Lake Forest joins other districts, plans to start school year remotely

FELTON — In similar fashion to others across the state, Lake Forest School District will begin the upcoming academic year remotely before tentatively transitioning to hybrid learning with a phased in approach, the school board decided Thursday.

The board approved the plan 4-0, with board member Phillip Thomas absent. 

The school board last week also approved a modified school calendar, which will have students start school Sept. 8. September through Oct. 16, students will take their courses remotely, before the district will tentatively — dependent on the spread of coronavirus — begin phasing in more in-person instruction.

Lake Forest is among a number of other districts that have determined how they’ll begin their school year this fall. Capital, Appoquinimink and Milford school boards decided to do the same, on a similar schedule of a six-week period. Cape Henlopen voted to begin hybrid (though they will begin in mid-September). Polytech School District likewise announced intentions for a hybrid start. 

At the beginning of the month, Gov. John Carney announced the state would allow for schools to open hybrid — a mixture of in-person and remote instruction — but it was up to school leadership to implement the 34-page Returning to School guidance, courtesy of the Delaware Department of Education. Guidance concerns mask-wearing, transportation, cleaning, social distancing and more. 

Back in Felton, during the week of Oct. 19, students in pre-K, kindergarten and grades one, four, six and nine, will return to school. Grades five, seven and 11 will join in phase three, followed by the rest of students in phase four. The dates for the latter phases will be determined as conditions allow. 

Throughout the remote period beginning after Labor Day, students will have the ability to come to school for in-person instruction, said Superintendent Steven Lucas.

“Some of our students’ needs are difficult to meet, to say the least, in the remote environment, and also [for] our students who cannot engage remotely,” he said.

On the flipside, parents who would prefer their children continue remote learning as classes phase to in-person instruction can choose to do so. 

Virtual instruction will be more robust at the start of the year, running for elementary students from 8:40 a.m. to 3:35 p.m. and secondary students from 7:35 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Attendance will be expected every day. The district has invested in technology, with every student slated to have a device. Many remain unavailable due to high demand, but the district is working on connecting students with technology, Dr. Lucas said.

Looking to the end of last year’s experience with remote learning, board vice president James Rau said, “It was a struggle.” 

“We spent a prolonged period in our third marking period where it was reviewing, but the DOE directive was we’re not allowed to teach new material, and that belly flopped immensely,” he said. “The fourth marking period went to teaching new material but there were the challenges of doing it for the first time.”

Dr. Lucas, who joined the district this summer following an administrative tenure in Maryland, agreed that last year was difficult for many educators.

“We all had to do the best that we could with what was given to us and so what, consequently, a lot of school systems did is they just took classroom instruction, and they tried to put it online,” he said. “Then because we were all trying to sort of feel our way through it, we didn’t really over demand at the time because we didn’t know what families were going through, what kids were going through. We didn’t know a lot.”

With this year starting remotely, there will be stronger expectations for students to get up as if they’re heading into school, he said. Blocks throughout the day will push synchronous learning. Lessons will have new material; there will be homework and assessments that garner feedback and grades. 

“There is going to be a much better concerted and thoughtful effort for deliberate engagement with students to keep situations like that from repeating itself,” he said. “So we feel confident that our online instruction is going to be tremendously better.”

In survey data collected by the district, 60% of the 2,088 respondents indicated a preference for hybrid learning. 

Michelle Thompson, a parent with two young children in the district, was among them. 

“My husband and I are essential workers and have concerns regarding remote learning. Let me start by saying, I’ve seen firsthand the hurdles that are encountered with elementary-aged children and remote learning,” she told the board Thursday. “Attention spans are short. Technology is a struggle and requires a great deal of assistance and time. In addition, the lack of social interaction from children their age is something my daughters separately crave. They have regressed being home in more ways than one. We are concerned about the operational ability to provide remote learning that is developmentally appropriate for our children, especially if this education is going to be provided at times when we are both working.”

As the district looks to get back in the buildings, data shows that 62% of students will need transportation. The district can get through at least three of its returning-students-to-school phases while still following the guidance released by DOE, Dr. Lucas said. 

The district has invested in masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning products, barriers, gloves and shields. Ventilation has been improved in the buildings by doubling air intake and accelerating filter changing schedules. Masks will be required for all personnel. Handwashing schedules will be implemented. High touch areas will be cleaned at least every two hours and buses will be disinfected after each run. 

Like others, board president Earle Dempsey expressed his frustrations at the state’s broad guidance earlier this month.

“As a board member I will say, I know there’s a lot of disappointment here and elsewhere that we are handling this decision as late as we are. … I will express my, frankly, disappointment that the decision in this manner has been pushed down to the local school boards and that we, as five volunteers, are the ones that are responsible for selecting the decision, selecting that path forward within our community,” he said. “I believe that if we had known it was going to come to that, we would have addressed this much earlier than this evening. … We are not taking it lightly. This board is meeting the challenge head on.”