Delaware school reopening decision will come in August

DOVER — Whether schools will open their doors for the fall will be determined in early August, and will be contingent on the spread of the novel coronavirus in Delaware, officials said Tuesday.

“It really is up to us, and if we ever needed a motivation to wear a face covering, to keep social distancing, to avoid large gatherings, this is the motivation, which is so that all of our children, all of our grandchildren, our neighbors’ children can go to school and get more in-person instruction than they otherwise would have if the conditions on the ground don’t warrant it,” Gov. John Carney said during Tuesday’s press conference.

Delaware Secretary of Education Susan Bunting cited recommendations, which were likely to be released late Tuesday or today, for how the schools will respond to the virus during the academic year. The recommendations were crafted after three working groups — composed of school leaders and staff, legislators and student and parent representatives — met each week in June to discuss different facets for returning to school.

“You would be expecting to see in all three scenarios the use of face coverings, social distancing and we also have transportation precautions that would be taking place on buses as they bring our students to us each day,” Dr. Bunting said. “We’re hoping for as much in-person instruction as we can possibly provide because we know that’s the richest way to go. But we also know that whether it’s in-person or remote learning, there are pros and cons to the situation.”

However, the state will be considering the landscape of Delaware come August before making a decision on how schools will open. The amount of positive cases on a daily basis, the number of positive cases as a percentage of the population, the severity of the illness measured by hospitalization and death rates will factor in to how schools reopen.

In the meantime, Dr. Bunting noted, the Department of Education and schools will be planning for all three scenarios: from minimal, which would see little changes to normal operating procedure; to moderate, where education would be hybrid; to significant, where schools would be closed. Details on these scenarios will be included in forthcoming recommendations from the state.

Much like how the districts and charters approached remote learning from mid-March to the end of the year, the recommendations will be broad guidance, and the districts and charters will have to determine how to address them locally.

“This collaboration between the Division of Public Health and the Department of Education is [laying] out what schools must plan for, and then the individual school districts have to take the task of making sure that this works in a particular school district, according to their needs, their size, their buildings, their population and so forth,” Dr. Bunting said. “That will possibly take a different look in different places.”

Gov. Carney added that, in a conference call with superintendents Tuesday morning, he heard concerns about the challenges that come with transportation and enforcing mask-wearing.

“I think the other one was flexibility, and I think that’s key,” he continued. “As long as the districts are following the general, overall guidelines, they’re going to have different geometries in their schools. A lot of it comes down with the space they have.”

Gov. Carney also emphasized the need for testing staff and educators to start off the school year. He said the logistics are still being worked out, but an announcement could come over the next week.

“We want to test as many, if not all, of the educators and staff to start the school year off, and then have periodic testing in a way that measures any existence of the virus and the spread thereafter,” he said.

Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, acknowledged it is important to get students back to school, in face-to-face environments, as much as possible in the fall.

She recalled visiting an elementary school with DOE leadership and learned that only 40% of the students remained engaged in remote learning by the end of the school year.

“It reinforced the need to get kids back in a physical school building, but we are absolutely obligated to do it in a way that keeps students and staff safe, by using key prevention strategies and mitigating the potential spread for COVID-19,” she said.

She cited recent data that suggests children and adolescents are less likely to have severe symptoms of coronavirus, and are less likely to become infected and spread the virus.

“There’s a new study that looks at children ages 10 and under who seem to be less likely to become infected in comparison to kids 10 and up,” she said. “And that helps us in the way we’re thinking about safety for kids but certainly doesn’t mean that the risk doesn’t exist for any school-age child, as well as the staff who are in those school buildings.”

She emphasized that it is “critically important” that children in grades four and above, or 10 years old and older, are required to wear face coverings, as well as all adults.

Social distancing is also key, she said.

“Kids need to be social distanced, ideally we aim for six feet or more,” she said. “There is some science that supports three feet or more as long as the children are wearing a face covering.”

Hand hygiene — access to sinks or hand sanitizer — are both important, as well as the importance of utilizing outdoor spaces.

“We’ve seen some innovative approaches in other states and we know that we’ve got a lot of innovative leadership here in our state,” she said. “It’s a good time now to start thinking about utilizing like event tents and all the outdoor space that may be available to our districts and our schools to get children outside as much as possible during the school day.”

Dr. Rattay also pointed to risk assessment, noting that it’s important for children and staff are not going to school if they have any signs of COVID-19. Working with school coordinators and nurses will be important when it comes to social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting schools. She mentioned a “tool” that can be used before kids and staff go to school each morning.

“We have a long history of working with school nurses on infection measures. They contact our office of epidemiology on a regular basis if they’re seeing infections. We have protocols already in place from the spring around COVID-19,” she said. “It is going to be critically important that we continue to work with the school nurses on reporting cases to us and vice versa, so that we make sure that we have good contact tracing and isolation and quarantine of those who are sick or exposed.”

Dr. Bunting said the department collected survey responses from students, families, educators, school leaders and district administrators to glean how the last few months of the 2019-2020 academic year went. The survey brought in 20,000 respondents with “mixed answers,” Dr. Bunting said.

Of the respondents, 50% of students reported feeling “extremely or very comfortable” going back to school, where 40% of families and 44% of teachers reported feeling comfortable going back to school. Of school leaders, 39% reported feeling comfortable returning to school.

“If you asked our students, they definitely would tell you, they wanted to go back to school,” she said.

Dr. Bunting noted that certain procedures for returning to school will have a price tag, however. She pointed to CARES Act funding, in which districts can determine how to use that money based on their students’ and staff’s needs as it pertains to COVID-19. Funds could be used on technological support, food distribution, etc.

Additional funding — about $12.2 million — came to the governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund and DOE.

“We’ve collaborated and our monies will be spent basically sending it out again to help what happens in districts and charters for our students,” she said.

Of those funds, $4.5 million will be invested in instructional support as well as mental health support and professional learning for teachers on effectively delivering instruction.

$3.5 million will be invested into digital classrooms to address connectivity, “which is particularly poor on the western side of Kent and Sussex counties,” Dr. Bunting noted. Funds will go to expanding broadband and content filtering for student devices.

Another $3 million will expand what the state terms its Opportunity Funding. It will allow 41 additional schools to expand services to English learners and low-income students, addressing mental health, social work and reading interventionists, she said. The final $1.2 will go to funding for trainings, like career pathways for high schoolers and the dual generation center in Wilmington, Dr. Bunting said.

As Gov. Carney presented coronavirus’s current impact on the state, he noted that the virus is still here and still circulating.

“It’s being transmitted from one person to the other, so if we’re not taking precautionary measures, we’re not wearing face coverings and masks, we’re not keeping social distancing, and we’re not careful about large gatherings, then we’re going to see these rebounds,” he said.

He pointed to two hot spots in particular, both in Sussex County: an outbreak among poultry workers, their families and communities; and the young adult crowd at the beaches.

“Our focus is going to be opening our schools, in a way that’s safe, based on the spread of the and the existence of the virus in the communities. We’d like it to be consistent across the school districts and across our state, but we’ve already seen how there can be geographic differences, and districts will need to respond to that,” Gov. Carney said. “Every district is a little bit different in terms of the number of students they have, the configuration of their school buildings, their operational needs.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with more details.