Gov. Carney greenlights hybrid instruction for schools

Schools will be able to open their doors this fall for hybrid instruction. 

“Safely reopening schools for Delaware children – especially our youngest learners and disadvantaged children who need in-person instruction the most – is the most important and difficult issue we’ll face as we continue to confront this COVID-19 crisis,” Gov. John Carney said in a prepared statement. “ … This is a science-based approach, and I want to thank everyone who participated in our working groups and put so much thought into this effort.”

Delaware is currently experiencing minimal to moderate spread of COVID-19 under gating criteria established by Delaware Division of Public Health, which includes a review of weekly cases, percent positivity and average daily hospitalizations, meaning that schools can open with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.  

The state plans to provide free COVID-19 testing for educators and staff before the school year begins and in regular intervals following school reopening, using an at-home testing option, according to a news release. Community testing sites geared toward students will be set up at schools throughout the state in the weeks before schools open.

“We are committed to ensuring student, educator and staff safety as we navigate reopening schools,” Dr. Rick Hong, medical director at the Delaware Division of Public Health, said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to monitor the data closely to identify trends and provide schools with the best guidance possible based on that data.”

School reopening criteria and other COVID-19 data in Delaware is listed here. A list of FAQs about safe school reopening in Delaware is available here.

The decision comes after the month of July acted as a primer for getting back to school, though it came with coronavirus caveats.  

The Delaware Department of Education released its 34-page Returning to School guidance last month, addressing concerns revolving around mask-wearing, social distancing, transportation and more. 

The month also welcomed students back to buildings for instruction for the first time since March, with some schools opting for in-person summer school. 

Even as school leadership across the state acclimated to the idea of having students back in the buildings with more intense cleaning regiments, Plexiglas shields and thermometer checks, the Delaware State Education Association called for the state to consider remote learning for at least the first six weeks.

Under hybrid instruction, students in fourth grade and up are required to wear masks, according to DOE’s guidance. Face coverings are strongly recommended for children ages 2 through third grade. Hand-washing and sanitizing should be done between changing in classrooms for staff and students. Families are encouraged to complete health assessments each morning before sending students to school, and check for COVID-19 symptoms. 

Schools should also maintain a distance of 6 feet or greater between students and staff, with a minimum of 3 feet required with face coverings, including when students and staff are seated at desks or standing in classrooms. Students shouldn’t share desks or face each other. Controlling the flow of foot traffic, through entrance and exit points and hallways, is also required. 

Cleaning should be done every 15 minutes to every two hours for high-touch areas. Those using bus transportation should be limited per trip to encourage distancing. Sharing should be minimized.

Taking the guidelines on paper and putting them into practice will now be the task of school boards and districts across the state, as each has its own population size to gauge and educators to work with.

“Since school buildings closed in March, we have been working to return our children and educators to their classrooms as soon as we are able to safely and effectively do so,” Susan Bunting, secretary of the Delaware Department of Education, said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to support districts and charters as they design and implement their local plans under the hybrid model.” 

Many have already opted to push their school calendars back, looking toward a post-Labor Day start, to give more planning time. The 2020-21 calendar is on school board agendas in Capital and Lake Forest school boards this Thursday. 

Caesar Rodney, Milford and Appoquinimink voted last month that they’d delay students’ start to school until after Labor Day. Indian River pushed its first day for students until Sept. 17.

As school boards meet this month, returning to school plans will likely be on the agenda, as cursory conversations about what the year would look like began last month. 

In their July meeting, Milford’s school board weighed what flexibility the district will have in offering classes if they are in person. 

Dr. Kevin Dickerson, superintendent for Milford, told the board that social distancing by 6 feet in classrooms would take a typical room of 24 students down to about 12 to 15.

In Lake Forest, of the district’s 3,600 students, 80% of the student population ride the bus. The district, like many others, released surveys about different facets of school to “get a feel for the community’s needs,” said Steven Lucas, superintendent for the district.

“Depending on the model, like the hybrid model, we feel like right now we have enough resources to make it work,” Dr. Lucas said in a previous interview.

At the Academy of Dover, school leadership purchased a fog machine — and a smaller, more portable version — to spray down high-touch areas, classrooms, playground equipment and buses. 

The school is also purchasing air-purifying machines, as well as potentially hiring another daytime custodian to support the chief custodian and plans to have a bus aide assisting on the school buses, should children be transported to school. 

“It’s a challenge [fiscally] but there’s certain things you have to do and you can’t put a price on someone’s health and safety,” said head of school Michele Marinucci. “The first conversation we were having was, when it came down to it, how can we make this building safe?”