Delaware teachers’ association recommends schools start remotely this fall

With the uncertainty of how schools will return to session amid coronavirus, the Delaware State Education Association is calling for the state to begin the school year remotely.

The association is asking for remote instruction for at least the first six weeks for the 2020-2021 school year.

“We believe it will allow time to further evaluate the trauma caused by the virus, its impact on our students’ and educators’ mental health, the impact of the virus on the physical health of children of all ages,” DSEA President Stephanie Ingram said in a prepared statement.

“It will also allow time to develop health plans for students and educators who are at a higher risk of infection and plans to meet the educational needs of students on a district-by-district basis.”

Last week, Gov. John Carney said a formal decision on how students would return to school — fully in-person, a hybrid mix of in-person and remote instruction or entirely remote — would come in August.

Also last week, the Delaware Department of Education released its 34-page Returning to School guidance document, which specified guidelines for the three potential scenarios. These scenarios are based on the spread of COVID-19 in the state.

Ms. Ingram said DSEA was originally optimistic that districts “would be allowed to conduct a fair and thorough assessment of their ability to reopen school buildings consistent with the guidance” and continued that, if districts felt like they could not address those guidelines, “they should commit to beginning the school year in a remote learning environment.”

“[Tuesday], we had many members who tuned into the governor’s press conference hoping to gain more answers and clarity about the upcoming school year. Instead, they left confused, with more questions and heightened concerns about their personal safety and well-being,” she continued.

In his press conference Tuesday, Gov. Carney said the state’s goal should be to have the biggest benefit to students with the lowest amount of risk. He emphasized the services that students get through in-person schooling: meals, mental health services, socialization, as well as child care for parents.

He pointed to a study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, which recommends focusing on elementary-school grades.

“When you think about it, it kind of makes sense, in weighing the risks and benefits,” he said. “The children in kindergarten through grades five, first, are least likely to catch the virus and those who do, don’t get seriously ill based on the experience we’ve seen.”

He added that those students could be transmitters of the virus, however, which is a concern.

He said younger students are more in need of in-person education as they learn to read, to keep them grade-level proficient.

Gov. Carney also announced that the state would assign an expert liaison to advise each district on health decisions regarding opening during COVID-19.

Reopening would be determined by the amount of community spread: the percent of positive COVID-19 cases, the day-to-day positive COVID-19 cases, geographic spikes and hospitalizations due to coronavirus, he said.

“[The decision] is not going to be based on fear,” he said. “And it’s going to be based on the logistics and operational challenges of the schools. Clearly, that’s got to be factored in. We’re going to work very closely with the schools to try to get as much in-person instruction as possible.”

Citing a survey DSEA conducted, which gained 4,400 responses, a significant portion of the DSEA respondents expressed concerns for their health, their family’s health and their student’s health, among other factors.

“Through their survey responses and other communications over the past week, our members have made clear that the only way to protect the health and safety of students, educators and the communities they serve is to begin the school year in a remote learning environment,” Ms. Ingram said.

Jonathan Starkey, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said in an email that the governor will not recommend returning to school physically if the landscape in COVID-19 is unsafe for children, educators and staff.

Based on the data available today, he said that it is still too early for the state to make a decision.

“We need children in school learning, particularly our youngest learners. There is no substitute for in-person instruction,” he continued. “But safety remains the top priority and we’ll be working over the coming weeks to help districts and teachers get to a place of comfort and confidence.”

He added that the governor will continue to follow the science and the data, while coordinating with with Delaware’s public health experts.

“We’ll also continue to work closely with educators and school leaders on a path forward,” he said.

How to respond to the guidance, without knowing exactly what the governor will announce in August, has been a concern for the districts.

At Caesar Rodney’s school board meeting Tuesday, board president Jessica Marelli proposed having a remote start to the year no matter what, to allow the educators to get their bearings.

She noted she has been “inundated” with calls from families and teachers who don’t know what to expect.

“Of course our intention is to get students back in school, I think we can all agree that [students’] education is better, their mental health is better,” she said. “I truly believe that getting students back in school is the most important thing. But at this point, I don’t know that we’ll be ready to go hybrid. I would rather put going hybrid off longer and do it right when we do it.”

The district plans to offer remote learning options regardless of if the state deems schools may open for in-person instruction. Academy of Dover charter school also committed to offering a remote option in any scenario.

“Might it make sense for schools to gradually open and learn as each day goes by? Certainly, if that’s what it takes to make the appropriate accommodations,” Gov. Carney said, adding that the state has intentions of testing educators across the state.

Milford’s school board also weighed what flexibility the district will in class format, should in-person instruction be possible.

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

“We’re working through that and that obviously plays a big role here as we decide what type of model a hybrid may look like,” he said.

“One question I do have as well, do we have the flexibility even with scenario one [full in-person instruction]?” he said. “Are we expected to have all students in, or are we able to really rely more of a hybrid during scenario one?”

Both Milford and Caesar Rodney school districts plan to discuss further local decisions for the fall in the coming weeks.

A statement from the House Democratic Caucus leadership – Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst and Majority Whip Larry Mitchell – noted that the health and safety of teachers and students has to be the highest priority.

“We need to listen to our frontline educators and take their concerns seriously. We agree with DSEA that until we have a better handle on this virus and a more comprehensive mitigation plan in place, we must prioritize the health and safety of our teachers and students above all else,” the statement reads. “Beginning the school year using remote learning is the safest option available to us in the current climate. As a state, we must work with our school districts and teachers to make sure they have the resources they need to successfully begin the school year.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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