Group meets to decide what’s needed to reopen Delaware schools

The more tangible components — facilities, transportation and technology — of education were the topic of discussion Thursday for the third reopening schools working group meeting this week.

Operations and Services is one of three working groups established to help create a framework that is put into place by district and charter school leadership when schools are permitted to reopen, or how to move forward if learning is to continue remotely.

“We’re here to talk about the ‘what.’ The ‘how’ is going to be what the decision makers and the individual districts are going to have to figure out how to make that work,” said co-chair Oliver Gumbs, director of business operations for Cape Henlopen School District. “It’s going to be challenging for all 19 districts and all the charter schools to kind of make some of those scenarios happen.”

Along with Mr. Grubbs, the working group is chaired by Chuck Longfellow, associate secretary for the Delaware Department of Education.

The working groups are partnered with Opportunity Labs, a national nonprofit group. The organization developed the Return to School Roadmap, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Each week, the group will discuss a different scenario — from minimal community spread where buildings are open; to minimal to moderate community spread, where school reopenings are situation-dependent; and substantial community spread, where schools are closed. The group is meant to have its recommendations to Delaware Secretary of Education Susan Bunting by early July.

Public participation is encouraged, though it should be done virtually. Participants may submit public comments to email address, reopeningideas@doe.k12.de.us, or by voicemail to 302-735-4244. The department will transcribe the comments and post them online to the department’s website (www.doe.k12.de.us). The comments will be shared across the working groups.

Opportunity Labs is providing recommendations in all of these areas as a starting point, with the goal of individualizing the plan for Delaware.

Thursday’s meeting addressed what operations and services would look like under minimal spread of the coronavirus — with the virus passing from one sick person to less than one other person. This would mean that schools are open, with few significant changes from typical operating procedure.

The group worked to refine recommendations regarding facilities, operations (budget, food, enrollment, staffing), technology and transportation.

And although under this model, operations would mostly return to “normal,” many voiced concerns about staff members — and students — who might not be comfortable coming back.

If staff members — from teachers, to bus drivers — aren’t returning, members thought there should be regulatory flexibility for hiring new staff.

Sherry Kijowski, principal of Caesar Rodney High School, said that looking at things like reciprocity for teacher licenses for professionals coming from outside of Delaware and at flexibility for timelines for ARTC — alternative routes to certification — teachers.

“Again, looking at scenarios of who may come back, who may need to be in your building and who may need to fill a seat, I think the more flexibility we have with hiring, the better,” she said.

Stacey Clark, director of instruction and student services for First State Military Academy, agreed.

“I would recommend that we have a process and criteria for speed, in all aspects — attendance, seat time, procurement, testing, instructional delivery, evaluations, credentialing. Everything,” she added.

Mr. Gumbs said it was encouraging that legislators were part of the working groups, so they could help with guidelines when it comes to flexibility in regulations.

“An example would be hiring staff.They’re required for criminal background checks but if we need a lot of staff, do we have to wait for them to actually get the background check done?” he said.

“When it comes to purchasing, certain money can only be used for certain things. Will we be allowed some more flexibility to meet the needs and the challenge of all the equipment we need?”

For transportation, Natosha Rivera, transportation supervisor for Seaford School District, pointed out there is a bus driver shortage and many drivers are higher risk for the virus and also that contract bus services may opt out and not come back.

Mr. Gumbs added that schools may have to verify if bus contractors are still in business due to the closure of school buildings for the past few months.

“The jobs we did before the pandemic struck may not be the jobs we continue to do,” said Jeff Taschner, executive director for the Delaware State Education Association.

He noted if staff members may have conditions that would keep them from returning to work as usual, schools might be able to alter their responsibilities.

“They may be able to fill some modified role,” he said. “I worry if we wait too far along in the process, we may not have enough time to identify how to modify or change those roles. And also, getting that in place I think would serve us well.”

There’s also the concern for students who may not return. Unit counts help determine budgeting.

“Our unit count process … depends on attendance in the last days of September and what if attendance is different because you have a student with a medical situation and are we providing homebound in the traditional sense, or what?” Dr. Longfellow asked.

Minimal spread may mean that school buildings are open, but being prepared to dispatch to remote learning again, and addressing technology needs in advance of that happening, is also a concern.

Rep. Charles Postles, R-Milford, said there should be an assessment on where service is — or is not — available to access the internet.

“Certainly devices are one thing, but service is another,” he said. “For instance, I don’t have a landline available. I can’t get dialup, I don’t have any cable, Comcast or any cable, that goes by my house. And I live a mile from Del. 1. I’m not terribly, terribly remote.”

Dr. Kijowski said that internet should be treated like a utility.

“It’s just as vital coming into your home as electricity and water in this scenario because it’s what’s connecting people to people,” she said. “My district goes from the bay to the Maryland border and the more remote, eastern and western parts of the district, are the ones we see this as a real struggle.”

Operations and Services will continue to meet Thursdays. Health and Wellness meets Tuesdays and the Academics and Equity working group meets Wednesdays. All meetings are scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. and can be streamed on DOE’s Youtube channel.