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Indian River reveals hybrid learning plan

Indian River School District Superintendent Jay Owens just prior to the special meeting Aug. 19.

Under a newly approved hybrid learning plan, the youngest students in the Indian River School District will start in-person classes in September, while high school students won't return until November.

The Indian River Board of Education went over the plan Wednesday, Aug. 19 at a special meeting at Sussex Central High School.

Families can choose for their student to learn 100% remotely or via the hybrid model this year. Regardless, all students will begin remote learning Thursday, Sept. 17.

The hybrid learning plan calls for pre-kindergarten through first grade students to begin in-person instruction that day, as well.

Half those students, "Cohort A," will attend on Mondays and Tuesday. "Cohort B" will attend on Thursdays and Fridays. Students through grade eight will be separated into "A" and "B" cohorts.

Wednesdays will be virtual learning days for students of all grade levels, and serve as an opportunity for custodial crews to sanitize schools between cohorts.

Second and third grade students will begin in-person classes Oct. 5. Fourth, fifth and sixth graders will begin Oct. 19 and seventh and eighth graders Oct. 26.

High schoolers will attend in four cohorts, meaning each student will only attend school in-person one day a week.

Ninth graders will begin Nov. 9. Tenth, 11th and 12th graders would not return until Nov. 19, the first day of the second marking period.

Special education

Indian River special education students' COVID-19 learning plans are being handled on a case-by-case basis.  

Director of Special Education Judith Brittingham was asked to detail plans several times at the meeting. 

"It is going to be a very, very heavy lift," she said. "The district is committed."

Brittingham said special education case managers and coordinators will work with each student and family through individual appointments and progress monitoring. Individualized education programs will be tailored to work with hybrid or online instruction.

Special education staff will be paid for after-hours work with $500,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds. Other funding sources may be required in the future. 

Technology issues

Indian River distributed about 3,100 Chromebooks to students who did not have access to a suitable device in spring 2020. More will be distributed this year.

District Technology Systems Manager Charles Ruggerio said about 90% of Chromebooks distributed last year were returned, with an about 3% damage rate.

An internet connection is required for remote learning. Indian River has partnered with providers to provide low-cost internet connections for families. For example, Comcast Internet Essentials is being offered at $9.95 a month. 

Drive-up wireless internet will also be available at certain locations.

Busing

The number of students riding buses will be less this year due to a large portion of them choosing a remote learning plan. The district has also asked all families that are able to provide their children transportation to and from school to do so. 

"We do have some concerns whether we will have enough bus drivers," Owens said. "The slow roll-in will help. We'll be able to see how many students will be riding buses."

The busing plan calls for one student in each seat, allowing for 14 students on a 48-passenger bus and 23 on a 72-passenger bus. 

Owens said the district's busing contractors had some concerns about being able to provide enough drivers, which was an issue long before the pandemic. Compounding the problem is the fact that some drivers have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Bus contractors and schools will work collaboratively to disinfect buses.

Student and staff health policies

Masks will be required for all students and staff. Outdoor mask breaks, weather permitting, will be built into in-person school days. Each school will share their social distancing plans with families prior to students' first in-person day.

Decisions about students and staff who are exposed to or show symptoms of COVID-19 will be made using a Delaware Department of Public Health-provided decision tree.

Decisions about students and staff who are exposed to or show symptoms of COVID-19 will be made using a Delaware Department of Public Health-provided decision tree.

"We will have a room available in each school for students that meet symptoms, so we can keep them separate until we can get them home," Owens said.

Frequently touched surfaces, such as stair railings, doorknobs, bathrooms and light switches will be disinfected every 15 minutes to two hours.

"Our hope is that the custodial crew will be able to develop a schedule to go in, in conjunction with teachers' schedules," Owens said. "In elementary schools, students will stay put and the custodians will come in... We're leaning on individual schools and principals to develop that schedule. There will be a checklist to ensure areas are cleaned."

Hand-washing opportunities will be provided between classes and activities. 

All meals will be served in a "grab and go" style, pre-assembled and in carry-out containers and bags. Whenever possible, each food item will be individually wrapped. Single-use utensils will be provided. Curbside meal pick-up will be available at a number of locations for virtual learning days.

Board members' thoughts

The board of education voted to proceed with the hybrid learning plan with a single "no" vote by member Leo Darmstadter. He said he is in favor of starting the year with both a hybrid and remote learning plan, but is against the format in which the hybrid plan was presented.

"An eight week phase-in start where 10th-12th graders do not attend school in person until November 19th ... is unacceptable," Darmstadter later wrote in an email.

"I understand our community wants students back in. I do understand those members of the community that aren’t comfortable with that at this time and want the remote model," Owens said. "Our goal is to meet both of those needs with very, very robust plans for our students. That’s been our goal all along.

School board President Rodney Layfield asked if the plan could be changed, should the governor decide to fully open schools.

"In order to best plan we are going at a quarter by quarter basis," Owens said. "If the governor allows us to bring in students more quickly, we will challenge our team to do so."

"This is a way to do it, but it is not to the standard we've ever been used to," Layfield said.

Due to the pandemic, the meeting was also broadcast live via Zoom, which allows the community to make comments. Hundreds of comments came in during the meeting. The board opted not to hear any of them.

They did allow Indian River Education Association President J.R. Emanuele to make comments by phone.

"There's a lot of questions around the remote academy. Who is staffing it? Is it going to be the teachers in the classroom also teaching the remote academy? There's plenty of workload already to go around, so I think that needs to be looked into and explained a lot more," Emanuele said. 

He also brought up teachers that don't feel safe returning to school and asked if there would be a process to determine who teaches in-person and who teaches remotely that considers these concerns, especially for teachers with underlying health conditions. 

Emanuele's questions have not yet been answered.

Faced with voting despite not hearing Zoom comments, board member Donald Hattier spoke up.

"This is basically being done within the constraints of what the governor is allowing us to do," he said. "And like it or not, there are going to be unhappy people.”

Hattier likened COVID-19 to the flu and called it "the China virus."

"At least one other district is simply bringing everybody back, period," he said. "The governor waited forever to give us the guidelines on this and then expects the school districts to come up and pull their buns out of the fire, and I have a great problem with that."