North Pike officials hope to have a plan for reopening schools for the fall by the next school board meeting on July 7, but the discussion by the board on the topic Saturday morning illustrated just how difficult a proposition that might be.
Superintendent Dennis Penton said the district has several committees considering various aspects of reopening, and added the district has launched a survey for the district’s parents to gauge their concerns and preferences about going back to school.
A link to the survey is available on the district’s website.
A major point to consider is the role distance learning might have to play in the fall.
Penton said the Mississippi Department of Education has not said whether students who want or need to attend school through distance learning will be counted in school attendance, and has not been able to answer questions about funding for a distance learning program.
Transportation also poses significant challenges, as the district will likely need to transport fewer students per trip, meaning different schools or grade levels may have to stagger their schedules with later start times for some students, or possibly attendance for different classes or grade levels on alternate days.
Penton said the district will also have to decide whether or how students might have their temperatures checked before getting on the bus, and whether they should have masks.
“I’m not saying we will check every child’s temperature, but we need to be able to check every child’s temperature,” Penton said. “We can say what we want to do all day long, but we have to deal with what’s possible.”
Board President Jamie Jackson asked about hiring bus monitors to conduct temperature checks and enforce any needed distancing in bus seating, but Penton said that would likely be too much of a burden for the district’s budget.
“Personnel quickly gets to be expensive, and I think that would be cost-prohibitive for us,” Penton said. “These would also be temporary employees, and I’m not sure we could find enough to cover all the buses.”
Returning to scheduling, Penton said staggering start and release times to help bring students to school with some semblance of good distancing would only help with transportation issues.
Board member Chris Richardson suggested that the district might see if more parents would be willing to bring their children to school themselves, rather than trying to use the buses.
She noted that different start times could impact parents’ ability to bring or pick up their children themselves.
“They might be willing, but they might not be able,” Richardson said.
She said a question on the survey about how their children get to school might lead parents to think about last year, rather than what they would consider for the coming year.
Board member Scott Campbell said changing schedules could be difficult for families because work schedules for parents or guardians might require them to be at work even though some children may not be in school because of their new class schedule.
“That’s a nationwide problem,” Penton said. “Our primary function is education, we also provide children breakfast and lunch and give their parents an opportunity to go to work. That’s significant.”
Board member Freddie Deer asked how the schools would keep students distanced during recess and in the cafeteria.
Penton said the district is looking at more shifts through the cafeteria, as well as possibly feeding some students in their classrooms.
He said there are also going to be changes for how classes like art, music and physical education, where close contact might otherwise be expected often, and where fluids like spit or sweat might be spread around often.
“We know there’s a lot we need to do,” Penton said. “We’ve got a lot to do with the schedules.”
Board member Etta Taplin asked if the district’s nurses would be able to handle the health concerns the district is likely to see this fall.
Penton said nurses would follow best health practices and the recommendations of health officials.
He noted that COVID-19 would not be the only health concern on campus.
“Our students are still going to have colds. They’ll still get the flu,” Penton said. “They’ll have to drill down on whether it’s COVID-19 or a common cold. Those are some of the most complex issues we’ll face.
“Fevers are different, but a cough is not always COVID-19. There are always kids with sinus drainage.”
He said each school will need a place to isolate students who might be sick until parents or other approved adults can pick them up.
“We need to keep all our kids safe, no matter what,” Jackson said. “
Penton said the district would take all the precautions possible, but COVID-19 infection rates could still rise in the fall among students and the general public without their exposure necessarily happening at school.
Rates may rise again in the fall because “conditions will be good for the disease,” he said. “The kids might get it whether they’re in school or not ... We’ll bring a plan (on reopening) to the board based on best practices and best recommendations we have.”
Richardson pointed out that state and federal health officials recommend that people with fevers isolate themselves for 48 hours, and that people who then test positive for COVID-19 quarantine themselves for 14 days.
Those recommendations also apply to anyone that comes into close contact with a fever or COVID-19 victim, and she asked if the district would follow those recommendations.
“Do you think we should do everything Dr. (state epidemiologist Thomas) Dobbs says?” Penton asked.
“Yes, I think so,” Richardson said.
“That’s going to complicate everything,” Penton said. “It would make transportation as we know it impossible. I don’t know of any district that plans to follow all the recommendations exactly. MDE has said that if we follow every recommendation exactly, it will make school impossible. If we put students six feet apart on buses, we’ll have one student every three seats.”
Penton said the district should definitely send home students who show symptoms like fever, and let them stay home for the recommended quarantine period if they test positive, but “if we go for everybody they’ve been in contact with, we’ve changed the face of what we need to consider.”
Taplin if the district might consider starting later in the year, as she had had questions about starting after Labor Day.
Penton said some adjustments can be made to the start date if needed, but “we still have to have 180 days. If we start later, we will have to look at cutting out some holidays or extended the school year into next summer.”
Penton said putting off the start date would also affect the district’s hourly employees, because the district generally cannot pay employees for hours they did not work.
Moving the start date “is not a decision we need to reach in haste,” Penton said.
Jackson asked if the reopening plan would be an all-or-nothing proposal, to be accepted or rejected in total, or whether board members could change individual provisions.
“You’re the school board,” Penton said. “We take our orders from you.”