Milford school board opts for remote start to school year

MILFORD — The Milford School District will hold classes remotely for the first six weeks when classes begin in September, the school board decided Thursday.

The board voted 5-1, with Kristopher Thompson dissenting and Jason Miller abstaining. The school board also voted unanimously to start school for students on Sept. 9. 

“I have fears associated with a pandemic as well. But my biggest fear is that we become divisive and this ends up negatively impacting our students,” said Kevin Dickerson, superintendent for Milford School District. “After this evening, our full collective efforts need to be geared towards how to best educate and serve our students in either model chosen by the board.”

Remote learning would be new material, with learning throughout the week in a combination of synchronous and asynchronous format.

The district was among many this month that will determine how their schools will operate within what is allowed in the state. Cape Henlopen and Capital also deliberated their plans for the 2020-2021 school year Thursday.

Gov. John Carney announced Tuesday that schools could open in a hybrid format, with a mix of in-person and remote learning. School leadership must adhere to the 34-page guidance put out by the Delaware Department of Education — which addresses mask wearing, social distancing, transportation and more — but how that looks across the districts will be varied. 

In Milford, school board listened through dozens of testimony from parents and staff about returning to school, with some hoping for remote learning and others optimistic about the possibility of hybrid. Earlier in the week, the board had listened to a presentation on hybrid learning. 

“When we started the discussions of returning to school this fall, I said from day one, as long as we have the protocols and the appropriate tools to return safely to our schools in some manner, I would be comfortable with that decision,” said Brice Baylis, a gifted and talented teacher at Mispillion Elementary school and the president of the Milford Education association.  “As we move closer to the start date, I don’t feel that same comfort level.”

Others echoed his sentiments.

“Risks outweigh the benefits of starting our school year face-to-face, and I feel as if I’m being forced to choose my job over my physical and mental health, for the sake of supporting my family,” said Susan Puddicombe, a third grade teacher at Banneker Elementary School. “If we return to the classroom, I can almost guarantee that most educators, including school staff, will be operating with this fear at the forefront of their minds. We should not have to be fearful of our jobs when we have the option to do them safely and remotely.”

For 34 years, Jeffrey Tolbert, a first grade teacher at Banneker, has had butterflies in his stomach when this time of year comes around. He thinks about curriculum and his class and his coworkers, he said. He thinks of the relationships he will foster with his class, as many have grown into life-long friendships, he said. 

“Now the butterflies in my stomach are here because I know that school will be drastically different. I hear many people say that children need to get back to school and be around the friends,” he said, growing choked up as he spoke. “I will have to tell children that come to me for help, ‘No, I cannot tie your shoe. No, I cannot touch your pencil. No, you cannot take off your face mask even though your ears hurt.’ What type of relationship is this foster? Will I be able to hide my own fears from them?”

Others did see the benefits of a hybrid start.

“I believe we can make our school a safe location to learn,” Mr. Thompson said. “We are still more than a month away from putting students or teachers in our buildings and that will allow us to continuously evaluate and adjust to the health data. I understand the concerns our teachers have with trying to educate students while wearing a mask. I also think that there may be a benefit to doing this, it has become our new norm in today’s society and our students look at our teachers as role models.”

As the district looks ahead to a remote start, different facets go into a virtual learning environment. 

The district loaned out 1,400 devices and has received 1,300 back, said Scott Whaley, supervisor of technology. More come back every day, he said, adding that only 26 have been returned with damage.

“Overall, the students took really good care of the devices. I think that they took ownership of it; it was their Chromebook,” Mr. Whaley said. “They knew that  if something were to happen to it, they weren’t going to be able to use it and so they just made sure to return it in good condition. I’m really satisfied with the condition that we’ve received them back in.”

For learning, Dr. Dickerson noted that rigor is also important.

“We also fully understood from families and our own staff, though our efforts last spring were commendable and we were proud of our staff, that we need to plan for having a much more robust and rigorous plan in the future. Furthermore, we need to continue our efforts to assist families with internet connectivity,” he said.

Students with disabilities who are in need of extra support will receive it. The district works with a group of board certified behavior analysts, “who we have had already out throughout the spring, that are providing supports in homes for families or coaching from an area that is safe,” said Laura Manges, director of student services.

More details on how the district will operate with remote learning are slated for the board’s Aug. 17 meeting.