DEWITT — 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 choice offers its own set of challenges.
Superintendents have met — virtually — with other members of the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency weekly since March to brainstorm ideas about how instruction will be delivered when school starts in August.
The IDE issued requirements last week that in some ways contradict those of health officials, and those guidelines — which administrators say were announced out the blue — are adding further complication.
If school buildings return to 100% capacity, the IDE recommends students not be required to wear masks in class. It says students don’t need to be temperature screened before entering school buildings and that schools — if class is held in physical form — may not be able to guarantee social distancing.
Teachers are encouraged to enforce hand-washing rules and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, guidance from the state said. Personal protection equipment must be available to staff members at medium or high risk of virus symptoms as well.
“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 Department of Education 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.”
On Friday, the IDE walked back some of those guidelines and said more information will be released to school officials in the “near future.”
Some of the state’s guidance has school administrators scratching their heads.
“The varying guidance we have received says we need social distancing on buses. Now, from what we’ve heard, the (new) guidance will be that we don’t have to worry about social distancing (in class),”said Central DeWitt Superintendent Dan Peterson.“Or masks, or any of those things. We feel like we are, to some degree, building a plane as we fly it.”
“We’re all at the same point,” said Northeast Superintendent Neil Gray. “Answers are a lot harder to come by than questions, and there is a plethora of guidance that doesn’t necessarily help.”
Gray said superintendents have been working feverishly to create a consensus approach to returning to school
I want to be in line with my neighbors,” he said. “I don’t want to be temp-checking kids if no one else is. I don’t want to be spacing my classrooms if no one else is doing it … it should be the norm for everybody.”
“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 ultimate goal is to have all students in their regular classrooms.
He anticipates the school board deciding the district’s instructional format soon, especially 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.”
Area administrators 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.
If students partake in lessons via the internet, technological resources can be distributed to students without internet access.
The Maquoketa district received two grants to help that effort — one from the City of Maquoketa and the other from Sprint. The grants helped pay for hot spot internet access points.
“We have enough hot spots to cover all our families that said they do not have internet access,” Hoover said.
Classes could be livestreamed over the internet for students at home, or teachers could record a lecture and post it for future viewing.
However, the prospect of teaching classes both physically and virtually could bog down teachers. Teaching online also isn’t as thorough as in-person instruction, administrators say.
“We are being pretty dependent on the internet” Gray said. “Anyone who says the rigor of online learning is the same as in person learning, I don’t think that’s true.”
Peterson said learning gaps have become apparent. Between students missing classroom time in the spring when the virus first forced schools to close and now, students are behind the eight-ball.
“There will be gaps,” he said. “There are things we can do to change our focus and streamline in the content we have. But there isn’t going to be time to take it slow. This is going to be more of a drinking-out-of-a-firehose type of instruction and curriculum, because there are things that need to be made up. We need to ensure our students and families they have the content they need to move on.”
“Our approach would not be to dwell on what they didn’t learn. It would be to find how to implement the same standards they need to learn going forward and accelerate on it,” Gray said.
If school returns in brick-and-mortar format, 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.”
“It would probably take some serious discussions with an adamant staff member who says, ‘you know what, I’m not coming back.’” Gray said. “We’d need to figure out how to support that person but also the learning needs of the district.”
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,” Hoover said.
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 also asked to anticipate and address the social emotional state of students depending on classroom format.