By Dedra Cordle
As a new school year approaches, there are a number of questions that have been at the forefront of the minds of administrators, parents, students and staff members. Among those are whether in-person instruction will be allowed and if so, what will it look like? Will it be safe to attend? And what adjustments will be made should the state once again order buildings closed to slow the spread of a novel coronavirus?
The answers to these questions are complex and fluid, say district officials, but an attempt to give clarification on the upcoming 2020/21 school year was made at the South-Western City Schools board of education meeting in July.
The opening of the district will largely follow guidelines recommended by the Ohio Department of Health. Recently, the department created a color coded warning system that aims to show prominence of the virus in each county, thereby making it easier to implement additional closures or measures on a county basis.
Under the system, there are four levels: yellow, orange, red and purple. Under their guidance, the district will close buildings and go to a virtual-only format should the county reach level 4, or purple; have blended learning instruction at level 3, or red; and go to 100 percent face-to-face instruction at levels 2 or 1 (or orange and yellow).
As the county is currently under a level 3, the district intends to open the new school year on Aug. 27 in a blended learning model.
According to Superintendent Dr. Bill Wise, the student body at each building will be divided into two groups as determined by an algorithm through the Infinite Campus.
“One group will have face-to-face instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other group will have face-to-face instruction on Thursday and Fridays,” he said while presenting the opening of schools draft to the board.
Those who are not physically in the building on their designated days will receive instruction either through materials sent home with them or remotely as they did from mid-March to the end of the 2019/20 school year.
The buildings will be closed on Wednesdays so there can be a “deep cleaning” of the rooms and its furnishings. The district has committed to two deep cleanings and frequent daily cleaning of high touch areas such as door knobs and bathrooms.
Occasionally, there will be weeks where a holiday lands on a Monday or Friday. Deputy Superintendent Dave Stewart said the groupings will move either the days before or after the holiday, and the holiday will be spent deep cleaning.
In relation to the groups, Stewart said families will be kept together and parents can request their students be moved into the other grouping if it best fits their work schedule.
Within a month of implementing the blended learning model, Wise said they should have a clearer picture as to whether it is feasible to move to the 100 percent face-to-face instruction format. He said they would like to move to that model on Sept. 21.
Parents who do not want their children to attend in-person instruction this year are being offered an alternative pathway through the Virtual Learning Academy.
The Virtual Learning Academy, explained Wise, will be taught primarily by a district instructor or supplemented by educators through the Jefferson County Educational Service Center, which has partnered with the district for more than a decade in a variety of capacities.
Stewart said upperclassmen taking this pathway will be able to take electives though some elective courses may be limited due to staffing.
One caveat of this pathway, said Wise, is that once a parent commits their child/children to the Virtual Learning Academy, they are doing so for the entire 2020/21 school year.
Enrollment for the Virtual Learning Academy began on July 20 and runs through Aug. 7. Applications can be found at the district’s website.
District officials said they are more prepared now to run the virtual only model should need be than they were when building closures were mandated in March.
Wise said that in the case of these models, there is a level of risk to each of them.
“At the end of the day, there is not a way forward that does not involve some level of risk, either with social and emotional learning or health consequences for our school and staff,” he said.
He added that the district will do all they can to maintain current safety protocols to “minimize the impact” to the greatest extent possible.
The district will also be requiring students and staff to wear a face mask or facial covering while in the building. Exceptions will be made for those who have a medical condition with a note from a licensed physician or school nurse.
The younger students will be allowed “mask breaks” as determined by the teacher or at recess. They will also have to wear them while riding the bus. While the district encourages students to bring their own masks, they will be provided if one forgets to bring it.
Additional safety measures include hand sanitizing stations in each classroom; the limitation of shared classroom supplies; the partitioning of the school’s clinic to separate suspected COVID-19 cases; the elimination of overnight field trips until late November and the minimization of others; the encouragement to bring individual water bottles to limit water fountain use; and a grab-and-go style in the cafeteria. Kitchen staff will also be using barcode scanners in lieu of student ID number punch in’s. The district said they will still be offering breakfast and lunch to the student groups on their designated remote learning days.