School districts are compiling guidelines needed to resume classes in the fall.
But what will those classes look like? That, area superintendents say, is a moving target.
The Iowa Department of Education is requiring districts to have plans for three scenarios: A learning environment where the whole student body can attend class physically; a hybrid situation that would ensure social distancing where only some students were in the buildings at one time; and an online-only learning format.
Each format offers its own set of challenges.
“Regardless of what we do, this year is going to be a rough year,” said Maquoketa Superintendent Chris Hoover. “It’s going to be different. It’s guaranteed we are probably going to have to implement all three of the plans that we are preparing for at some point in time. I can bet if we have an outbreak in Jackson County we are going to be all online.”
Superintendent of the Calamus-Wheatland district, Lonnie Luepker, said the district’s goal is to have all students in their regular classrooms.
He anticipates the school board deciding the district’s instructional format by the middle of July once surveys sent to parents are returned. Questions on the surveys will gauge each household’s technology needs, and their willingness to even allow their children in the buildings.
“How comfortable do (parents) even feel about coming back?” Luepker said. “Would you be willing to drive your child to school if we can’t meet the (social distancing and safety) requirements? I do see some families choosing to not send their kids to school, and that’s entirely up to them. But we will make sure we can find a way to educate them.”
Both Luepker and Hoover said if classes resume like normal, students would not be required to physically attend class. They would, though, be required to keep up with coursework. Unlike spring 2020 school work, the state would require its completion.
Technological resources would be distributed to students without internet access. Two grants — one from the City of Maquoketa and the other from Sprint — enabled Maquoketa to distribute over 100 mobile hot spots to student homes.
“We have enough hot spots to cover all our families that said they do not have internet access,” Hoover said.
Hoover said classes could be livestreamed over the internet for students at home. The prospect of teaching classes both physically and virtually could bog down teachers. Hoover said the board would look at the district’s calendar and try to block out time for those teachers to plan lessons for virtual learning spaces as well as their own physical classrooms.
“We can be creative to give our teachers time in the week to prepare those lessons for those who might be learning online so, number one, they don’t feel as stressed about it.”
Some teachers and staff members, especially those with health concerns, may not teach at all this year. It’s yet another hurdle districts are anticipating.
“We know we will have staff who can’t come back due to health issues,” Hoover said. “I am also concerned not only for our teachers, but our bus drivers. Our general age of bus drivers is over the at-risk population age, and that concerns me as far as how many of them will want to return.”
Much is unknown. It’s a theme that makes planning for the 2020-21 school year a challenge.
“Really, overall, I thinking it’s inevitable that some way, somehow, someone in the district is going to get COVID and we will be looking at shutdowns and alternate plans.”
Districts are being asked to consider how they would sanitize buildings to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus and ensure the safety of students. They’re asked to anticipate and address the social emotional state of students depending on classroom format.
Area districts intend to have their plans ready to present to their respective boards in July.
State offers guidelines
Luepker said the state’s guidelines have been somewhat of a moving target ever since the COVID-19 virus first took hold in March.
“It’s been an ongoing process since March 13,” he said. “We keep making plans and then waiting for guidance, and now we have that guidance. We hope it doesn’t change between now and the start of the school year.”
Guidance from the Iowa Department of Education (IDE) says districts must “put plans in place to protect staff and students at high risk of developing illness.
“Whenever children are together in school or in the community, there is a risk of spreading communicable disease.”
The IDE’s requirements say facemasks are “not recommended” for students and teachers. Students and staff will not be required to submit for temperature screenings before they enter the buildings. Teachers are encouraged to enforce hand-washing rules and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Personal protection equipment must be available to staff members at medium or high risk of virus exposure, the guidance says.
“Schools may not be able to guarantee that physical distancing can be met in all school settings throughout the entire school day, during school activities, or with transportation,” the IDE said. “This is similar to when children congregate in communities. It is important for schools to implement preventative health changes that can be sustainable and done with fidelity.”