Cape Henlopen schools will open in hybrid format

LEWES — Hours of testimony from teachers and parents preceded the Cape Henlopen school board’s decision to start the school year in a hybrid model, while also opting to bump the student start date out to Sept. 16.

The school board voted 5-2, with Jason Bradley and Bill Collick dissenting. 

At the school board meeting Thursday, the district presented its intentions to bring students back in a hybrid format, allowing for parents to opt out and receive remote instruction instead of having their children in school.  

A goal for the district could see students back in school for several days throughout the week — with the youngest learners in all five days — while middle and high school students would attend two days a week. 

With the “yellow light” to go ahead with hybrid learning, Superintendent Bob Fulton during Thursday’s board meeting said that they wanted to bring back as many students as they safely could. 

“I think we have an additional responsibility than a lot of other professions, that we’re just such a big part of the community, a healthy community, and I want to try to get as many kids back as we can, without compromising anybody’s safety or health,” he said. “And, in doing so, I also think it’s important that we obviously keep every student in mind but, in particular, our younger students and trying to get them back more than even the older students.”

With localized data — focusing on zip codes 19968, 19958, 19971 — showing a decline in positive cases in the area, Mr. Fulton said it was “encouraging.” 

“And it’s also trending the right way,” he said. 

The district plans to send out information for its remote and hybrid plans, with queries out to families by around Aug. 10 asking parents to consider whether they’d prefer remote or hybrid education. By Aug. 19, parents would be committed to either form; staffing decisions would follow by Aug. 21.

More details on options are to come, but a hybrid scenario would have students and staff wearing face coverings and completing health assessments each day before heading in. School buses would have approximately 23 students maximum on 72-passenger buses and 14 students max on 48-passenger buses. Buses would be disinfected between routes; families would be encouraged to provide transportation or have students walk. 

Mr. Fulton called determining transportation “more challenging than a classroom.”

Whether hybrid or remote, a deployment of iPads would be given out for 1:1 learning, and the district working with the Delaware Department of Education and Department of Technology to identify internet access for students with connectivity issues. 

The district was among many this month that will determine how their schools will operate within what is allowed in the state. Milford and Capital also deliberated their plans for the 2020-2021 school year Thursday.

Gov. John Carney announced Tuesday that schools could open in a hybrid format, with a mix of in-person and remote learning. School leadership must adhere to the 34-page guidance put out by the Delaware Department of Education — which addresses mask wearing, social distancing, transportation and more — but how that looks across the districts will be varied. 

The potential of sending students — and therefore, educators and staff — back brought the Cape Henlopen community out in droves, with teachers expressing concern for themselves, 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.”

She called remote teaching as “crisis teaching,” where the educators had a week to get their curriculum into a virtual platform. She noted the variety of changes that will impact children and how different a learning environment will look for students, with social distancing from their peers and educators.  

“I do feel students and staff need to be back in the buildings, but I feel they need to be back in the buildings safely,” she said. “How are we going to deal with the anxiety of a child when their educator gets sick from COVID-19, or one of their friends, or even passes away because of COVID-19? Will your child want to come home after that?” 

While the district has intentions of letting parents and students opt for a totally remote learning atmosphere, educators with children said that if the district intended on any hybrid instruction, their hand would be forced in sending their children back to school.

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

But the concerns about returning to school in a hybrid fashion was met with those who felt like it would best serve students.

Kathleen Fisher, a CHEA member and parent, said she doesn’t see how COVID-19 rates could go any lower, barring a vaccine or a complete shut down 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, 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: healthcare, 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 as this point.”

After nearly five hours of testimony, Mr. Fulton emphasized that he believes this is in the best interest for the community and students.

“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 different would be in this new environment,” Mr. Fulton said. “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.”