Working groups finish school reopening draft recommendations

DOVER — Draft recommendations concerning mask-wearing, bus rides, students’ unfinished learning and more have been crafted for eventual development of Delaware’s Reopening School Guidance later this month.

The three reopening working groups completed a month of meetings this week after a final discussion on each group’s draft recommendations. The recommendations address three potential scenarios — minimal, moderate and significant spread of the virus — and how schools should respond in each of those landscapes.

“Our job as a committee was to provide (Secretary of Education Susan Bunting) recommended guidance that we thought was both feasible for schools and protected the health and safety of staff and students. Over the last five weeks, we have engaged in robust discussion around the three scenarios and we also received a lot of community feedback, as well as (Division of Public Health) guidance, that helped shape the document we will be reviewing today,” said Michael Rodriguez, co-chairperson of the Health and Wellness group and associate secretary for the Delaware Department of Education.

“The collective voices of this committee and our community have allowed us to develop recommendations that will help keep Delaware students and staff safe and healthy,” he continued.

While the groups have discussed the different considerations before, the final meetings allowed members to fine-tune the draft recommendations. The recommendations of the three working groups will be considered in the development of Delaware’s Reopening School Guidance, which is slated to be released the week of July 13.

Health and Wellness

For the Health and Wellness group, of the three scenarios, moderate spread — when classes could become hybrid to help stifle the spread of the virus and require significant changes to classroom and school functions — required the most discussion.

In that scenario, desks could be spaced out by 6 feet, assemblies of less than 50 students could be discontinued, foot traffic and hallway flow could be directional, and face coverings should be worn.

When it comes to face masks, Kevin Fitzgerald, superintendent for the Caesar Rodney School District, raised concerns about enforcing it.

“I don’t believe this should ever become a disciplinary issue, where we would exclude a student because they don’t have a facial covering,” he said. “I’m always reluctant to put something in that is almost impossible to enforce. While I see the value in it, especially for teachers and staff to wear it, I stay up nights trying to figure out how to tell my principals to enforce that.”

Meghan Walls, co-chairperson of the committee and a pediatric psychologist at Nemours, agreed that it presented difficulties and noted that, going forward, it would be presented as a point to discuss as the recommendations are refined more.

“I’m with you here. As a psychologist, I don’t want this to become a discipline issue,” she said. “I also work for a health care system. I know how important (masks) are. I think a lot of us are in the same position you are, with feeling a little bit torn on this one.”

Mario Ramirez of Opportunity Labs, a national nonprofit pairing with the working groups, noted that Michigan released guidance requiring masks in certain phases of recovery.

“I know other states have said that they are recommending they be worn and then others are not,” he said. “I think it’s all over the place.”

Dr. Ramirez shared some of the data that came out of studies from the New England Journal of Medicine this week, looking at the multisystem inflammatory syndrome impacting children in the Northeast.

“They looked at 300 cases of those kids who developed the multisystem inflammatory syndrome, and what they found was that the attack rate or the likelihood of kids developing symptomatic COVID was about 22 kids out of every 100,000 cases in persons under 21 years old, and about two of those develop the multisystem inflammatory syndrome,” he said. “You can extrapolate that to the number of students in Delaware and get some idea of how many folks you can expect to get clinically symptomatic and then develop multisystem inflammatory disease. But again, that’s 300 students in the Northeast, but it’s the best U.S. data that we have.”

Also in this scenario, families are encouraged to check temperatures of students and monitor for symptoms of COVID-19. If possible, staff could also check temperatures in school buildings. Students who become ill would be quarantined and taken off campus for testing. If a student is positive, contacts should be alerted.

While athletics were a pressing concern in discussions, band and music also surfaced Tuesday.

Dr. Fitzgerald noted that a study slated to be released in August could address some of those points.

“It’s something that we should at least list as something that’s under consideration, so people know that it’s still being considered and there’s going to be a plan as we move forward,” he said. “Because I’d hate to see it, in different schools, and people handling it differently without any guidance whatsoever.”

Operations and Services

Meanwhile, the Operations and Services group’s recommendations concerned facilities, technology and transportation. The group concluded its meetings last week and published its draft recommendations on DOE’s School Reopening Working Groups webpage,

The different scenarios address cleaning procedures should schools be fully functioning or should they see significant changes in operations. Recommendations for cutting down the number of students on buses, hiring additional staff for the new demands and DOE providing guidance on funding for necessary products is also included.

Because learning turned remote at the end of last year, the draft also addresses technology needs. Recommendations include surveying families about the devices they have access to, developing plans to disseminate devices for staff and students, and evaluating Wi-Fi infrastructure.

For those who can use virtual environments for learning, internet connectivity remains important, said group member state Rep. Charles Postles, R-Milford, last week.

“We do have deserts where they do not get service. Not only isn’t there Comcast or other services, the cell tower service is not good, so they can’t even use Wi-Fi hot spots. It’s not a lot of people, but it is also some of our students who are highest-needs students,” he said. “We need to be working on this continually, preparing for that because it’s not too hard to get some additional devices … in the hands of people, but if you can’t get service, then it doesn’t make any difference.”

Academics and Equity

Meanwhile, in the Academics and Equity group, the members sought to address student assessment, instruction and social-emotional needs.

“I think that was very clear in our dialogue last week, to focus on social-emotional learning and have that be a large part of our instructional vision for the year we’re going to have,” said Ashley Giska, assistant superintendent for the Laurel School District and co-chairperson of the committee.

Monica Gant, associate secretary for DOE and co-chairperson of the committee, agreed.

“I just want to credit the committee. You all really raised the importance of SEL as integrated in instruction, not just an isolated piece that occurs that is actually in addition to what teachers would be teaching, but the way in which teachers teach and the way in which they do their craft and practice,” she said.

Assessments are to help understand where students are academically when they return to school. Attention was also paid to students with individualized education programs, or IEPs.

“There were some challenges that emerged, obviously, in sort of the hecticness as this year closed out, on making sure our IEP process was up to date,” Mr. Giska said, adding that it was a part of conversation that surfaced often in the working group and that special attention has been paid to it at the DOE level. Both Health and Wellness and Academics and Equity touched on the medically vulnerable staff and students.

In Health and Wellness, recommendations included reviewing all current plans and creating a process for students and staff to self-identify as high risk for severe illness due to COVID-19. Recommendations would allow staff who self-identify to minimize face-to-face contact and modify job responsibilities to limit exposure.

In Academics and Equity, recommendations include developing a robust virtual learning plan for students who should not attend school in any scenario while the virus is present.