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.”