Reaction mixed to school reopening decisions

Students attend Capital’s Senator Summer Boost program with face coverings and social distancing in place. (Delaware State News/Brooke Schultz)

Across the state this week, school board members listened to their community of educators, parents and administrators as deliberations began on how to approach the start of the academic year.

The Capital, Cape Henlopen and Milford school boards met Thursday to determine whether to begin remotely or via a hybrid model.

“All of our board members have a vested interest in this decision, whether we are parents or grandparents or have sons or daughters or grandchildren that are employed with the district. … We’re in a lose-lose situation. People have really strong opinions on either side,” said Cape Henlopen board member Jessica Tyndall in just the first of a six-hour meeting filled with testimony from educators, staff and parents.

“This is going to be one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, and I have been a board member since school start times and redistricting,” she continued. “We’re sitting in really tough seats right now.”

After its debate, the Cape Henlopen school board voted 5-2, with Jason Bradley and Bill Collick dissenting, to start the school year in a hybrid model, while also opting to bump the student start date out to Sept. 16.

Capital, Milford will begin remotely
Meanwhile, both the Capital and Milford school boards voted they would begin in a remote model for several weeks, also postponing their student start days until after Labor Day.

The Capital school board voted unanimously to continue remote education for a period just over six weeks, also opting to begin its school year for students Sept. 8.

When the board meets Oct. 20, it will revisit the decision and give parents and staff time to plan for potential changes, said board member Sean Christiansen.

Although the Milford School District presented its rationale for a hybrid model — which the board heard about in detail earlier in the week — the board voted 5-1, with Kristopher Thompson dissenting and Jason Miller abstaining, to start remotely for six weeks. The school board also voted unanimously to start school for students Sept. 9.

“I have fears associated with a pandemic, as well. But my biggest fear is that we become divisive and this ends up negatively impacting our students,” said Dr. Kevin Dickerson, superintendent for the Milford School District. “After this evening, our full collective efforts need to be geared toward how to best educate and serve our students in either model chosen by the board.”

The three districts are among others that are making decisions and listening to their administrators, teachers and parents following Gov. John Carney’s announcement that schools could open in a hybrid model, given the spread of coronavirus in the state.

He emphasized the importance of getting the state’s youngest learners back in the classroom and the role that education plays in child care, socialization, nutrition and more.

Cape elementary kids in school five days a week
In Cape Henlopen, a hybrid model would see students back in school for several days throughout the week — with the elementary students in all five days, while middle and high school students would attend two days a week. Social distancing, face coverings, transportation, cleaning and more are addressed in the district’s plans.

Parents can opt to have their children learn remotely. Elementary students, if in school, would be in school for five days. Secondary students would be split into three cohorts. Cohort 1 would attend in person Monday and Tuesday, while Cohort 2 would meet Thursday and Friday in person. Cohort 3 would be entirely remote.

Busing capacity would be limited for social distancing, and parents could opt out of transportation. The district will provide iPads through its 1:1 technology initiative and work with the Delaware Department of Technology on internet connectivity.

“Many of the comments talked about challenges in this new environment and sort of teaching and listing a lot of maybe not-so-positive things about how different it would be in this new environment,” Cape Henlopen Superintendent Bob Fulton said as the school board meeting neared its end Thursday.

“I think it’s up to us to kind of create that new school environment and make it as positive as we can for students. And even though it’s going to be different — this is one of the reasons I’m making the recommendation I am — for some students, it’ll be the best six hours of their entire day.”

Capital’s virtual plan discussed
A virtual setting in Capital would likely have synchronous and asynchronous opportunities, so that students would be able to complete assignments in a schedule that works for them and their families. A time schedule, which would be grade-level appropriate, would be distributed.

Pending board approval, the district would phase in at-school learning, beginning with prekindergarten through second grade, then grades three and four, then grades five through 12. Remote learning would remain an option available to students across all grade levels.

The district is no stranger to the hybrid model, as its summer school program — Senator Summer Boost — had students learning in school and at home.

“One of the most important messages that I have from our Senator Summer Boost team is that while the findings are quite positive, scaling the work would be quite challenging,” said Paul Dunford, director of instruction.

“The number of students that we had, the size of the program, is a lot of why we were so successful.”

Also in the Capital district, William Henry Middle School sustained significant damage in Tropical Storm Isaias on Tuesday, barring anyone from utilizing the historic school and impacting the plans for in-school learning. Virtual instruction gives the district more time to react to the storm’s damage.

Milford remote learning includes three cohorts
For Milford — which determined it would open remotely for the first six weeks of the year — a potential later hybrid model would have three cohorts. Cohort A would be in school Monday and Tuesday; Cohort B would be in school Thursday and Friday. Both cohorts would be remote Wednesdays. Cohort C would be fully remote through the week.

The district loaned out 1,400 devices and has received 1,300 back, said Scott Whaley, supervisor of technology. More come back every day, he said, adding that only 26 have been returned with damage.

Students with disabilities who are in need of extra support will receive it. The district works with a group of board-certified behavior analysts, “who we have had already out throughout the spring, that are providing supports in homes for families or coaching from an area that is safe,” said Laura Manges, director of student services.

DSEA shares concerns
The Delaware State Education Association in late July had urged the state to mandate that schools start remotely for a period of at least six weeks to prepare for what lies ahead. Following the governor’s decision, DSEA called on local school boards to go virtual to start.

In a statement, DSEA president Stephanie Ingram said that a virtual start would allow districts to spend extra time addressing social distancing, personal protective equipment and compliance with the 34-page statewide Returning to Schools guidance the Delaware Department of Education released in July.

“With recent COVID outbreaks at summer camps and schools that have already opened in other states, we need to make sure we get it right. We just can’t take the chance of opening our school buildings only to have to shut down again,” she wrote. “ … We are calling on all school board members to listen to their employees, to take their concerns seriously and to develop plans that prioritize the safety and well-being of students and staff. Educators know better than anyone else what can and cannot be reasonably done in a classroom with their students.”

Teachers speak out
Many teachers heeded DSEA’s call to action, laying out their concerns to school boards.

In Cape Henlopen, educators shared anxieties and a desire to protect their students and families.

“Everybody wants to be back in the school buildings teaching and working with our students. The students, the administrators, the educators, everybody who’s involved in this educational process for our children,” said Lacey Brown, Cape Henlopen Education Association president and a first grade teacher in the district. “However, we all want to do it safely. We want what is best for our students, who we also see as our own children inside and outside of the classroom.”

Shorel Clark described herself as a “new retiree,” who had spent more than 30 years in the district, but announced her retirement in July.

“School was my second home, the students were my children, and the parents became my friends. My back was against the wall, and I had to walk away from a career that needed me and was my passion,” she said. “Like many of you, I couldn’t stand the thought of transmitting a disease to my loved ones at home. … Just like opening up the state too soon, in my heart, I knew it was too soon for children, teachers and staff to return to school.”

Amanda Kilby, a parent and educator, was choked up as she expressed her concerns for the start of the year.

“Members of the board, my fellow teachers and I are not ready to go to student funerals, and I am not ready to bury my kids, my 70-year-old parents, my colleagues or myself because we are unnecessarily exposed,” she said. “I am scared and anxious, and I have not stopped feeling this way since we left school in March.”

In Milford, those sentiments echoed.

“When we started the discussions of returning to school this fall, I said from Day One, as long as we have the protocols and the appropriate tools to return safely to our schools in some manner, I would be comfortable with that decision,” said Brice Baylis, a gifted-and-talented teacher at Mispillion Elementary School and the president of the Milford Education Association. “As we move closer to the start date, I don’t feel that same comfort level.”

For 34 years, Jeffrey Tolbert, a first grade teacher at Banneker Elementary in Milford, has had butterflies in his stomach when this time of year comes around. He thinks about curriculum and his class and his co-workers, he said. He thinks of the relationships he will foster with his class, as many have grown into lifelong friendships, he said.

“Now, the butterflies in my stomach are here because I know that school will be drastically different. I hear many people say that children need to get back to school and be around the friends,” he said, choking up as he spoke. “I will have to tell children that come to me for help, ‘No, I cannot tie your shoe. No, I cannot touch your pencil. No, you cannot take off your face mask even though your ears hurt.’ What type of relationship will this foster? Will I be able to hide my own fears from them?”

Hybrid supporters want to best serve students
The concerns about returning to school in a hybrid fashion were met by those who felt like it would best serve students.

Kathleen Fisher, a Cape Henlopen Education Association member and parent, said she doesn’t see how COVID-19 rates could go any lower, barring a vaccine or a complete shutdown once more.

“If we start remote now, I worry this sets us on a path of virtual school until there’s a vaccine, which is at best months away, but more likely, a year or more,” she said. “Is that the best we can offer our children? I say no. An educator’s role is too important to do remote for an indefinite period of time.”

Dave Stevenson, a parent in Cape, noted that the hybrid scenario allows parents a choice to assess the risk for their families.

“There is no risk-free environment any year in a school. People get sick, kids get sick, teachers get sick. People hopefully recover but some die,” he said. “Professional educators are going to have to make the choice that has been made by every other profession: health care, retail, restaurant, every business that’s open. People have to make the choice whether they’re going to go back to work in this environment, with precaution, or if they’re going to stay home. … That’s the choice we’re all faced with at this point.”

Milford board member Mr. Thompson thought it would be possible for schools to open safely.

“We are still more than a month away from putting students or teachers in our buildings, and that will allow us to continuously evaluate and adjust to the health data,” he said. “I understand the concerns our teachers have with trying to educate students while wearing a mask. I also think that there may be a benefit to doing this. It has become our new norm in today’s society, and our students look at our teachers as role models.”

Meanwhile, other school districts will determine their plans for the start soon. School boards for Appoquinimink and Woodbridge meet Tuesday, Lake Forest and Delmar meet Thursday, Caesar Rodney meets Aug. 18, Smyrna and Seaford meet Aug. 19, and Indian River meets Aug. 24.

Capital and Milford are both set to meet again later this month, Capital on Aug. 19 and Milford on Aug. 17.

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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