Indian River district investigating all possibilities for school opening

SELBYVILLE – Somewhat divided, Indian River School District officials are hoping that the entire school community ultimately stands united with the path the district takes to launch the 2020-21 school year.

Difficult decisions loom as one of the largest school districts in Delaware prepares for the new school year under uncertainty with lingering clouds of COVID-19.

As of the Monday virtual school board meeting, the district is exploring numerous options, including full-time return of students, remote learning/education and a hybrid model that would entail part-time in school, part-time remote.

Delaying the start of the school year is another consideration.

“This has to be incredibly difficult,” said IRSD Board of Education member Dr. Donald Hattier. “I cannot imagine what it’s like to be told you need to do something in three or four weeks, and yet we can’t tell you exactly what you are going to be allowed to do. This is extremely difficult.”

The educational route that IRSD takes for its upward of 11,000 students will hinge heavily on guidance, direction and parameters set by the Delaware Department of Education. Current DOE guidelines include social distancing, masks and cleaning of schools.

Gov. John Carney on Tuesday announced his administration is considering starting the new academic year with a mix of in-person and online instruction. 

“We believe that the conditions on the ground today are adequate to reopen schools in a mixed hybrid kind of fashion,” Gov. Carney said.  “As governor, I believe that we ought to lean into doing it for the elementary school kids.”

Final recommendations on reopening schools are expected out next week. 

Last week, Stephanie Ingram, president of the Delaware State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, announced that she believes the new school year should start exclusively with online lessons.

Meanwhile, surveys sent by the IRSD to parents are funneling in.

By far the greatest concern expressed by the majority of the approximate 2,000 respondents received thus far “was indeed physical safety of the students, followed by the cleanliness of the school, if they are back in hybrid model,” said IRSD Superintendent Dr. Jack “Jay” Owens.

Surveys were issued in both English and Spanish.

“You will see a common theme here. I will say to the board that we do have a lot of families that are undecided at this point,” said Dr. Owens.

On the question of the intent to return full-time in person, “about 44 percent of our parents on the English survey had said yes, and 28 percent undecided. Our Spanish survey; 12 percent in person in favor, and 35 percent undecided,” said Dr. Owens.

Survey results to other questions include:

• Intent to participate if IRSD opts for a hybrid model (part-time in school; part-time remote), English survey, 52 percent; Spanish survey, 29 percent Spanish would want to return via a hybrid model, with 26 percent English and 29 Spanish respondents undecided;

• Greater need of families: 34 percent cited computer device, 6 percent need internet, and 10 percent needed both.

• Synchronous learning (having standardized lessons on the same day) versus asynchronous (available at a time that may be convenient to the family but not set week to week), an even 71 percent support for each;

“Sixty percent of our families are supporting a delayed start in order to prepare for the start of the school year,” said Dr. Owens. “In terms of bus transportation, I think this data is interesting. Seventy-two percent of our families traditionally use our buses. However, 35 percent said they would use bus transportation when we return to school and 27 percent were undecided. So, in theory 72 percent on a regular year, that dropped to 35 percent with the questionnaire.”

A survey earmarked for teacher input was scheduled to go out this week, Dr. Owens said.

“We want to make we are asking questions and getting their feedback related to our ability to provide instruction, what supports they would need,” said Dr. Owens.

“We are involved in a lot of work during these plans for returning to school or on a hybrid model,” said J.R. Emanuele, president of the Indian River Education Association. “I appreciate the involvement. There is definitely a lot of questions coming up with any model that we have. So, the continued involvement is going to be necessary. I appreciate that we are developing a teacher/employee survey.

“I don’t think that we are in a win-win situation in any decision that is made. But with the governor holding us back, it definitely puts us under a lot more pressure with a lot more (memorandums of understanding) to come. Hopefully, the board understands that there is a lot of work going into this on all sides,” said Mr. Emanuele. “We definitely appreciate the involvement.”

The IRSD initially established three committees focusing on internal operations, health and wellness, and academics and equity as it relates to our ability to return to school sooner rather than later.

“What we have done is taken members from those three groups and formed one committee that has been tasked with analyzing our ability to come back to school, whether that is in a hybrid model or whether that is in a remote model,” said Dr. Owens.

Guidance is sought from IRSD’s board of education, which in early August will have three new members joining the 10-person governing body.

“Some of the models we are looking at are the hybrid where students come a couple days then have three days off or two days off (remote). If we do that, we would need some thought process from the board, whether the board supports that or a full remote model,” said Dr. Owens.

“Right now, in our conversations with the governor we are clearly in yellow phase,” Dr. Owens said. “The governor is supportive of continuing to explore remote learning and feels that we would not be moving back to red phase. However, as you are all aware, this is a fluid environment we are in right now and none of us can predict where we will be. But the task that has been given to the chiefs of each school is to identify a model that would potentially bring students back in school, so that is what we looking for with the understanding that we can pivot if needed to full remote.”

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

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.