Work groups continue to discuss options, concerns for returning to school

When schools return to session — in whatever capacity that may be — educators will have to balance instructional needs, while supporting the mental health of students and preparing for any sudden changes to operating procedures.

Those nuances were embedded in the conversations this week during the latest reopening schools working group meetings.

As Health and Wellness and Operations and Services considered how educators would support students in the event schools close once more due to significant spread of coronavirus, Academics and Equity reviewed its recommendations for the Secretary of Education in all scenarios thus far.

Health and Wellness was in the mindset of March, when schools were closed.

“Germany had to reclose some of the schools in one of their region[s] when their [spread of the virus] basically jumped up pretty high and they had an outbreak sort of around a meat packing plant there,” said Mario Ramirez of Opportunity Labs. “…My expectation would be that, if that were to continue, that would be what a transition to scenario 3 would look like here.”

The working groups are considering several public health scenarios for the start of the school year: minimal community spread, with school buildings open; minimal-to-moder-ate community spread, which will be situation dependent whether schools can open; and significant community spread, where school buildings remain closed.

If schools were to close, athletics would be suspended and cleaning of facilities would be maintained. Teaching would be moved to remote formats.

Considerations would include utilizing the Delaware Department of Education’s resources for student and staff mental health support; activate direct communication channels for district stakeholders to address mental health concerns; and communicating with parents with return-to-school transition information that would cover destigmatization of COVID-19, understanding normal behavior in response to crises and best practices when talking through trauma with children.

Kristin Dwyer, of the Delaware State Education Association, said that it was important districts have consistency to address mental health.

Dana Carr, of the Delaware Division of Public Health, said that in the spring, telehealth services become available through school-based wellness centers.

“We will have some great lessons learned from that,” she said. “Several of them are doing remote and using telehealth tools to do registration into the school-based wellness centers at the high school level. So we’re really trying to expand access to the mental health services.”

In response to leveraging DOE’s resources for mental health support, Rev. Provey Powell, of Mt. Joy United Methodist Church and a member of the state school board, said it could be beneficial to have a virtual, standardized assessment for social emotional/mental wellness for students and educators provided by the state for all districts.

Susan Haberstroh, director of school support services for DOE, said that the department hopes to work with DPH to provide resources or a toolkit to “identify how to use personal screening,” she said.

“Of course, we wouldn’t mandate any district or school have to use certain materials,” she added.

Rev. Powell and Sue Smith, a nurse at Mispillion Elementary, noted that support has to also be provided to the whole family as they’re taking on the brunt of the responsibility in this scenario. Rev. Powell noted that community leadership that deals with developing the “whole child” is likewise important.

“In this extreme scenario, we need to support the families, the parents and even the community: gear them up with proper training so that we can support them even if it’s not in the brick and mortar school,” he said.

Operations and Services

In Operations and Services, the group discussed how to get materials to students in the event schools close once more. Rep. Earl Jaques noted that students with learning differences may need physical materials rather than online learning.

Jeff Taschner, executive director of DSEA, agreed.

“I think that districts need to identify now either contingencies or alternative approaches for providing related services to our most vulnerable students. I’m thinking about the occupational therapy, the English pathology, all the stuff we typically are able to do in person,” he said. “If we go to a shut down, at least understanding what is and is not feasible and putting plans in place so that we can pivot quickly and have some continuity of services would be in everybody’s best interests.”

For those who can use virtual environments for learning, internet connectivity remains important, said Rep. Charles Postles, R- Milford.

“We do have deserts where they do not get service, not only isn’t there Comcast or other services, the cell tower service is not good so they can’t even use MiFi hotspots. It’s not a lot of people but it is also some of our students who are highest needs students,” he said. “We need to be working on this continually, preparing for that because it’s not too hard to get some additional devices … in the hands of people, but if you can’t get service, then it doesn’t make any difference.”

When it came to the distribution of instructional materials and food, many turned to school buses for operations at the end of last year. Stacey Clark, director of instruction and student services at First State Military Academy, cautioned that that isn’t always possible for schools.

“A lot of smaller schools are limited as far as delivering and transporting. Not all buses and people are cleared to do that,” she said, adding later, “I think maybe considering getting out information of local food banks and things, that needs to [be a recommendation] too because that’s not an option for some.”

Academics and Equity

In whatever way students head back to school, members of Academics and Equity raised concerns about the amount of work these plans are asking educators to do in a limited amount of time.

Laura Schneider, principal of West Seaford Elementary, said there was the potential to address start dates statewide to provide educators more time to grapple with the different areas these working groups are suggesting.

“We have to prepare these teachers who were thrown into an ocean with sharks, right? And we did what we could, but it was a lot of Band-Aids and I think we owe to the teachers and the students to better prepare them. And, again, districts are provided a very slim runway to make that happen,” she said. “We only get a couple days with teachers and then there’s all that other mandatory training that the state has that we have to get done in order to start the year as well. So sometimes it leaves maybe one day for building leaders to get anything done.”

Rebecca Vitelli, 2020 Delaware Teacher of the Year, noted that communicating with parents about how the different scenarios would play out is also important so families can plan for the potential of schools closing or becoming hybrid.

“This is a lot of information … schools need to prepare families with all three scenarios or all options that are going to happen ahead of time and mention how that’s going to look,” she said.

Dr. Monica Gant, associate secretary of the Department of Education and co-chairperson of the committee, agreed, noting that communicating with families is a through-line of the plans.

“We can’t overcommunicate,” she said.

Of the three scenarios, Lisa Lawson, executive director of special education and support services for Brandywine School District, said that the draft recommendations were lacking in specificity for hybrid learning.

“I wonder if we are going to get any more specific in terms of who’s coming to school and who’s staying home and how is attendance being taken and, yes, staffing should be considered. And, in my head, it’s very hard to think about how we will staff people in a building at the same time we’re staffing people to do remote and have enough staffing to be able to do everything social distancing wise,” she said.

Dr. Gant and Ashley Giska, assistant superintendent for Laurel School District and co-chairperson of the working group, said that the vagueness is built around the potential guidance from public health, as well as what the other working groups determine in their meetings.

“Once public health gives us what the parameters are, then we can respond to that,” Dr. Gant said. “That’s what makes this one the toughest. … So we tried to leave it in a way that, based on what the public health guidance is, we can be responsive to it.”

The working groups are each scheduled to meet once more next week before sending their recommendations to the Secretary of Education. Health and Wellness meets Tuesdays, the Academics and Equity meets Wednesdays and Operations and Services meets Thursdays. All meetings are scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. and can be streamed on DOE’s Youtube channel.

Public participation is encouraged, though it will be done virtually. Participants may submit public comments to an email address, reopeningideas@doe.k12.de.us, or by voicemail to 302-735-4244. The department will transcribe the comments and post them online, to the department’s website (www.doe.k12.de.us). The comments will be shared across the working groups.


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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