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By Mike Scott, NEMOnews Media Group
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced an abrupt halt to the 2019-2020 school year in March, the normal flow of the school year was shattered, and it may never be the same. Schools across the area have struggled with how to continue their mission of educating the youth in our communities–possibly without having them in physical school buildings.
This spring, some districts have tried required online courses with mixed success. Others focused on providing enrichment activities, again with mixed success.
Some area schools have completed their graduation ceremonies-others are waiting until later in the summer.
What will the 2020-21 school year look like? How will the fallout from the pandemic change our schools? The truth is, right now, nobody knows.
Missouri School Boards’ Association’s Center for Education Safety recently released a 97-page guideline to re-opening schools in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The extensive document, which MSBA notes is to “guide local discussion” and “is not a one size, fits all solution” encourages local school board to examine every aspect of their education program.
In addition, school districts are also getting guidance from federal and state authorities, as well as local public health authorities as they plan for the upcoming school year.
NEMOnews Media Group reached out to six area school districts–Clark County, Scotland County, Knox County, North Shelby, Palmyra and Milan–to see how their districts are responding to the reopening challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic Three superintendents, Ritchie Kracht at Clark County, Palmyra’s Kirt Malone, and Ben Yocum from Milan, responded to our questions.
How will you evaluate what standards were or were not taught this year, and how will you get students “caught up”?
Kracht: We know all standards for the 4th quarter were not taught. Teachers will need to first go back and give students a refresher on what was taught the first three quarters and then hit 4th quarter standards and skills before moving on to what is normally taught in the 1st quarter of the school year. The process of getting students “caught up” will take more than one school year. Our teachers will need to evaluate our curriculums and make adjustments.
Malone: We plan to assess all students in grades K-8 in Math and Reading to identify gaps in student progress. Students who are found to have skill deficiencies will receive targeted instruction with classroom teachers and interventionists. This is something that we have always practiced and provides valuable information throughout the academic year.
Yocum: We have a K-12 building curriculum map of all Priority standards taught in each subject. Teachers have updated the curriculum map so we know exactly what standards have not been met with mastery. We are hoping to utilize summer school to catch up on a few of those standards not taught and then will come up with a plan to teach the rest at the beginning of the year 20.21 school year. Prior to the start of the 20-21 school year, the staff will evaluate the progress of where each class ended and formulate a specific plan to address. The challenge will be in the High school, specifically in grades 9-12, as most students take classes sequentially (IE-Algebra I, Algebra II, etc.) and identifying the skill mastery at the beginning of the school year will be paramount. We typically administer benchmark assessments 5-7 times throughout the academic year and this year, it will be more important than ever – due to the long gap between traditional instruction.
Does your district have the necessary PPE’s and equipment to protect students and staff?
Yocum: The district has secured 200 disposable masks and has plans to receive 500 or so cloth masks. Both of these items are made available through the Sullivan County Health Department and Sullivan County Commission. The district is planning to order gowns and additional face shield/covering as well. Currently, we have 5 immediate thermometers and have ordered 6 additional thermometers. Unfortunately, there is a limited supply and they are on ‘back-order’. The district has also ordered a plethora of disinfectants that will assist in cleaning various areas of high traffic and use. We have several cases of plastic gloves.
Kracht: We do not have any masks or other PPE equipment. We have plenty of hand sanitizer and soap for handwashing to start school back up. As of now, PPE such as masks and face shields are not required for school to start, but the guidelines are always changing.
Malone: We have ordered some PPE’s, and if it arrives, we will not have enough to last for an extended period of time. I can’t imagine how many PPE’s will be needed if every student and staff member throughout the country is required to wear them every day. At this time, we have no idea what the expectations will be for students and staff when school reopens in the fall. I also have concerns about students keeping PPE’s on their face during school without substantial disruptions.
What changes to classroom activities do you foresee being necessary?
Malone: We have been discussing alternative settings for students, but really have no idea at this time what we will be able to do effectively and efficiently.
Yocum: In the short term, we will strive to increase individual instruction and learning (one at a time); while limiting large-group activities. For Summer school, our intent is to limit the student attendance to 15 or less and allow the teachers to move from one room to another; rather than the students.
Kracht: We will look at how we can better space students in the classroom. Teachers may need to utilize less group activities.
Every school lunchroom is crowded. What changes will be necessary to promote social distancing?
Kracht: The lunch schedule may need to be adjusted and times extended. For example – instead of lunch served room 11:00 to 12:30 the time may need to be extended to 10:30 to 1:30 to cut down on the amount of students in the lunchroom so we can social distance students.
Malone: We will consider every option to make learning as safe and as effective as possible for students and staff. Lunch time could look different if social distancing is still in effect.
Yocum: During Summer school, if held – breakfast and lunch will be eaten in the classroom. If/when school resumes – plans are being considered to limit the students participating in lunch or breakfast to allow 6 feet between each other.
How will you try to promote social distancing in the classrooms? In hallways?
Yocum: We will try to lessen the movement of students from classroom to classroom by having the teachers provide intervention, specials and etc. in the classroom. We will not have assigned restroom breaks students will leave the classrooms individually as needed on an emergency basis.
Malone: Our administrative team has studied the MSBA reopening handbook. We have discussed some of the suggestions and are identifying best practices to reopen school in the fall. Any changes in reopening buildings will depend on the guidelines at the time.
Kracht: We will social distance in classrooms and hallways if the guidelines from health officials deem it necessary for the safety of our students.
Are changes to school transportation to have fewer students on buses practical for your district?
Kracht: Transportation may be the biggest challenge. We have 16 bus routes which travel 1,300 miles per day with up to 650 students riding our buses per day. Social distancing on several of our bus routes is not possible due to the amount of students on the buses. Adding bus routes is not practical as we struggle to maintain 16 full time bus drivers. We can’t add bus routes if we don’t have drivers.
Malone: Major changes in bus transportation is not practical in rural areas as bus routes cover many, many miles and we employ part-time bus drivers who may have other jobs when they aren’t driving bus routes.
Yocum: For Summer school, we are planning to eliminate the “Courtesy Stop” which will drastically minimize our riders. Ideally, we have 15-18 students on a bus and place them to promote Social distancing. We will also have another staff member on the bus to assist in taking the temperature of each student before entering the bus. It is unclear how the transportation will be impacted if/when school resumes.
Will you consider expanding online learning opportunities?
Yocum: Currently, the HS students are the only students that have been able to take the devices home. Next year, we plan to expand by allowing students to take home devices in grade levels we normally do not allow for them to take devices home. We have created a Distance/Remote Learning Task force to help support the teachers and students for learning at home.
Malone: Students learn best when they have a teacher in the classroom with them. Our teachers have made the best of the hand that was dealt them this spring. We would expand online learning only as a last resort.
Kracht: All options are on the table. There are many challenges for online learning. We have several locations in the county where families do not have access to high speed wifi. Access to high speed wifi in Clark County isn’t just a financial concern for families. Many are unable to receive it because of the location of their home. Using cell data is also hit and miss in several areas as some areas of the county are in “dead spots”. Schools have also learned online education works much better for older students than younger elementary students. We also have concerns on how we can meet the needs of some of our special education students through online options. We will continue to explore how we can educate students online if it becomes our only option.
Are you considering any changes to the school schedule? (length of school day, number of school days, alternating days etc)
Kracht: All options are being considered. The biggest challenge is the unknown. No one has any idea what the situation will look like on August 24 when kids are scheduled to return to school. The Clark County administrative team has been “brainstorming” how to deal with all the different scenarios we may be presented with. We have done several webinars and Zoom meetings with Missouri Department of Education officials, health officials, and school administrators from area schools. Educators throughout the state are working together and sharing ideas on how schools can best meet the needs of our students in these very challenging times.
Yocum: We are planning to have at least two (2) plans for overall school functionality – one (1) for regular/traditional attendance and another for adjusted attendance. The adjusted attendance option could have alternating times and/or days of attendance.
Malone: We have to plan for a different start to the school year, because of all the unknowns out there, and we will have an alternative schedule ready to implement throughout the district. We have studied MSBA’s alternative scheduling options and will consider what is best for our school district as we move into the summer months. Changes in the school schedule will, again, depend on where we are with social distancing requirements later this summer.
How will social distancing impact sports?
Malone: We will follow the recommendations of national, state and local health experts in our efforts to keep all students and staff safe in the classroom and on the field.
Kracht: Sports and several of our other extracurricular activities are in jeopardy. You can’t play football, basketball, etc… if we are under orders to follow social distancing.
Yocum: The current guidelines for Social Distancing could drastically impact our ability to have/hold sporting events or activities. Right now, any or all of practicing will follow the MO United School Insurance Council guidelines.
How will all of this affect your budget?
Yocum: The budget ramifications are unclear. The school district receives nearly 60% of the overall revenue from the State’s Foundation Formula. That amount is driven by the number of students attending the school. The state of Missouri sets a State Adequacy Target (the amount designed to represent the cost to educate each student) and that figure can be manipulated IF the state’s revenue does not meet projections. This is typically done by “Withholding” funds. So far, the legislature is committed to funding the Foundation Formula for next year; but there is discussion about “Withholding” throughout the end of this year. Having said that, given the massive amount of revenue shortfalls – I anticipate the withholdings to potentially continue.
Malone: We are thankful that DESE and the state legislature have continued to fund schools during building closures this spring. Also, the legislature has approved full funding of the foundation formula for next school year which provides the largest percentage of state revenues for public schools. Some of our state funds come from statewide sales tax revenues, so the longer businesses are closed, the less revenue we will probably receive from sales taxes.
Kracht: The budget challenges will probably last for multiple years. How badly we are affected will largely depend on how quickly we can get our economy back to “normal”.
Kracht: This has been a very difficult time for our kids, families, and staff. The Clark County School District will make decisions on what is best for our kids based on the best information we have from health officials and the Missouri Department of Education. Safety of our students and staff will always be the number one factor on decisions we make.
Yocum: Moving forward, establishing multiple options for multiple things will be highly important! We have instituted a Distance/Remote Learning (DRL) Task Force. This team is planning options for the school year to take place IF meeting in a physical location is not possible. We implemented this, as we cannot afford to have the same type of delay that we have experienced this year. The DRL platform will be added to the student handbooks – to insure the process is well communicated among students-parents. The Social/Emotional well-being of the students/staff is extremely important right now and we will prepare the best we can to respond to the varying student needs. We have also committed to continuing to provide lunches to students throughout the month of June, 2020 – we typically average 210 meals delivered per day. Our Food Service and Transportation staff has done a great job serving the students/community in this fashion! We hope to follow the MUSIC (MO United School Insurance Council) guidelines, MSBA guidelines and other information from the Health Department when making plans-decisions to provide services within the school.
Editorial Note: School districts are facing unprecedented challenges right now. Too often, people either ignore the important work they do, or are quick to complain about something they don’t like. Right now, administrators and school board members have some really tough choices to make. They’re going to make those choices based on the best information available at the time, and they’re going to try to do what they think is best for our students. Please join me in saying thanks to our local school administrators, board members, teachers and staff members. -Mike