With students slated to return to school in less than a month, Christina School District officials are wrestling with tough decisions about what school should look like during the pandemic.
While most details remain up in the air, one thing is all but certain, Superintendent Dan Shelton told a parents group earlier this month – students won’t be attending in-person classes fulltime.
“The idea that all kids are going to start back to school on the 27th of August, I think you can pretty much write that one off,” Shelton said, speaking via Zoom to the Friends of Christina School District. “By the end of the year, am I hoping we're there? Yes, I'm hoping.”
Instead, the district’s 14,000 students will either stay home and learn online as they did at the end of last year or participate in some sort of hybrid model, where smaller groups of students trade off coming to school for a couple days a week and doing online learning the rest of the time.
Exactly what path the district takes, what that looks like and how it can keep students safe if they come to school remains to be seen. The district has convened several committees of administrators, teachers and others and tasked them with developing detailed plans.
Shelton concedes that whatever the district decides, some parents, teachers and students won’t be happy.
“There is not anything we can do that I am not going to have a group of people really, really, really upset with me,” he said. “If we choose to do fully online, there will be a group of people that want to have my head. If we choose to do fully in school, there will be a group of people that want to have my head. If we do hybrid, probably both of those groups will want to have my head, but they'll just be a little mad.”
Earlier this month, a state task force released detailed guidelines for how school districts should handle three different scenarios – fully in-person, a hybrid model or fully online. Which scenario is implemented will depend on how the state is trending related to coronavirus numbers.
Later, Gov. John Carney said it’s most likely a hybrid model will be used. Meanwhile, the state teachers union has called for a virtual start to the school year.
Already, Colonial School District in New Castle has announced that high school students will attend school remotely, while younger students can choose either in-person or remote learning.
Shelton said he didn’t have a timeline for when Christina would make a decision.
He said that, no matter what option is chosen, the district’s priority is equity and access for all students.
“We have got to make sure that all kids have the same opportunities,” he said. “If you are struggling or have special needs, we have to do our best to meet those needs. If you are above grade level and in our gifted and talented program or AP, then we need to make sure that you are being pushed. Everybody has to have opportunities to have their needs met.”
Part of that also includes making sure every student has a computer and internet access, he added.
Schools also need to devise plans for addressing the social emotional needs of students, Shelton said, adding that between the pandemic, racial justice issues and other events, it’s been an emotional year for many students.
“It’s not a poor kid in Wilmington issue. There is major trauma going on throughout our nation,” he said.
While Shelton praised teachers for their efforts to transition to remote learning literally overnight in March, he said the district needs to do a much better job if remote learning continues this fall.
In the spring, schools encouraged students to complete their online assignments, but most didn’t penalize students who could not – or would not – do so. Shue-Medill, for example, reported that only 70 percent of students kept up with their online lessons.
“Nothing against what we did at the end of the school year, but we owe it to our kids to do it right when we start up this school year, and be well prepared, not just trying to do the best we can under really, really bad circumstances,” Shelton said.
If students are brought into the school buildings, teachers and administrators will have to deal with keeping students social distanced and requiring students in fourth grade and above to wear masks, as dictated by state guidelines.
The state provided Christina with 50,000 disposable masks, but Shelton said the supply will likely be exhausted within the first month.
Social distancing guidelines will require rethinking how classrooms are laid out.
“If you look in the guidance, it says they don't want tables. They want desks facing forward, which by the way, makes half of our teachers just cringe because that's what we've tried to get away from for the last 15 years is rows of desks facing forward,” Shelton said.
Transportation will cause issues, as well, because the guidelines limit the capacity of school buses. Shelton added that recruiting enough substitute teachers in case teachers fall ill or have to self-quarantine will be “a real issue.”
“One of the things that I stress over and over again is that we have to have a lot of patience and a lot of flexibility,” he said. “We have a lot of great professionals that are working really, really hard to provide the best opportunity we can for our students, but we know that there will still be some work to be done.”