The clock is ticking as officials work to make a plan for public school to resume this fall.
“What I’m hearing from the community is that they want school to be back in session,” said Cade Douglas, superintendent of schools for Sevier School District. “That’s what we want as well, and what we feel is the most effective.”
School districts across the country were thrown into an online format due to the COVID-19 crisis earlier this year. While Sevier School District muddled through the spring semester, Douglas said learning from home on a computer just isn’t as effective as traditional classroom instruction.
“What people need to realize is that our grading was relaxed during that time,” Douglas said. “We can’t keep it that way and still achieve our learning objectives.”
Studies have shown the online learning model is not as effective as classroom instruction, Douglas said.
“If you’re going to do that, you have to have an adult there mentoring,” Douglas said.
In addition to being more effective for instruction, the importance of in-class instruction was stressed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
How students are graded is something the district is always looking at anyway, but it has been a major focus with the COVID-19 situation.
Douglas, along with every principal, vice principal, community council members, teachers, doctors and public health officials are due to meet this week to go over the district’s draft plan for returning to session. The school board is then expected to vote on approval of the plan during a meeting Wednesday, July 15.
“We’ve moved beyond the color-coding,” Douglas said. He said the state’s color-coded system is designed more with businesses in mind. Instead, the district is taking on a plan that includes contingencies for three scenarios — regular schedule school, modified schedule and dismissal.
“I feel really confident we’ll be able to operate under the regular schedule,” Douglas said. “It’s going to take everyone doing their part.”
The district’s plan is based on seven situational characteristics —
• Group size
• Respiratory output
“We can’t totally eliminate risks, but we can mitigate them,” Douglas said. He said district staff members have been going through every situation they can conceive of and applying the seven characteristics, and deciding how to best mitigate them.
For example, a choir class would be difficult to instruct with masks, and there is an increased respiratory output while singing.
“Rather than hold that class in a traditional classroom, we could move it to the auditorium where students can be spaced apart,” Douglas said. He said gym classes should focus more on controlled movements. While not every management strategy is going to mitigate all of the risks, they can be reduced.
“Masks are the great mitigator in this,” Douglas said. “Some kids are going to want to wear their masks all the time, and others may not want to wear them at all.”
One area where the state school board is strongly encouraging mandatory mask use is on school buses, Douglas said. However, if a student refuses to wear a mask, they won’t be denied transportation on a bus.
The district will recommend the use of masks, but the recommendation has been complicated by the national discourse.
“Masks have become so political in some circles,” Douglas said. He said the key is to remember that wearing a mask is just a way to protect others from the germs one is spreading, not necessarily to protect one’s self.
Another way the district is planning to help protect health is to enforce strict assigned seating in classes, which can help with contact tracing in the event of a coronavirus infection.
“We also want to make sure we are planning for high risk students and staff,” Douglas said.
Sevier School District is ahead of the curve on the concept of blended education, which combines traditional classroom instruction with online learning.
“We have to plan for outbreaks,” Douglas said. He said students who feel ill should not go to school and should be tested. Those who are quarantined for 14 days will have access to classroom instruction and materials.
“Students and staff need to stay home if they are sick,” Douglas said. “At the same time, we can’t cry wolf because you may need those days later on.”
The district is also planning on going one-to-one with devices.
“We have enough to do it, so we’re going to,” Douglas said. He said each middle school or high school student will be assigned a tablet or laptop for the year, rather than checking them out on a daily basis. This way each device is only handled by one student.
One encouraging fact is a lot more is known about the novel coronavirus today than six months ago, according to Douglas.
“We know it affects children less than adults,” Douglas said. “We also need to be fluid. Something that’s right now could all change today or tomorrow.”