Capital students to start hybrid learning

South Dover Elementary School principal Bill Buczynski measures 6-foot distances in one kindergarten classroom. (Delaware State News/Brooke Schultz)

DOVER — As the calendar turns over to November, some Capital students are slated to head back for hybrid learning as early as next Monday.

While parents and guardians who spoke during the district’s most recent board meeting favored getting students back to school, some educators have lingering concerns about the return.

Armed with a COVID-19 checklist, administrators took a tour of school buildings Friday morning in anticipation of students returning to their desks.

At South Dover Elementary School, principal Bill Buczynski — tape measure in hand — showed the directional marks in the hallways, the 6-foot indicators spotting the floors, the classrooms with desks spread across them, hand sanitizing stations and the stickers marking spots to sit at cafeteria tables.

“Our staff is excited to get back. Our students are excited to get in the building,” Mr. Buczynski said. “When they come in for different [material/supplies] pickups and we see them, their whole demeanor changes; their eyes light up, there’s a smile on their face. They’re excited. They’re ready to get back in. Parents are ready to trust us with having their children back in our buildings to educate them. I just can’t wait for Nov. 9. It can’t come soon enough.”

Districtwide, pre-K through grade four will return to school Nov. 9 for two days of face-to-face instruction per week. Grades five through 12 will return Nov. 30 for two days of in-person learning per week. Parents can choose to keep their children home.

Though Capital is no stranger to hybrid instruction — the district held its summer school program with an in-person option — it is the last in the county to move to this model. And though others in Kent mostly began phasing in students by October, when Capital’s decision was made in the early morning hours of Oct. 21 after a long school board meeting, it was a 3-2 vote.

Nearly three hours into the board meeting, the school board moved into executive session for about a half hour to privately discuss concerns after educators messaged and emailed board members in response to the district’s presentation that evening.

“Going into this, I was already torn and I’m not sure that I feel any better,” board president Dr. Chanda Jackson Short, who voted against hybrid, said during the meeting. “Now I feel torn in another area. I feel like we still have more planning to do. And I know we’re not talking about switching tomorrow or Monday, so my question, I guess, is: do you think we’ll be ready by Nov. 9? Because I don’t feel like we are ready now.”

Dr. Sylvia Henderson, interim superintendent, said they would be ready by the time students were scheduled to arrive.

“I’ve heard some clear concerns this evening, particularly about our planning on Wednesdays and we need to address that, and we need to make sure that our teachers feel supported,” she said.

The school board will meet again Wednesday during a virtual/in-person meeting at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the reopening.

Following October’s board meeting, the district held a town hall for staff to address their concerns, but some educators highlighted cleaning procedures, student mask-wearing efforts and job protection as worries.

The district is using Q.T. Plus, a hospital-grade disinfectant, and Q.T. 3, a hard surface cleaner. Data sheets for the both suggest wearing proper protective equipment for use and note the mist should not be inhaled.

The disinfectants are used all day, Adewunmi Kuforiji, interim assistant superintendent, said. High touch surfaces (doorknobs, light switches, etc.) will be cleaned every two hours, most likely with a spray bottle and rag, said Mary Cooke, human resources director.

At the end of the day, custodians will conduct a deeper cleaning using those disinfectants with a misting gun. According to the data sheet for Q.T. Plus, surfaces must be wet for three minutes to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and surfaces that food will touch should be rinsed with water before use.

Emails from educators discussed discomfort at chemicals of that caliber being used throughout the day in a populated building. Dr. Henderson said schedule adjustments were subsequently made regarding when misting guns will be administered.

Every classroom has hand sanitizer and cleaning products throughout.

Classrooms will have additional adult and children masks as back up, said LaWanda Burgoyne, director of student services. The nurse’s office has baggies of additional PPE (beyond just a face mask) and overflow areas if a number of students need health services. HEPA Air Purifiers will also be running in the nurse’s office, she said.

If a student falls ill in school, parents and guardians who committed to hybrid have to be prepared to pick up their child, she said.

“If a student gets sick in the middle of the day, the nurse needs to be able to call that family and have that child picked up within 30 minutes,” Ms. Burgoyne said. “We’re really sticking to that really clearly and even in the letter said they do need to have a back up plan.”

When the administration laid out its plan for its return of students at the board meeting, they stated the district won’t turn away students who aren’t registered for hybrid learning but show up at the bus stop regardless, stoking fears of surplus for some teachers.

District administration said they will not leave unattended children at bus stops, but they also won’t put them into classrooms. Part of the returning to school guidance, published by the Department of Education in July, states that “students should be kept in stable groups throughout the day with little to no mixing of classes.”

Students will be brought in, and parents will be contacted and asked to pick up their child, just like if they were sick, Mr. Buczynski said.

In the meantime, the students will still receive schooling in a designated area separate from their peers.

“They’ll be able to connect with their normal Zoom class,” Mr. Buczynski said. “There won’t be any missed steps with them getting educated, just that they’re not at home where they’re supposed to be.”

Across the district, the percentage of students anticipated to learn remotely versus hybrid in November differs by school. At the high school level, a majority leaned toward remote (though non-respondents, of which there were 688 as of Oct. 20, were automatically counted as remote). At South, it was nearly split 50/50.

Mr. Buczynski said about 271 students will be in for hybrid, out of the 591 total. Accounting for the more than 100 sets of siblings, the Spanish immersion program, etc., the cohorts are split slightly unevenly (125 for cohort A, 146 for cohort B).

And more and more parents have been expressing their interest in hybrid, and are requesting to switch.

“They trust us, they trust the teacher, they trust the district, they’re starting to want to come back in the building,” he said. “I told a parent yesterday, ‘I’m not going to turn you away. You want to come in, that’s what we’re going to do.’ I want kids in the building. That’s what we’re here for.”

At the board meeting, and on Friday, administrators acknowledged that they heard the stress from their educators.

There was a classroom set up day for educators Oct. 9 to prepare for returning, Dr. Henderson said.

Ms. Cooke said that there is an emotional reaction coming back.

“When I talked to staff, a message I give them is, if they’ve not been back, they don’t want to wait until, in the case of South, Nov. 9 for elementary [schools], to come back into the building,” she said.

About 40% of the staff typically work from South during the remote learning period, Mr. Buczynski said; all have been in at some point, he added.

“The more you get in the building, the more comfortable you are being back in it,” he said. “There’s a stretch of time where we’ve been almost eight months by the time Nov. 9 hits that kids have not been in our building. So there’s an anxiousness. … I’m anxious but I’m more excited to get kids back in our building.”

Educators with health concerns must meet the requirements established by the Americans with Disabilities Act when it comes to addressing job protection amid COVID-19, Dr. Henderson said.

“All that is individualized, and the staff member works with the human resources department and their doctor to come up with a plan to support them,” she said.

Ms. Cooke said the district is “accommodating some staff through the Americans with Disabilities Act with reasonable accommodations,” but, citing privacy, declined to say how many.

In addition to ADA and short time disability, under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which expires Dec. 31, employers must give their employees emergency paid leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19.

For instance, if employees are quarantined by the Division of Public Health, told to self-quarantine by a health care provider or are experiencing symptoms and awaiting diagnosis, they are entitled to 100% of pay for 10 workdays. If employees are caring for someone who either is quarantined or has been advised to self-quarantine, they are entitled to 66.67% of pay (max $200/day) for 10 work days.

Any leave beyond Emergency Paid Leave will be charged against accumulated leave and if no leave exists, the employee will be deducted. Employees are entitled to only one 10-day emergency paid period, according to the act.

The act also expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act, meaning that those who have been employed for at least 30 days can receive up to 10 additional weeks of paid expanded FMLA at 66.67% where an employee is unable to work due to “bona fide need for leave” to care for a child whose school or childcare provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.

Only employees that cannot work remotely and who can document that no alternative or emergency childcare is available are eligible.

If an employee has previously exhausted 60 work days within the past 12 months, they will not qualify for expanded FMLA.

There is a gray area for those who may not qualify for ADA and still have concerns about returning. Dr. Henderson urged those with concerns to talk to administrators and HR specialists, noting they all have an “open door policy.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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