back to school

There will be no first-day-of-school scenes like this one, from 2018, this year. Christina School District students will spend at least the first six weeks learning online.

Christina School District students are expected to take classes online until at least mid-October as officials continue to work on plans for reopening school buildings to smaller groups of students.

The district has yet to formally release its plans for the fall, but Superintendent Dan Shelton told the school board Tuesday night that he intends to honor the Delaware State Education Association’s request to do remote learning for at least the first six weeks of the school year. He added that detailed plans will be posted online and sent to parents by the end of the week.

“Our first and foremost priority, as it always is pre-COVID or post-COVID, is the safety, health and well-being of our students, employees and staff,” Shelton said during the virtual meeting, which was watched by more than 700 people.

The announcement comes as the district is facing mounting pressure from teachers and parents to keep classes online. The local union, the Christina Education Association, presented a petition arguing that in-person classes should not resume until there are 14 days with no new coronavirus cases in New Castle County or a vaccine is developed. Following those standards would mean that education would be online for the foreseeable future, as the county is averaging more than 50 new cases each day.

The district surveyed more than 7,000 parents, students, teachers and community members, and more than half of each group said they are uncomfortable with any sort of in-person classes, officials said.

All summer, several district committees have been meeting to develop plans for both remote learning and a hybrid model, in which smaller groups of students trade off coming to school for a couple days a week and doing online learning the rest of the time. Last week, Gov. John Carney authorized schools to use a hybrid model, but the final decision rests with each school district.

The school board delayed the start of the school year until Sept. 8 to allow for more time to prepare teachers for whatever changes are implemented.

Dean Ivory, senior director of teaching and learning, said the buildings will be ready to bring teachers back Sept. 8.

“We cannot bring students back until we can first bring our teachers and our staff back safely,” Ivory said. “At that point, the district can prioritize how and when students can begin to transition back to schools in a gradual hybrid model.”

Regardless of what decision is made about a hybrid model, any family who wishes to can opt for online-only learning, Shelton added.

If and when in-person classes resume, students will be split into smaller groups to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus.

“It is not our intention in any of our plans that we would, you know, open Glasgow High School to all 1,000 students and they would be changing classes,” Shelton said. “In all of our cases, we would be doing small cohorts of kids and those cohorts would stay together, so if we were to have a positive, it would be very easy for us to identify potential contacts very quickly and isolate or quarantine those groups quickly and easily without infecting a larger population.”

Teachers will be given a “survival kit” containing hand sanitizer, masks, face shields, gloves, disinfectant wipes, etc., Ivory said. Signs will be posted reminding people to wear masks and observe social distancing.

All schools will have an isolation room for students or teachers with COVID-19 symptoms.

The state is finalizing a plan to ship COVID-19 testing kits to all teachers for them to complete prior to returning to school. Teachers would be retested periodically throughout the school year.

Board member Fred Polaski raised a concern that teachers may put themselves in risky situations outside the classroom.

“I don’t mean this as a derogatory remark about our teachers, but are we going to make sure teachers understand the protocol that once you’re tested, you need to really keep yourself out of situations where you could contract the COVID virus?” Polaski said. “We’ve seen that throughout the country too many times, where people get tested negative and next thing you know, Saturday night they’re at a big party with 200 people dancing face-to-face.”

Shelton responded that, considering the concerns from the unions, teachers should be role models for complying with pandemic-related restrictions.

“I would hope with all the concerns that have been put out through DSEA and CEA, that our teachers would be some of our best mask wearers and some of our most self-quarantined individuals, as they are very loud voices in the need to do that and the need for safety,” he said.

At the same time district officials are planning for an eventual return to the classroom, they are also planning for a more structured remote learning experience than what happened when schools shut down in the spring.

“We know last time that we were not prepared. No one has ever pretended that we were ready and we did it well and consistently. We did the best we could,” Shelton said. “It will be different. We have set the expectation that there will be accountability for teachers and students, which did not exist the last time.”

The survey showed that approximately 25 percent of students do not have the proper technology to access online learning, and 12 percent do not have adequate internet access, according to Hope Moffett, supervisor of evaluation, research and analysis for Christina.

She added that the district will expand its one-to-one technology initiative, which began a couple years ago, with the goal of providing a computer or tablet to every student. Christina will also establish a central help desk to assist with technology issues.

The district also plans to expand its meal distribution system by delivering meals to school bus stops.

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