NEW BLOOMFIELD, Mo. — The New Bloomfield R-3 School District Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to adopt a COVID-19 plan for the fall.
The phased plan, put together by a task force of district employees, parents and health care workers, was shared with parents Monday.
The group had a Herculean task ahead of them, with hundred of pages of recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Missouri School Board Association and district insurance companies, but no clear set of instructions.
"They did a tremendous job," Superintendent Sarah Wisdom said.
The districts plan has three phases:
Green: All students attend in-person classes with procedures in place.
Yellow: Elementary students stay on campus spread out between buildings with social distancing, while middle and high school students learn virtually from home.
Red: All students learn virtually from home.
"Every day, it's pretty much consumed everything that we've done, just thinking, what is best for our kids?" Wisdom said.
During phase Green, students will attend class in person.
Schools will be outfitted with hand sanitizer in each classroom and common area. Along with regular hand-washing and increased cleaning, the district will limit large group interactions.
Students will eat breakfast inside the classroom, while lunch will be staggered in the cafeteria. To ensure students still get time outside, recess times will be staggered throughout the day.
At the beginning of the year, elementary students will stay in their classrooms, with teachers visiting classroom to deliver instruction on art and music for special classes. When possible, physical education will be outside. Instead of contact activities, the focus will be on activities where more distance is possible.
The intent behind many parts of the plan is to limit interactions between classroom groups.
"The health department will see an (elementary) classroom and a teacher as a 'family unit' because they are together for most of the day," Wisdom said. "So it's limiting how often they are in the hallways and around other 'family units.' That's what we tried to do with this plan."
For special education, English-language learners and others who under normal circumstances spend time outside of home rooms, the plan is to either pull students out for instruction or have teachers join classrooms.
At this time, the district is not requiring face masks, but any teachers, staff members or students may still wear them if they choose.
"It's absolutely an option; if kids want to wear that, it is their choice," Wisdom said. "The task force didn't feel like making it mandatory was the right thing to do at this time.
Buses will run for families who cannot provide transportation, though precaution such as assigned seats, loading the bus from back to front and having hand sanitizer available will be in place.
If the situation deteriorates, the district doesn't want to jump straight to online learning. Instead, it will send older students home. Younger students will be spread out, with the space vacated by middle and high school students used to introduce distance between younger classes.
"I don't feel like the large majority of our elementary students are ready for (online learning)," Wisdom said. "And that's why you see the yellow phase is elementary on-site."
Not only do elementary students have less experience with technology, it is difficult to teach reading through a screen.
"It's very difficult to teach reading via Zoom, via Google," Wisdom said. "When you're teaching phonics, they have to see your mouth."
The worst-case scenario involves all students, even from the elementary school, learning from home, much like what happened this past spring.
Unlike this spring, the district has a plan to fall back on and won't have to come up with remote learning strategies on the fly.
Even when students are in the classroom, teachers will use Google Classroom and incorporate blended learning to make sure students and teachers are prepared.
"We feel like that blended learning atmosphere where we're going to be using that technology in class, we're going to be getting our parents some training if they wish, we're going to start preparing for if and when that happens so we can be better at virtual learning," Wisdom said.
Both coursework in person and online will be counted for a grade.
If school needs to close, for example for cleaning if there is a confirmed case, students will move online seamlessly. In some cases, work might be sent home.
Opting out of in-person
At Thursday's school board meeting, one parent came with a specific question in mind — what are the options for a family that doesn't want their student coming back in person?
Wisdom explained that under state law, families already had to option to choose online school, for any reason, so long as it is in the best interest of the student. If a family doesn't want to risk coming back in person, they should contact the school.
"It is our take as administration and a task force that the best place for kids is in-seat in front of our qualified teachers with modifications in place, and that's what you're seeing in this plan," Wisdom said. "However, it is absolutely the parents' right to do virtual education or homeschool education. We understand that, and we respect that."
Unlike phase Yellow or Red, this online learning option is not taught by district teachers; students would take online courses through an outside vendor.
An evolving plan
Should the situation change for the better, the district might loosen guidelines. If it worsens, the district will move into the next phase of the plan.
Board member Tod Schattgen asked how the administration will determine when it is time to switch plans.
"This cannot be black and white because there's way too many variables in this," Wisdom said. "It's going to be constant contact with the health department to decide where we are."
The plan also depends on outside input from the state and county. Even if the district has no cases, it is not inconceivable that a surge elsewhere might result in another stay-at-home order.
There's no guarantee that plans will look similar in different districts in the county.
"Each plan has to be so different," Wisdom said. "It has to fit your community."
A list of frequently asked questions can be found online at bit.ly/32E1zLS.