Caesar Rodney to open schools remotely, with opportunities for small group in-person instruction

CAMDEN — Caesar Rodney School District will start the year remotely for six weeks, while also introducing in-person opportunities for small groups of students before fully transitioning to a hybrid model by November.

The school board approved the plan 4-1, with Scott Wilson dissenting. 

Under the plan, students will begin school Sept. 8. Small groups will be able to come into schools for instruction, assessments, evaluations and specialized programming. 

Students may remain remote learners even as the district phases in hybrid instruction.

“If we try to bring everybody back at the same time, then it overwhelms the system,” Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said at Monday’s board meeting, prior to Tuesday’s vote. “We have hopes that, should we begin in a remote setting, … that we are able to have our teachers bring in students and connect with students in small groups. We also appreciate the fact that there are some unique needs.”

During the week of Oct. 19, elementary students in grades kindergarten through three, and all onsite and offsite CR countywide programs (the Charlton school) would return to in-person instruction. Hybrid instruction will consist of two days in school and three days of remote learning. 

The following week, students in grades four and five would return. 

Middle school students, in grades six through eight, are slated to return the week of Nov. 9. Depending on the amount of parents who select hybrid or remote, the amount of days students can be in school will vary, but in-person instruction would occur at least once a week. 

High school students would return last, on Nov. 16. Similar to middle school students, the amount of days they can be in class is dependent upon the amount of parents who decide to stay remote or go hybrid. They would be in school for face-to-face instruction a minimum of one day per week. 

Through a 1:1 initiative, the district will provide technology to all students. Students will be expected to use the district-supplied Chromebook (and participate in a $20 protection plan). The district will arrange to hand out the devices by Sept. 8. 

Caesar Rodney’s plan joins the various local decisions that have stemmed from Gov. John Carney’s announcement Aug. 4 that schools could open in a mix of in-person and remote instruction. While some have opted to go hybrid out the gate (Seaford, Woodbridge, Cape Henlopen), others have determined remote plans with hybrid phase-ins (Appoquinimink, Capital, Smyrna, Lake Forest). 

The decisions run the gamut. But they all must follow the 34-page Return to School Guidance, released by the Delaware Department of Education which addresses cleaning, transportation, mask-wearing, social distancing and more.

At Tuesday’s meeting, several parents pushed the district to open with a hybrid start. 

Kelly Robin, parent of a fourth grader and rising kindergarten student at Welch Elementary, said her daughter was crushed after leaving pre-school at the end of last year. 

“I held her close and I wiped her tears and the only thing that got her away from crying and back to smiling was the promise of kindergarten — the promise of meeting new friends, of having a new teacher, of all the new experiences she’d have to look forward to,” she said. “We bought the Elsa backpack, with the matching lunchbox. We have the first day of school dress hanging in her closet. But what we don’t have is a plan for face-to-face learning this year.”

She added that she is concerned for families on the Dover Air Force Base, like she and her family are.

“My concern is adding remote learning to the already overflowing plate of a military spouse is dangerous to a deployed family. They are already stretched very thin, physically, mentally and emotionally,” she said. 

Lauren Purcell, who also lives on the base, said she was likewise disappointed in the plans, noting that offering a hybrid to start didn’t force people to send their children back to school. 

“It is unprecedented times, but schools are literally one of the last sectors trying to maneuver through this. Which means that we’ve had more time than anyone else,” she said. “Hospitals didn’t ask for more time. Small businesses didn’t ask for more time. … If the youth center on base has been able to operate during the pandemic, our schools should be open. If local gyms are able to start operating scholastic day camps, our schools should be open. If employees from all sorts of customer-facing stores and businesses can return to work, so can our teachers.”

Joe Hartman, president of the education association for the district, said it was difficult to hear the parents who spoke, but he understands.

“I’m a ninth grade teacher and I want those parents out there to know we teachers … are as heartbroken over the fact it’s not traditional school year,” he added. “It’s all going to be weird. It’s all going to be new. We’re going to do our best to work together and get through this.”

Mr. Wilson said that the plan wasn’t developed by the board, but the administration. 

“I believe that our plan does a disservice to our children and the parents in our community,” he said before casting his “no” vote. 

Looking ahead to the fall, district officials said that they needed time to acclimate to the new environment that students and staff would be heading back to.

“There are a lot of things that go into making the plan, and everyone is working really hard on that plan,” Dr. Fitzgerald said Monday night. “I would say, Sept. 8, going hybrid immediately is an impossibility. As much as I would like to make that happen, the size of our school district, the size of our schools, makes that a tremendous challenge.”

At an Aug. 10 meeting, where district leadership first laid out their intentions for the year, Director of Student Services Kevin Thompson said bringing in small groups of students to start allows the district to assess how it can implement the DOE’s guidance.

 “Do we have enough custodians at the elementary level to be able to clean high touch services, every 15 minutes to two hours? Or do we need to look at bringing in additional support for our custodial staff?” he said. “Looking at how we’re going to clean desks, how we’re going to do meal service, and just testing all of the things that we put in place without bringing a large cohort of students into there and going ‘Oh my gosh, this doesn’t work.’”

At Monday’s school board meeting, the district presented survey information from its staff. Approximately 960 respondents (of about 1,200 total staff members) consisting of classroom teachers, counselors, paraprofessionals, custodians, bus drivers, constables, etc., voted they’d prefer all remote learning at 51%; 48% preferred face-to-face. Approximately a third of the parents surveyed said they’d prefer in-person instruction. 

A majority of staff (84%) said their internet access was adequate, while about 2% (22 respondents) said that they did not have internet access. For parent respondents, about 90% had access to the internet. Meanwhile, when school turns to hybrid, about 47% of students would need school transportation. 

School board member Jessica Marelli noted that only a third of parents responded to the survey, which impacts who actually prefers hybrid to remote or vice versa. 

The district will send out a commitment letter that will ask parents to choose one of the options to help solidify those numbers and amend planning for hybrid instruction. 

“Teachers, custodians, food service workers, bus drivers, paraprofessionals — everyone needs time to practice these protocols,” board member Joyce Denman said Tuesday. “It’s not just one or two things they’re doing differently. It’s dozens of things that they’ll be doing differently in the building and they need time to develop those protocols so that they do become automatic for them.”