North Pike school board members on Tuesday adopted a plan to bring students back to school on alternating days in the fall.
The schedule would bring about half of students to school on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with those two groups alternating on Fridays. Students not in school on school days would be expected to participate in online lessons.
Board members passed the plan 4-1, with Scott Campbell opposed, though district officials had recommended a traditional schedule with all students attending every day.
Campbell offered a motion to enact a traditional schedule, but it died for lack of a second.
“I want to say one thing,” he said. “I want everyone to realize, the committee that made this recommendation had teachers, administrators, parents and our athletic directors on it. There was over 100 years of educational experience on that committee.”
“They put a lot of time and effort into figuring out how to start school. We vote how we vote, but if we go against their recommendation, we’re telling them we know more than they do. If we start school and it goes haywire, we get the blame.”
Board member Etta Taplin said the board gets the credit or blame no matter what happens.
“I have toiled over this and toiled over this,” she said. “In good faith, I cannot agree to our students coming back to traditional school, when all the facts say we need social distancing. We need to make sure our students are safe, make sure our employees are safe, make sure our community is safe.”
She noted that she had relatives who died from COVID-19, the disease which caused schools, businesses and other organizations to close down or limit interactions from mid-March forward.
“This is personal to me ... but I’m trying to deal with the facts,” she said. “If we have 27 students in a class, how do you social-distance? This is disturbing to me.”
Superintendent Dennis Penton presented the recommendation for the traditional start, noting that a majority of the district parents responded to the district’s survey in favor of that schedule, though board president Jamie Jackson pointed out that the responses were about 50-50, with slightly over half for a traditional start and two other “hybrid” options combined close to half.
High school principal Scott Hallmark, who sat on the scheduling committee, said members were concerned about school attendance and providing adequate instruction.
Having students in school, even on the alternate days in the hybrid schedule, “will be better than the spring, because we’ll see them every week,” Hallmark said.
However, “a lot of kids don’t have wired devices, and they don’t have access to online materials.”
That lack of online connectivity raised red flags for Penton.
“My concern is about equity,” Penton said. “Can we provide an education with equity in this way? Unequivocally, the answer is no. This will create an elitist system. ... The ones who most need support are the ones who are most without computers and internet access.”
He said the differences in information technology and availability would have an ill effect on the learning gap between poorer and better off students, and cause greater difficulties for students with varying levels of learning disabilities.
“On an even playing field, we struggle to support these students and close the gap,” Penton said. “With the lack of access to the internet and connected devices, we increase the gap from Day 1.”
He said those without any internet access would be provided packets for the days at home.
Board attorney Jim Keith said, with schedules being altered for social distancing and extra cleaning, the standard for instructional time was lowered from 330 minutes daily to 240 minutes.
He said ensuring those minutes are being used instructionally for students online will be an equity issue.
“With the traditional approach, you provide equitable services,” Keith said. “With an online platform, you have to ensure that the student is present and has a robust internet service and computer.
“The devil is how you verify that the students got the instruction they were supposed to.”
Without that verification, the students may not be counted as in attendance by the state, which could result in state funding cuts.
Penton said, for that reason, most districts will not let parents choose an entirely online option for their students.
“Most of them are going require some medical documentation that the child needs to stay home,” he said.
Penton said, even with just half the number of students going to school each day, a bus at half capacity doesn’t allow for adequate social distancing.
Students will need to sit one to a seat, or siblings — which the district will try to all schedule to attend on the same school days — can share seats, he said.
Running extra routes to further cut the number of students on a bus at one time isn’t feasible, he said.
Taplin asked what bus drivers would do if a child seemed sick or registered a fever at the bus stop.
“We’ll isolate them,” Penton said. “We have little option, if they’re sick at the bus stop, but to pick them up and take them to school. The unsafest thing we can do is leave them standing there.”
Board member Freddie Deer asked how many students could be expected to be in a class at one time, and about wearing masks being voluntary for students.
Penton said some classes might have as few as eight students, though with a maximum of 27 students allowed at some levels, that could mean 13 to 14 in some.
As for the masks, “that could become a discipline issue,” he said, comparing it to dress code violations where students can be suspended.
“If students have to wear masks, that’s why I leaned toward the hybrid schedule, especially for the buses,” board member Chris Richardson said.
Penton said the plan is not 100% complete, and would have some details fleshed out for a special called meeting on July 23.
“If it were (complete), things would happen on Day 1 that would require us to make changes,” he said.
Jackson said he assumed that the district would monitor the plan and reassess how it’s working and whether it’s still needed later in the year.
“You’re asking for a crystal ball, and I don’t have that,” Penton said. “A lot of how we can respond is reactionary. I don’t anticipate that we’ll be able to totally relax on health concerns for a good while.”
To lessen exposure risks, Penton presented a proposal from the district’s cleaning contractor, ABM, for additional “enhanced” cleaning services for about $101,000 for the next year.
The extra service would provide four full-time employees and cleaning agents for each of the campuses to frequently wipe down high-traffic areas, and install hand sanitizer stations around the buildings.
Penton said the contract add-on would not affect the rest of the contract, and that the district is not locked into a full year. The extra service will paid on a monthly basis.