Capital school board OKs hybrid learning for November

DOVER — After hours of discussion, Capital School District students will be headed back to school in a hybrid model in November, its board decided early Wednesday morning.

The board voted 3-2, with board members John Martin and Dr. Chanda Jackson-Short dissenting, to approve the hybrid model that district officials presented at the board meeting.

Pre-K through grade four will return to school Nov. 9 for two days of face-to-face instruction per week. Grades five through 12 will return Nov. 30 for two days of face-to-face learning. Parents can choose to keep their children home.

At the start of the board meeting, several parents advocated for their children to return to some form of in-person learning. Hours later, district principals echoed their sentiments.

“It’s ultimately a reward and risk decision. And I feel like I know the risks more than the reward,” said board member Dr. Tony DePrima. “Why not just stay remote? Why not just avoid the health risks? Why not avoid the capacity issues we might have? Why not avoid the change of, ‘Maybe we’ll have to go back to red (fully remote) anyway.’ Why not just stay remote, keep building on it, making it better until the day we can all come back full time? What’s the reward for going hybrid two days a week?”

Dover High School Principal Dr. Courtney Voshell responded.

“We’re in the business of serving kids, and our kids are struggling being online,” she said. “Our teachers are struggling making connections with students online. … While our Dover High School (attendance) data may show 89%, the number of students not doing assignments greatly outweighs that.”

Across the state, school boards have been continuing to weigh their options about returning children to school. Decisions made in August have not always been permanent, and more changes continue to be made to the models put in place since education was first uprooted more than half a year ago.

This week in particular marked a shift, during which some districts — Caesar Rodney, Lake Forest, Appoquinimink, Milford, etc. — began bringing back students, or more students than they already had in school.

“I normally don’t like to compare our district to other districts, but we are probably the last district in Kent County to start hybrid,” said Interim Superintendent Dr. Sylvia Henderson. “And we have collaborated with other districts, and we’ve talked with other districts to get to this point, and most of the districts are offering some type of in-person hybrid, and I think we really need to strive to support those children, and they have to be seen. We need to see them. For the social-emotional supports, but also for the academic supports.”

In a survey asking families to commit to hybrid or remote learning, preference was split depending on the school. At Dover High, 35% is slated to be hybrid, while 65% is to be remote.

Meanwhile, those numbers are nearly reversed at Hartly Elementary, with 62% preferring hybrid to 38% preferring remote. Respondents who did not answer the survey (688 at DHS, for example) are being kept in the remote model.

Paul Dunford, director of instruction, said he anticipates interest in hybrid increasing once the model takes shape next month.

“I believe when buses start rolling through neighborhoods, that we will have students getting on buses,” he told the board. “I believe families will be calling in droves to have their children come back.”

In Capital, the district presented the realities under remote learning. Attendance was down 5% to 10% in most schools from the year previous (Kent County Secondary Intensive Learning Center) is the lone exception, with its attendance increasing). Central Middle showed the lowest percentage of attendance (77%). Behind Kent County Secondary ILC (96%), William Henry Middle (93%) has the highest attendance in the district.
With the reports of attendance, the district has made almost 200 home visits to address those with chronic absences, officials said.

Meanwhile, interim grade reports show students are struggling in the environment. For seniors in high school, 41% currently have an F in at least one class. For freshmen, it’s 46%, and 50% for seventh graders.

“It’s a bit unfair for me to say it’s an uptick, as crazy as that sounds,” Dr. Voshell said of the high school. “First marking period progress reports are tough at the high school, particularly for ninth graders; the failures are high. That is typical for us to see when students come into the high school. It’s a transition year.”

This year, she added, that typical transition (mirrored by children heading into seventh grade) is compounded by the fact that schools are virtual.

“We are seeing that students who are attending Zooms and completing the work during a regular school day are having better success than those that are not,” she said.

The rest of this month will be dedicated to preparing students returning to the buildings. Additional cleaning supplies have been ordered. Internet connectivity is expected to withstand an upsurge in use. A town hall was scheduled for staff Wednesday evening.

“One of the things I know, I’ve had several conversations with teachers about — we have some teachers that have not left their homes since March, and if they have, it’s been under very limited circumstances,” said Mary Cooke, of human resources. “One of the issues is, for those individuals, it’s going to be very anxiety-provoking for them to be around a larger group of people.”

HR has reached out to staff asking for medical conditions, so the district can work with them under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Ms. Cooke said. She said she has scheduled Zoom meetings with those who have requested accommodations.

“I have found the building level principals to be extremely accommodating in working on that,” she said.

Dr. Jackson-Short voiced concerns.

“I’m just not sure that that’s enough. And that’s just based off the emails that I’ve received and hearing from the teachers. There’s certainly a major concern, and I don’t know how to fix that,” she said, “but … we need to do what we can in order to be supportive.”

During the time students haven’t been physically in school, licensed clinical social workers have provided support to 1,093 students between Sept. 8 and Oct. 15, according to Mr. Dunford.

There have been 69 families who have requested assistance with internet connectivity, 39 Wi-Fi hot spots issued and 50 students served with those hot spots; eight families with significant needs were adopted by local churches; and 14 orders for five families have been placed via Purposity, an app that connects district families in need with the community, he said.

Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been trending upward recently, meaning that schools are now even more firmly in the “yellow” category, where there is minimal-to-moderate spread and schools can only open hybrid.

Under the current state guidelines, at least two categories out of three (new cases, percent of people testing positive and/or hospitalizations) need to be “green” for schools to fully reopen. That would mean less than 10 new cases per 100,000 people, less than 3% of people testing positive or less than 10 daily hospitalizations.

District moves forward on superintendent search
Meanwhile, Capital School District is still without a permanent leader at its helm. Earlier this year, the board decided it would work with the Delaware School Boards Association to hire a search firm to find its next superintendent.

A request for proposals has been posted. Search firms’ proposals are due back by Nov. 16, Dr. DePrima said. The board hopes to select a search firm by Dec. 7.

“Assuming that Dec. 7 date, by the time we knock out a contract to schedule the work, I think we will be ready to go at the beginning of the year to start a very thorough search for a new superintendent,” Dr. DePrima said.

Dr. Henderson, who was most recently assistant superintendent, has served in the role since July. The board tapped her over the summer, following the resignation of former superintendent Dan Shelton, who went on to fill the same position in Christina School District.