planning the districts and charters have done, one little detail is missing: an anticipated date for a return to face-to-face instruction for all students.
School leaders are hesitant to hazard a guess on when that might occur.
“I pray that it’s this year, but I just don’t know,” Jones says.
“My hope,” Maldonado says, “is that, after flu season, we can go back to five days a week.”
Aaron Bass, leader of Eastside Charter School in Wilmington, just isn’t sure.
Hybrid, he says, “will be with us for a substantial amount of time.”
What families can expect if their kids go to school in-person
It should come as no surprise that students from fourth grade through high school will be required to wear masks, which are also recommended for children in lower grades.
In addition to requiring mask wearing, districts and schools are establishing protocols that conform with the guidelines the state Department of Education has established for public schools. The fine points of each item may vary slightly from school to school, but here are some procedures families should expect:
- Daily temperature checks at home.
- Complete a questionnaire on COVID-19 symptoms before entering the building.
- Frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer.
- Serving boxed lunches, and prepared or packaged food; alternatively, bring lunches from home.
- Water coolers may be disconnected; bring bottled water from home.
- Cafeteria seating may be limited; students may be eating lunch in their classrooms.
- Regimented procedures for dropping off and picking up students before and after school.
- Fewer students in classrooms, physical distancing in hallways, limits on the number of people using bathrooms at one time.
- Access to school by parents and other adults will be limited.
- Locker use will be limited or eliminated.
- Before-school and after-care programs may be reduced or eliminated.
- Field trips will not be offered until current state restrictions are loosened.
- Large events like meet-the-teacher nights, homecoming and performances will not be held.
For specifics on health and wellness protocols, and for details of instructional plans, check the website of each district or school.