RACINE — The Southern Local Board of Education heard from administrators, staff and Meigs County Health Commissioner Marc Barr on Thursday evening as it works to finalize a plan for the 2020-21 school year, which will begin on Sept. 8.
Supt. Tony Deem stated that, at this time, the recommendation he plans to make to the board at the July 27 meeting is for students to “return to the classroom five days a week with a lot of caveats.”
Deem added that the district would offer full online instruction to meet the needs of the kids whose parents do not want to send them back into the school full-time or who could not, for medical or other reasons, send the student back to school. The online instruction would mirror that of the classroom as much as possible, stated Deem. He added that he would want the same lessons taught to both groups of students so that if they were to return to the classroom at a later date they would not be behind.
Deem explained that parents have been completing a survey asking if they would want their child to take part in traditional instruction or remote learning. Southern Elementary Principal Tricia McNickle stated that of the district’s 501 students a survey has been completed for, 364 indicated they would want to do in person instruction, with 137 indicating they prefer online learning.
The commitment to do virtual learning would need to be a semester-long commitment stated Deem, noting that it would not be feasible for students to go back and forth between in person and online classes.
With the reduced numbers provided by some students going to online learning, it would be possible for the remaining students to be in the classroom with the necessary six feet of separation. Deem said that most of the classrooms can accommodate 15 desks/students with the spacing, and allow space for the teacher in the front of the classroom. As long as the six feet of distance is possible students would not be required to wear masks in the classroom.
He stated that he would not be comfortable with 100 percent of the students being in the building and being able to provide the necessary social distancing and a safe environment, but that at the reduced capacity it would work.
Schedules modifications are also being discussed with the older grades to limit the switching of classrooms. When switching does take place, the desks would be disinfected before the next class would come in.
The teacher’s union is to work on a list of things that would be needed in each of the classrooms, working with the teachers to decide what is best for their specific room.
Cleaning plans would also be put in place on how to best disinfect the building both during the day and after the students leave each day.
Regarding transportation, Deem stated that students would sit two to a seat and that mask would be required on the bus. Seats would be assigned and students not permitted to move to other seats. A bus monitor would also be on the bus to make sure masks are worn and to assist with getting students into the building in a safe way. The buses would also be disinfected after each trip. Dismissal would also look different, possibly utilizing more building exits in order for more space between students.
Deem asked Barr to explain how “contact tracing” works with regard to exposure to COVID-19. Barr stated that when a person’s test result comes back positive the health department receives the alert and will then make contact with the person. An interview is conducted with the individual to determine who they have been in contact with. A contact is defined in this case as any one who the person has been within six feet of for 15 minutes or more or who they have had direct contact with. This relies on the individual to recall who they have spent time with and for how long. The health department must then reach out to the contacts, but can only tell them that they have been in contact with a confirmed case. They are not permitted to give the name of the infected person. Barr added that this could be difficult when it comes to schools as HIPAA does not allow for names to be provided.
Barr told the board much of the same information he had provided to the Meigs Local Board of Education, including his concerns over no hospital being in the county should there be severe cases, as well as limited testing in the county, noting that Meigs County must rely on other counties in the area for those things.
He added that hospitalization and ICU admission numbers are important to monitor as they demonstrate the severity of the cases.
Barr was asked if teachers could wear face shields rather than masks, with Barr stating that the requirements of the state have been interpreted to mean that either would work for teachers. Specific concerns were noted for teachers or staff who may have asthma or other medical condition which make wearing a mask difficult, with the face shield noted as a possible alternative for them, and others where appropriate.
Deem noted that they have also been discussing ways to focus on the mental health of the students and teachers during what will be a very different school year. They are looking at various options, including looking into services with Hopewell Health Centers.
McNickle stated that in the parent meetings and surveys some of the concerns have been over transportation, recess, school meals, limited internet access, the need to work limiting ability to do online education and other items.
Likewise, the teachers and staff questions and concerns expressed have included availability of masks, what recess will look like, how notifications will take place should there be a case, and training on the platforms to be used for online instruction.
Teacher Missy Hoback asked Barr what could happen if there were to be a positive test in the school. Barr stated that it could “get real bad real quick” when you consider what a day could look like for a student from the time they get on the bus in the morning until they are picked up after an after-school practice. He added that it would depend how many people the student had come in contact with, with the possible need to quarantine a bus driver, one or more teachers, or other students.
As for if one positive case would shut down the school, Barr stated that the health department does not have that decision or authority, but as with the flu in early 2020 can help to advise on the specific situation should it arise.
Deem stated that should there be a positive case, they would look at the specific situation to see if it should be a classroom shut down, a larger group or the district. If that were the case then plans would already be in place to move to remote learning for those students during the 14 days span required before school could resume.
The district will be looking at utilizing Schoology for online work, which would also for work to be downloaded onto devices for students to work offline if needed. Deem said the district is able to provide Chromebooks for students third grade and up, and will be looking at options for the younger students.
Deem stated he hoped to have a template in place by the July 27 meeting in order to make a decision and communicate that with parents.
Deem stated that the district will take all precautions at the school to provide a good, safe face-to-face education, while doing the same for those online.
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Sarah Hawley is the managing editor of The Daily Sentinel.