Out of 14,000 Christina School District students, 9,582 logged in for virtual instruction on Tuesday, the first day of a semester that will proceed online until at least Oct. 19.
Superintendent Dan Shelton expressed confidence that the district is working to meet the needs of its students, but acknowledged opportunities to do better in the coming weeks.
Speaking at a school board meeting on Tuesday evening, Shelton said many families are excited to be back, while others are frustrated by difficulties accessing online learning. He emphasized that offering equitable learning opportunities to students despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has guided the district’s reopening strategy.
“We know that the digital divide is only growing,” he said. “We’d be fooling ourselves to say it doesn’t exist. We know some families have more access than others. Some families, based on their own experiences, work more easily and are more familiar with the technology we’re using.”
In an effort to meet the challenge of the digital divide, CSD has issued Chromebooks and iPads to ensure students have reliable devices to access their virtual classes, with a goal of providing one such device to every student. According to Shelton, the district is waiting on 7,000 backordered devices, and some schools are out of devices to issue.
The district has also worked with Comcast to secure discounted wireless contracts for some families, and has worked with Newark and New Castle County to set up WiFi hotspots.
A virtual school day demands a high volume of traffic. On Tuesday, the district’s newly-adopted Schoology platform logged over 24,000 sessions of at least 20 minutes.
A number of families experienced issues logging into Schoology, and at least 500 parents also logged in on Tuesday. Shelton said that two-way connections between teachers and families are critically important as everyone gets accustomed to new ways of learning.
“Teachers need to be talking to families, and families need to be talking to teachers so that we understand their needs and their situations,” Shelton said. “Teachers are very excited. We’ve heard a lot of feedback that our teachers were well-prepared, the lessons were engaging and they were encouraging their students.”
On the issue of equitable reopening, Shelton expressed concerns about students with special needs, as well as those facing language barriers and other student populations that might have additional challenges with online learning.
“We know that the virtual model and the distance learning is not the best way for those students to learn,” Shelton said. “We need to make sure that we can find ways to get these students back into a more traditional setting that will help them as quickly as we can, making sure we’re doing it safely.”
During the public comment section of the board meeting, Elizabeth Mays, a district employee with the Delaware Autism Program and the parent of a preschool-age child, shared concerns about bringing students with special needs back too early.
“Sending in the youngest and those with special needs first is something I’m advocating against,” she said. “We’re looking to send in these students like canaries in a coal mine, risking our most sensitive, and trusting instead of ensuring that all the steps are in place for safety.”
According to Senior Director of Teaching & Learning Dean Ivory, 39 percent of families surveyed over the summer said they would be uncomfortable returning to in-person instruction in the fall, even with state approval. For parents and families who are uncomfortable with the prospect of returning to school, CSD is offering a Virtual Academy option which will allow students to remain remote for the full year.
“The Virtual Academy online instruction will not be impacted by changes in public health requirements on schools or in the community, allowing students to learn without disruption,” Ivory said. “Students will be taught by credentialed and licensed CSD teachers and supported by counselors, support staff and administration.”
Ivory said that in the first 72 hours of enrollment, more than 1,000 families signed their students up for the Virtual Academy. The enrollment period ends Sept. 15, a timeline Mays criticized.
“Having parents express this interest by next week means that families would only get to see the new version of remote learning for one week before being asked to make a decision that is going to affect their lives,” she said. “We need to lead by example and do our part to make sure we are giving all the information we can to our families.”
The district will hold an online town hall to discuss the virtual academy on Thursday.
On Tuesday, a number of administrators spoke to the board about steps the district has taken to prepare for a safe return to classes under a hybrid model, which may begin as early as Oct. 19.
Schools have identified isolation rooms where symptomatic students and staff can safely quarantine during the day. The district has also distributed personal protective equipment, including 22,600 face coverings, more than 2,800 bottles of hand sanitizer and almost 5,000 packages of disinfectant wipes.
Transportation is a big challenge to safe return, according to CSD Chief Financial Officer Chuck Longfellow. He said that the district has developed guidelines for regular and deep cleaning of buses. In the meantime, buses will continue to distribute meals to pick-up locations for any students under the age of 18, not just those usually eligible for free lunch programs.
Many parents and teachers are also concerned about the quality of air ventilation in the district’s HVAC systems. Amy Cruz, a teacher at the district’s Brennen School, said she has seen firsthand evidence of poor air ventilation in the school buildings.
“I’ve had classrooms and buildings that do not adequately heat in the winter or cool in the spring and summer and have had mold issues,” Cruz said. “If these problems haven’t been fixed in some cases for months, how can we expect proper ventilation in six weeks when we are scheduled to return?”
Facilities & Planning Supervisor George Wicks said the district has engaged in a thorough effort to upgrade air filtration and ventilation systems in its school buildings. He said that every Brennan School classroom has received an air purification unit, and added that all of the district’s air conditioning units have received new filters. CSD has also invested in a number of sterilization units which target airborne viral transmission.
Shelton emphasized that the well-being of students and staff is a top priority, adding that staff will all be connected with testing. He thanked staff, teachers and parents for the feedback he has received in recent days, and for their work preparing for the semester.
“This is a new world for all of us, and everybody had some pretty high anxiety going in,” he said. “I’m very proud of the work that our teachers, our parents, our administrators and all of our educators have done in order to make this happen. I can’t thank you guys enough.”
State health officials are keeping a close eye on Newark as the return of University of Delaware students has caused the city’s coronavirus infections to spike.
The city is one of several “areas of concern” identified by Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, on Tuesday. Other areas include parts of Bear/Glasgow, New Castle, Wilmington and Dover.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there have been a total of 74 cases among students and staff members who have been on campus since Aug. 31. Another 57 tested positive before coming to campus and were told to stay home.
After controlling an initial outbreak in March tied to a UD professor who visited New Jersey, Newark saw a lower rate of infection than many other areas of Delaware throughout the spring and summer. By mid-August, the average number of new cases per day here was less than one. Now, thanks to the recent spike at UD, the average number of daily new cases is 5.4.
Since the pandemic began, the city has seen 273 people test positive. There have been 11 coronavirus-related deaths in Newark, mostly tied to nursing homes, and none since May.
City officials have long feared that the return of UD students would cause an increase in coronavirus cases, prompting city council to pass strict limits on private gatherings last month.
Gov. John Carney said most of the recent cases in Newark can be tied back to “unstructured, out-of-classroom, off-campus activities,” such as house parties.
“People get together, alcohol is involved, people are having a lot of fun. They don’t want to think about necessarily wearing a mask and keeping social distanced – in fact, just the opposite,” Carney said. “We know the focus of these outbreaks is in a young adult demographic not so worried about coming down with COVID-19 or the risk they pose in the community if they do, and having a sense of invincibility.”
Rattay said DPH has not found a single point of exposure, such as one big party that sickened numerous students, though she noted some cases are tied to group living situations or sports teams.
Complicating efforts is UD students’ reluctance to cooperate with contact tracers from DPH. Rattay noted that contact tracing is done by state health workers, not UD officials, and emphasized that students who test positive should not fear getting in trouble if they report who they were in contact with.
“This information is critically important for the work we’re doing, and we’re having a tough time getting responses from some of the UD students,” she said. “People have a fear of consequences. I want to re-emphasize. We are not out to get anyone. We need information to stop the spread of this infection.”
She implored college students to take the threat of the virus seriously.
“There’s a feeling among young adults that it’s just going be a mild infection and it’s not going to affect anyone,” she said. “We know a number of young adults who have had very significant illness, and we just don’t know the long-term impact of this. We’ve got to all take this seriously, no matter what age.”
Rattay noted DPH is working closely with UD and Newark officials to keep the virus in check.
“We’re really grateful to the city of Newark, which is doing a great job with enforcement activities,” she said. “The Newark Police Department is out and about, stopping by house parties and enforcing the gathering limits the city has set.”
Meanwhile, DPH has been conducting compliance checks in Newark bars and restaurants, checking to make sure businesses are following mask and social distancing requirements.
“Enforcement has been heightened, stepped up, and we’re going to continue to step up enforcement in Newark and in any of these areas, especially where we’re seeing increases,” Rattay said.
Mad Mac’s on South College Avenue was cited for several violations, including employees not wearing masks and guests seated too close together. Meanwhile, state officials singled out Home Grown Café and Caffé Gelato as examples of restaurants doing the right thing.
Rattay encouraged all Newarkers to get tested, especially those who may have been exposed to someone with the virus, people in high-risk jobs and people who have been in close contact with people from outside their household.
The state and county host several free testing sites each week, which are listed at de.gov/gettested. Meanwhile, Newark Urgent Care (formerly Newark Emergency Room) on Main Street offers testing seven days a week, though appointments are required.
“In the Newark area, don’t hesitate to get tested soon, as we are seeing increases,” Rattay said.