With only 20 days to go before the opening of the fall semester, the Simpson County School Board has finally been handed a plan to consider for the reopening of school.
The plan also requires starting school four days later than originally announced, on Monday, August 10, rather than Thurday, August 6.
The board met Monday, July 20, with some members attending by Zoom Meetings to get their first look at a proposed plan outlining the procedures that will govern school staffs and administrations in gathering students back to the classroom for the first time since early March. All county schools closed the week of spring break, then did not reopen the rest of the year due to fears of coronavirus infecting students and staff.
Dr. Robert Sanders led Monday’s special meeting to review the plan.
Board President Danny Cowart told the board that he had talked with the School Board Association attorney, who said that the board was required to approve the plan before it could be implemented. He reminded members that it was the job of the administration, the district superintendent, to come up with a plan and the board’s job to approve it.
“The ultimate responsibility for implementation is on the administration,” Cowart said, “but the responsibility for outcomes is on us, the board.” He added, “This plan seems to be in line with what other districts across the state are doing.”
He also advised board members to take heed of information about COVID-19 coming out of the State Health Department. He said that of all the cases across the state, 4300 people in the 18-and-under age group had contracted the disease, some in very mild forms. No deaths were reported in the age group.
“We have zero deaths in the schools,” he said, cautioning the board not to be so fearful that they made unwise decisions. “This is an unprecedented time,” he said, “but we must put children at the very center of what we’re doing.”
In past discussions, the board had considered three models for opening school. One was to start back with traditional classes as usual. The second was a hybrid model in which students would be divided into groups A and B with A group attending school on Mondays and Wednesdays and the B group attending on Tuesday and Thursday. Fridays would be reserved for remediation. The third possibility was to have no on-campus classes and do all instruction online, but the board expressed dissatisfaction with the results of online instruction done in the spring and rejected that plan. They decided that they wanted to use either the traditional opening or the hybrid model, hopefully switching back to traditional on-campus classes as quickly as COVID-19 case numbers would allow.
District Superintendent Greg Paes selected the plan from the State Department of Education as being the most likely to be effective for Simpson County students.
The hybrid model that combines traditional classroom work with online components was chosen. It calls for students to be divided into two groups, A and B, with the A group composed of students whose last names start with letters A through L, and the B group being the remainder of students, with accommodations made where necessary.
The A group will attend classes on Mondays and Wednesdays and the B group on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be set aside for remediation and intervention with students who demonstrate a need for more academic help. Sanders said that school staff will do everything possible to keep family groups on the same day.
He explained that this plan gives every student two days of instruction by teachers, who will also assign work to be done on students’ “off days.” Off day work will be accomplished by the student independently using the program Google Classroom.
Sanders assured the board that processes would be in place so that even students who do not have internet access would be able to access the program, possibly through a cellphone, and that full details of how to do this would be given to parents and students.
Teachers and students will be thoroughly trained in the use of Google Classroom before work begins.
One of the objections to any online learning plan has been that some students in Simpson County do not have computers or do not have internet access. Sanders said that the district has requested federal CARES funds to help provide technology, and the district has some Chrome Books that they can make available to those who have no device.
“They will be on a case-by-case, first-come-first-served basis,” he said. “We have to have some of the devices available for use in class. We have ordered more Chrome Books, but as you can imagine other districts are doing this and we may not be able to get any more until Christmas.”
On Fridays, remediation will be available to students in the lower quartile of achievement. Cowart noted that these students who most need the extra help will profit from getting three days of teacher instruction since they will also be in either the A or B group earlier in the week.
Teachers will work five days a week. Sanders assured the board that parents would get instructions on how to access teacher assistance for their children who need help on non-class days.
To accommodate students with more severe health problems and those who have expressed a fear of going back on campus during the pandemic, especially with the spike in cases experienced during July, the board will allow students who wish to do so to attend virtual, or strictly online, classes. Parents who choose the virtual model for their students can apply to do; however, they must prove that they can provide Google Classroom and have the appropriate internet capability and a suitable device. Applications for virtual learning must be in by Friday, July 31.
Sanders added several caveats for those considering the virtual learning plan. In addition to having the proper equipment, they need to know that virtual students are on an entirely separate online plan and are not “zooming in” to on-campus classes in the county schools or participating with them in any way. They will have separate courses and classes assigned on Google Classroom.
They will also be given a specific schedule of classes which cannot be done at the students’ own time or rate. They will be required to be online at specific times and their presence online will be documented for credit.
“Virtual learning is an option,” said Sanders, “but optimal learning is in the traditional classroom.”
He added that virtual students will not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities such as band or sports.
The calendar for school year 2020-2021 will be altered to accommodate the new plan if the board accepts it on Thursday. Instead of all students beginning class on August 6 as originally planned, the A group of students will start class on Monday, August 10, and the B group on Tuesday, August 11. The original class days of August 6 and 7 will be used for teacher work days.
Because the state requires that students attend classes for a prescribed number of days, however, students will make up the two days missed, one in January and one in February.
Board President Cowart questioned whether the appropriate amount of subject matter and material could be covered in the two days of in-class instruction. Dr. Sanders said that the State Department is reworking material to fit it in, and more material can be covered through Google Classroom.
In presenting the plan, Sanders said, “We are asking that this model of A and B days go forward the full nine weeks, to the end of the grading period.”
Cowart countered that this was a change the board hadn’t discussed. They had discussed only applying the hybrid plan through perhaps the first two weeks of school or until Labor Day, then, if COVID-19 numbers are not substantially higher, going back to the traditional five days a week on campus.
He said that in the plans he had seen, other districts were going to begin with the A-B plan, then revert to the traditional schedule after about two weeks. Sanders said he thought that might cause inconsistencies in grading. He added that several districts are looking into using the hybrid plan for the entire first quarter ending in October.
Several other significant procedures are covered in the proposed back to school plan, including bus transportation, student health protection procedures, and meals.
Board members expressed a number of concerns about the specifics of the plan.
Cowart said that entrance to the schools should be restricted to keep students safe from people wandering in and contaminating the areas.
Dr. Sanders reiterated that the state had imposed a two-week delay in the beginning of fall sports, “and we will abide by that.” He again reminded the board that virtual students would not be allowed to participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities.
Board member Lillie Hardy requested that all the responsibilities implied in the plan at each level be written down and a COVID-19 manager be appointed for the district to make sure that everything was being down, such as parental forms being checked. She also asked whether a further delay of the opening of school should be considered. “I think the plan is really well done,” she said, but there’s a lot that has to be done that’s not specifically included in the plan.” No specific action was taken.
Superintendent Paes commented that it is important that the taxpayers of the county see that this is an evolving plan, “that we’re feeling our way through. We don’t know all the costs yet, but the most important thing is to protect student safety.” He added, “We worry now about state reallocations and taking away some money from us. If we’re reduced more than we expect, we’ll have to make it up somehow.”
Cowart expressed disappointment that a plan had not been devised and given to the board more quickly. He said he had looked at plans from other districts in early June that could have been adapted for Simpson County.
He also said that board members had thought they were discussing the version of the hybrid plan they saw last week, only to be handed a revised plan at this meeting with only about 30 minutes to look it over.
The board will meet again Thursday, July 23, to approve the plan as presented or make changes.
Specific information and required forms for parents and students will then be posted on the school district website, Facebook page and all county media outlets.