Districts, parents discuss return to school comfort, safety

From left, Alix, Jennifer, Ariana, Jake and Aimee Hightman pose for a photo. The family is among many in the state who are awaiting what the governor will decide for returning to school this week. Submitted photo

A common cold could send one of Jennifer Hightman’s children to the hospital for a week.

“When you look at your 8-year-old daughter and say, ‘You might have to go back to school,’ and she says, ‘Mommy, I don’t like the tubes’ — because she knows that that’s what’s going to happen — something has to be done,” Ms. Hightman said.

Ms. Hightman’s family is among many in the state with medically vulnerable children. Her third-grader, Ariana, has had severe pulmonary issues over the years. She described her eighth-grade daughter, Aimee, as “on spectrum,” with a sensitivity to wearing masks. Her high schooler, Alix, has asthma and anxiety due to PTSD, she said, which also complicates mask-wearing.

“Everybody’s saying that it’s detrimental for kids; to go back to school for learning. But if a kid can’t wear a mask and it detracts from them learning, what are they learning?” she said.

July marked a new reality of what schools could look like when they open under coronavirus. The Delaware Department of Education released its Returning to School guidance — based on the draft recommendations created in June by different stakeholders from schools and the state. The guidance addresses what learning should look like for in-person, hybrid and remote scenarios. Some districts dipped their toes in the water by bringing students back to their desks for summer school programming, with mask-wearing, social distancing and more.

Gov. John Carney is slated to announce this week how schools can open, based on criteria like the amount of positive cases on a daily basis, the number of positive cases as a percentage of the population, the severity of the illness measured by hospitalization and death rates.

Circumstances are pointing to hybrid learning, where students would be attending school through a mix of in-person and remote instruction, Gov. Carney said Tuesday in his weekly conference.

Meanwhile, the Delaware State Education Association earlier in July pushed for the state to begin in a remote format for the safety of educators, students and their families.

Districts and charters will have some local control of how they’ll implement a return to school within the guidance DOE released, much like how school leadership determined how it would operate remote learning at the end of the 2019-2020 school year when school buildings closed in mid-March. Cursory conversations on this guidance began at school board meetings across the state recently, as several districts with pre-Labor Day starts already opted to prolong students’ summers to prepare for what lies ahead.

As Ms. Hightman looks toward the uncertainty of next year, she hopes that her children have the option to learn remotely when Capital School District is back in session.

“I don’t want to send my kids back and I need to know what they’re planning on offering, if they’re planning on lessening the restrictions on homebound learning, just so that I know that I can get my kid their education somehow,” she said. “Two weeks prior to school starting does not give anybody an amount of time to prepare.”

Jennifer Aaron’s comfort with hybrid instruction is tentative. One of her children, Faith, attends Appoquinimink School District, while Grace is in Christina School District. Grace, a fourth-grade student, is in the Delaware Autism Program.

“We’re waiting to see what they’re going to have in place to work with our children, what it looks like, … the safety measures they’re going to be putting in place and the precautions of our children not getting COVID,” she said.

She said Faith, a rising sixth-grader, is more comfortable with heading back — particularly for the social part of school.

In all, remote learning wasn’t too much trouble for her family, she said. Grace’s team of educators — a speech pathologist, a special education teacher and more — were very involved in her remote instruction, she said.

“It was beneficial to her,” she said.

She does have concerns about them potentially contracting COVID-19 if schools were to allow in-person instruction, and is weighing if she would put them on a bus.

“I want to see what the governor is going to say and, again, just safety,” she said, adding, “Will there be activities? What is our COVID norm going to look like for the school year?”

Autism concerns

As parents await what the governor deems possible, as well as what their local districts determine, Annalisa Ekbladh, director of policy and family services for Autism Delaware, said the organization doesn’t advise families one way or another, but helps them think through their concerns and facilitate conversations with schools.

“I mean, every family is different, every family’s situation is different, every child is different,” she said. “There are just so many factors for each individual family to consider: parents’ work status, childcare status — we have very few childcare here in the state of Delaware that can serve our children with autism — so what are their childcare needs, what are their children’s health needs? What’s their child’s capacity to wear a mask, to social distance?”

Autism in particular is a wide spectrum, she said.

“We have students who would probably be able to wear a mask and would understand about social distancing, and there are also students who would really struggle with wearing a mask and would struggle with understanding the concept of social distancing,” she said.

She added that some children have “co-occurring disorders,” like seizures.

“Parents of students with autism who also have some co-occurring medical issues have that to consider on top of the other kinds of issues related to masks and social distancing and things like that,” she said.

Statewide, the concern for medically vulnerable students appears in the educational equity instruction portion of the Returning to School Guidance. The guidelines dictate that, before school begins, school leaders should “develop robust virtual learning plans that can be implemented with students who are medically vulnerable and should not attend school per physician recommendations.”

In all three of the scenarios, the guidance directs districts to implement those plans. Once again, how that plays out locally could run the gamut.

In its call to require all schools to implement remote learning for at least the first six weeks, DSEA president Stephanie Ingram emphasized the fact this will give educators time to plan and understand.

“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,” she 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.”

Remote learning option

Some districts and charters have already agreed that there will be an option for continued remote learning, as they established their own working groups — some of which mirror that of the state’s — focusing on Health and Wellness, Academics and Equity and Operations and Services.

“The biggest issue in designing plans is that, regardless of which of the first scenarios come up, there will be students with underlying health conditions, those that live with relatives with underlying health conditions and those whose parents do not believe it is safe to send their children to school,” Kevin Fitzgerald, superintendent of Caesar Rodney School District, said at a July school board meeting. “The same concerns exist for our teachers, [paraprofessionals], cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, secretaries and even some administrators.”

He continued that “at best” the district will be developing a hybrid model, to allow for at-home remote education for those unable to come to school.

“What that looks like will depend on the number of children we will have coming into our buildings and the number that will choose to stay home,” he said. “It will also depend on our ability to transport those students, safety, social distancing, cleaning and the availability of staff.”

Academy of Dover charter will also be allowing for remote learning for its population.

“We understand that there are parents, for whatever reason — it might be a grandparent being the caregiver for a child or somebody who has some sort of a compromised immune system or something like that — so we’ve put it out from the beginning that we will do the remote learning option, no matter what happens,” head of school Michele Marinucci said.

As Cape Henlopen School District took questions from its parents in attendance at its board meeting, one parent raised concerns about a seventh-grader who is medically vulnerable.

“Nothing has been finalized yet, but as we have talked to the teams, I don’t see this as being one or the other. I think there’s going to be students or families that do not have children that are medically fragile that decide, hey, this is not the time for my child to go to school,” said Superintendent Bob Fulton. “We’ll provide some type of remote learning for those families that don’t feel comfortable right now with their child going to school, for whatever reason.”

It’s part of the larger picture for some districts.

“Maintaining the health and safety of our students and staff is a priority as we plan for the school year,” said Milford Superintendent Kevin Dickerson in an email. “We continue to review [Delaware Division of Public Health] guidance, discuss and plan for how to best support and address any needs brought to our attention concerning students and staff members who have medical conditions which may place them at increased health risk.” Patrik Williams, superintendent of Smyrna School District, said that the district’s planning teams have been preparing for a return to school since April.

Should Gov. Carney have all district and charter schools re-open, Mr. Williams said that Smyrna will be welcoming back specific grade levels, with an emphasis on the younger students for the first day in a hybrid model. They would rotate cohorts between live, in-person education with virtual instruction, he said.

“Barring any change in directives from Gov. Carney, we anticipate a rolling return to the live classrooms by ‘phasing in’ growing numbers of students by grade level,” he said in an email. “No matter the announcement from Gov. Carney, the Smyrna School District will deliver quality instruction through whatever means we are trusted to provide, and we all — board members, administrators, teachers and every staff member — look forward to our students’ safe and healthy return to our schools this fall.”