Indian River opts for hybrid/remote reopening

GEORGETOWN – Under the lingering specter of COVID-19, an education plan is in place for Indian River School District and its nearly 12,000 students.

IRSD’s 2020-21 year will begin Sept. 17 – a “reopening/reimagining” plan offering options of total remote learning and a slow roll-in hybrid through which youngest pupils return to school in mid-September, with high school students not in school until the second and third weeks of November. 

Following a presentation by IRSD Superintendent Dr. Jay Owens and other administrators, the board of education voted 8-1 to proceed with reopening plans as presented.

The ‘no’ vote was cast by Dr. Leo J. Darmstadter III, one of three new members of the 10-person board. Board member Gerald Peden did not attend Wednesday’s special meeting held at Sussex Central High School.

The meeting was open to the public and also streamed online.

In a summer survey conducted by the district, 65 percent of the responses from more than 7,000 families favored a return to school under a hybrid model. The other 35 percent preferred a remote, online learning mode.

“It has been our goal all along to try to find a method to get students back in our classrooms,” said Dr. Owens. “I understand our community wants students back in. I do understand that there are members of our community that aren’t comfortable with that at this time, and want that remote model. Our challenge and our goal were to meet both of those needs with very robust plans for our students.”

“That will continue to be our goal, and if we continue to monitor and the Governor allows us to bring students in more quickly, we will certainly challenge our team to do so,” said Dr. Owens. “We’re never going to meet everyone’s needs with this. We understand that. But it has been our goal to try to find a way to find some middle ground for our community, for our staff to try to get students back to school as best we can.”

In the hybrid, elementary and middle school students will attend school in-person two days a week (Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday) with three virtual days during the week.

High school students will attend in-person one day, with four days of virtual, online instruction.

The hybrid model’s schedule for return to school is:

  • Sept. 17-18 and Sept. 21-22 for the two Pre-K through first grade cohorts;
  • Week of Oct. 5-9, second and third grade cohorts;
  • Week of Oct. 19-23, sixth grade cohorts;
  •  Week of Oct. 26-30, seventh and eighth grade cohorts;
  • Week of Nov.. 9-13, ninth grade cohorts; and
  • Nov. 19, 10th, 11th and 12th grade cohorts.

Dr. Owens emphasized that remote learning will start that first day, Sept. 17 for all students. “So, they will begin the remote process until they are rolled in with the hybrid model if they have elected that model,” said Dr. Owens. “Again, keep in mind, our remote students would remain remote and they have that option as well.” 

Wednesdays are virtual learning for all students.

IRSD school board president Rodney Layfield is hopeful students will be able to return to classrooms sooner than currently scheduled.

“I won’t speak on behalf of the board, but I will speak as this board member that has spoken to several parents. We would like to get as many students back in the school as possible. Each one of our different campuses, elementary, middle school and high school, we should sharpen our fangs a little bit and try to get those students back in school as fast as possible,” said Mr. Layfield. “This is called a hybrid model. However, there are no high school students that are going to be returning to the high school, for other than remote learning, through the whole first quarter with this plan, correct?”

The board’s vote followed brief discussion on whether to delay the vote to address online chat comments that funneled in during the meeting, and issues presented during a public commentary phone-in from Indian River Education Association president J.R. Emanuele.

IREA concerns presented by Mr. Emanuele included employee childcare, staffing of the IRSD Remote Academy and the issue that “a lot of teachers don’t feel safe to come back but don’t meet the ADA accommodations requirement,” said Mr. Emanuele. 

“I think there is areas that need to be looked at to add to and make this plan better than what it is. I know a ton of work went into this plan,” said Mr. Emanuele. “Hopefully, we’re going to look at this plan and discuss some of the other things that can be added to it or adjusted to meet the needs of not only teachers, but the students need to be addressed also.”

Approximately 700 online “chat” submissions were received during the meeting, according to Charley Ruggerio, the district’s Information Technology Manager.

“People who weren’t here, should we not in the best interest of the district hear those before we take a vote?” said school board vice president Leolga Wright. “I know it would probably call for another meeting, but is it not in our best interest to hear, if there was concerns?”

Board member Dr. Donald Hattier pushed for a board vote.

“There are some valid questions. At this particular point, I think that any plan that we come up with is going to be contested by a large number of people. And there are some that are going to be happy,” said Dr. Hattier. “This is basically being done within the constraints of what the Governor is allowing us to do, and like it or not, there are going to be unhappy people.”

“I’m like you Mr. Layfield, I would have been happier with something a little quicker, more aggressive. However, with the hysteria surrounding what we have here, given what is actually going on, there are a lot of people uncomfortable with it,” said Dr. Hattier. “If we have to modify this as we go along, I say yes. But I think the longer we delay the less opportunity we give the teachers … everybody in order to get a coherent plan going in to make it work. And that is my concern. It’s already just pushed up to the limit. The Governor waited forever to even give us the guidelines on this and then he expects the school districts, as the state usually does, to come up and pull their butts out of the fire. And I have a great problem with that.”

“It’s not a right or wrong thing, it is the best thing for our district,” said new board member Anthony Cannon. “As Dr. Hattier said, we can modify it as we go along. I’m not saying don’t listen to the public, because we care about our public. We care about the kids. We care about our staff. We care about our community. But the longer we hold off it is stopping us from progressing and moving forward.”

“I think this is something that is workable,” said Dr. Hattier.

Special consideration in hybrid planning was given to students moving up from elementary school to middle school and middle school to high school.

“We thought it important for that sixth grade cohort which will be joining middle school for the first time, we wanted them to be able to come into the school without the remaining students for that first week to really get them acclimated to that new environment,” said Dr. Owens. “Ninth graders, again with same rationale as sixth grade.”

The mid-September hybrid start for Pre-K, kindergarten and first grade only will accommodate the district’s younger students.

“That allows those students who are most in need of teacher support to start in the school with minimal other students and the complete support of our staff,” said Dr. Owens. “We have learned throughout this process that our youngest learners are the ones that really need that support of a teacher.”

High school students in hybrid will be in classrooms just one day a week due to social distancing protocol. Four different cohorts are in the hybrid high school scheduling.

“Sussex Central for example, one of the reasons is we have to be properly social distanced in classrooms,” said Dr. Renee Jerns, IRSD’s Director of Secondary Education. “We have to keep our number of students present on any given day at a certain number or below.”

Dr. Owens plans to keep school reopening on subsequent board agendas.

“I will certainly give an update on everything that you have asked and then we can re-evaluate whether things can be adjusted, and students can be brought in at a more rapid rate,” Dr. Owens said.

Dr. Hattier offered thanks to “the administration and all the people for the incredibly hard work putting this together, the time they spent on it not knowing where they were going to be coming from and/or going to, given the lack of direction from Dover.”

“When we broke in March for the pandemic we immediately turned to remote learning for our staff and finished out the school year. Once the school year concluded we rapidly shifted gears to planning for this start of this current school year,” said Dr. Owens.

Remote/Hybrid

In IRSD Remote Academy, learning is completely virtual, including both synchronous (learners and instructors in the same place simultaneously) and asynchronous (learning can occur in different times and spaces), and is focused on the same concepts and units as their hybrid peers.

Remote students will be provided feedback throughout the learning process, and grades will be calculated using the district’s grading policy.

Grading, synchronous/asynchronous learning and feedback are the same in the IRSD Hybrid Model, which incorporates in-person instruction as well as virtual.

Nutrition, busing, technology

In the reopening, IRSD nutrition services is committed to feeding all students in a hybrid model as well as students who select 100 percent remote instruction. All kitchens will operate through the traditional cafeteria lines, “Grab and Go”, and curbside pick-up will also be available at schools to be determined. All meals will be pre-assembled and placed in single use bags/containers.

To meet technology/internet needs, the district has partnered with service providers for special offers provided for free/reduced lunch services.

Last spring, when schools were closed due to the pandemic, the district distributed approximately 3,100 Chromebook devices to households that did not have a suitable device (approximately 90 percent of those Chromebooks have been returned, about 3 percent which were damaged).

A smaller distribution is planned for the start of the 2020-21 year.

District transportation service will adhere to Delaware Department of Education and Division of Public Health guidelines, with acceptable face coverings worn by bus students. Under social distancing, the maximum for a 48-passenger bus is 14 students, with 23 on a 72-passenger bus.

Information on IRSD’s reopening plan is available at the district website – www.irsd.net – in Board Docs for the Aug. 19 board meeting.