Across the nation, school districts are trying to determine the best course of action for the 2020-2021 academic year. With no vaccine available and surges of infection in some states, the districts are trying to weigh keeping students and staff healthy while at the same time continuing to provide education to children who have not seen the inside of a classroom for months.
The Waterloo School District presented its draft reopening plan before the school board during Monday night’s monthly meeting. District administrator Brian Henning is calling the plan a simultaneous instruction delivery model that will allow families the flexibility to decide if they want their child to attend school in person or continue virtual learning. The board is set to take action on the plan during a special July 27 board meeting.
“This is a highly unique yet simple model,” Henning said. “I don’t think this is a method other districts have selected. … This model has been gaining the most momentum among our reopening committee.”
In the simultaneous instruction method, students will have the option to either attend class in-person or livestream the class on a digital device or phone. According to Henning, each classroom will be equipped with video and audio components allowing anyone logged into the classroom using Google meetings to ‘attend class’ when a teacher is providing instruction inside their classroom.
The reopening committee believes this model was preferable to the hybrid model, where a schedule would determine when a students would attend in person and virtually, because it teachers would not have to increase the amount of prep time needed for separate groups of students or worry about ensuring both cohorts are at the same place in the curriculum.
The administrator said this does not mean a student attending virtually will be in front of a computer screen for the entire school day as there are breaks, such as recess, lunch and independent learning time, when an at-home student will be able to log out of the class and step away from the livestream learning.
While the district does have enough technology devices for each student, Henning understands internet access may not be equitable for all students. But, Google meet does have an option where students can dial in using a phone to hear the audio portion of the lesson if they choose to attend virtually.
“We are technologically equipped for this but the true test will be when everyone comes back in the building,” the administrator said.
One of the key points in the simultaneous instruction model is the flexibility offered. Henning said parents can choose what days their child will attend in-person and what days the student will attend virtually.
“They can come in every day for one week and then attend virtually the next week,” he said. “We may even have students who attend class but are never actually in the building.”
Beyond instruction, the reopening committee has looked at other factors such as social distancing measures. Henning said according to a survey sent out to parents, which had more than 300 replies as of Monday, about 25% indicated they would not send their child to school in person. He believes this would bring the number of students per classroom into a more manageable size so desks can be further separated to make social distancing easier. The committee is also looking into how social distancing would work for recess; Henning said one possibility is allowing each grade level to be assigned a certain area of the playground and rotating through those spots during the school year.
“That way, they all stay with their cohort group and we make sure no one spends the entire year just on the blacktop or on the grass or on the play equipment,” the district administrator said.
Furthermore, extra recess equipment such as playground balls have been ordered so each classroom has its own set.
Henning said social distancing will also be practiced in the hallways; while elementary school teachers can create safe travel plans and avoid other classes that may be using the corridors during the same time. As for the older grades, the district may create one-way traffic areas and encourage students to use their backpacks more often so they do not need to stop at their lockers as often.
“Masks will be very important for this,” he said.
Masks required for students, staff, visitors
“Any parent who wants to send their child to school can do so and everyone will be required to wear masks (if physically in the school building),” Henning said.
The district administrator did note wearing masks has become a politicized and controversial topic. However, he said the current scientific information available notes face coverings can decrease the transmission of coronavirus, which is what is guiding the decision.
Additionally, the board passed a policy going into effect immediately requiring anyone ages 4 and older entering a district building will need to have a face covering through the end of the 2020-2021 school year.
Board Treasurer Deb Stein voted against the measure, saying she is against mandating wearing masks.
“I’m very against it,” she said, noting the adults wearing masks continue to touch their faces. “This is very political.”
“I had the COVID and I’m still alive and I’m not contagious,” said Stein, who attended the meeting in person. “I want parents and kids to decide if they will wear masks.”
Henning said if a family is against wearing masks, they have the option to attend school virtually.
The administrative team will work with students and adults who cannot wear masks due to a medical condition or individualized education plan.
In terms of other health measures taken by the district, the reopening committee is planning to ask parents to pre-screen their children for coronavirus symptoms before going to school. When students arrive at school, teaching staff will check the temperatures of each student at the start of the day. If a student does exhibit coronavirus symptoms, they will be sent to an isolation area where they will wait for a parent to come pick them up.