Note: This is the final installment in our series highlighting area schools’ preparations for the upcoming school year.
By Jeff Neagle
With Governor Andy Beshear’s recommendation last week that Kentucky schools not start in-person classes until September 28, area schools have once again had to re-evaluate their plans for beginning instruction.
Last week, before the Governor’s announcement, Russell County had already made the decision to begin the year with virtual learning only. Other area schools are now considering whether to follow suit or go forge ahead with their previously established plans.
The two final neighboring counties in our coverage of school openings, Cumberland and Metcalfe, may be the best equipped to handle the ever-evolving situation at hand.
With new Superintendent Josh Hurt taking the helm last month, Metcalfe County made the decision to begin classes on August 31. Parents were given the option to have their child attend school in person, or to work at home, options most other school districts have also given parents. However, the Governor’s recommendation to delay in person classes is now under consideration in Edmonton.
“We are still weighing the recommendation from the Governor. We have a board meeting tonight (Thursday) and I believe a decision will be made then,” said Torrie Osbon, PR Director for Metcalfe County Schools. “The decision will be made with input from parents and teachers. We want to get their feedback because they are all a part of the process.”
Osbon said that a majority of parents had elected to send their children for in person classes, but not by much. “The figures are about 55 percent attending in person classes and 45 percent doing it virtually, or “at home” as we call it. So, it was pretty close already on the numbers.”
What makes all this easier for them is that Metcalfe County school district has been integrating technology and has been one-to-one for some time now. “We had some Chromebooks that were broken or no longer working, and we’ve been able to get those replaced so we are fully one-to-one,” said Osbon.
Unlike many other districts using Google Classroom, Metcalfe County utilizes the Canvas learning management system. The district has utilized NTI days for snow, sickness, and other instances when school would have to be cancelled. As a result, their teachers are already trained in the use of the Canvas platform and teaching virtually.
When the school board makes the decision tonight, they do not have to worry about how things will work for their teachers or students.
“We had already asked our teachers to prepare for at home learning to start the year. If the board makes the decision to go that route, I know our teachers will be ready,” said Osbon.
Because of this early preparation, the back to school plan at Metcalfe County was more seamless than some others. The same curriculum will be used whether students are in person or at home. According to the district’s published plan, “both options are designed so that the only difference between ‘In Person’ and ‘At Home’ should be where the student is sitting.”
One reason for the lack of disparity between the two is that the Canvas system is used when students are at school as well as at home. This allows Metcalfe to be one of the few districts to allow more freedom of movement, within reason, between in person and at home options. If a student needs to switch models, they can simply call the child’s school to schedule a meeting to transition.
If in person classes go forward, the schools have a supply of masks, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment on hand for students and teachers. Students will be required to wear masks on the school bus and will be expected to wear one when moving through the building or in places where social distancing is not feasible. Temperature checks will be taken before a student gets on the bus and before entering the school.
Each school will have a designated area for isolation of sick students with adult supervision until the student can be picked up. Students who have tested positive or have been in close contact with someone who has must stay out of school for a minimum of 14 days or when cleared to return by the health department or physician.
For those students working at home, the school system is “working with partners to provide WiFi access locations throughout the county.” Any household who needs WiFi access is asked to contact the child’s school. Some lessons will be held live like the Zoom meetings everyone has become familiar with. If a student can’t be connected for a live meeting, it is recorded for later viewing.
If the district moves to an “At Home” start to the school year, the current guidelines will likely remain once in person classes start.
Down the road in Cumberland County their school district decided several weeks ago to begin the year with virtual instruction only. In fact, they made the decision early enough that they didn’t need to change their opening day for students. Cumberland County schools open today, August 13, and will remain virtual until at least September 28, the governor’s recommended date. At that time, the plan is to open the doors for in-person instruction for those who want to return while also giving the option to continue virtual instruction for those uncomfortable heading back into a classroom. The district estimates that 30 percent of students are likely to continue virtual learning at that time.
In a statement released at the time of the decision, Superintendent Kirk Biggerstaff said “We know that in-person instruction is the best option, but with the increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the county along with guidance from the commissioner of education and the governor, we must act wisely and do what is in the best interest of students, families, school employees, and this community.”
The district has used part of the CARES funds they received to purchase additional Chromebooks for students and teachers. They also purchased masks for all staff and students as well as signs to remind everyone about social distancing, face coverings, and safe hygiene practices.
All busses, classrooms and offices have also been provided cleaning supplies. “Teachers have received professional development in using technology for instruction and how to make learning engaging and differentiated,” said Biggerstaff. “We have a virtual student coordinator and digital learning coach to help assist teachers and to connect our teachers with others who are utilizing distance learning in an effective way.”
The district has been using Google Classroom for many years. Two years ago, the district asked all staff members to complete Google Level 1 Educator certification. This year, Biggerstaff said many teachers have gone on to complete Level 2 Educator certification. “We feel confident that our teachers are well equipped to use the G Suite technology, and our students are accustomed to the product as well.”
Earlier this summer, students received information about how to access their classes during an orientation at each school with their teachers. Families without reliable internet have options as well. Students can choose to receive instructional content on SD cards that will be downloaded at school and given to the student. Each school has set up WiFi in their parking lot so students can come to the school, connect to the WiFi, download and upload assignments, and then work offline on those assignments at home.
Students will receive either a cloth face covering with school logos on it or a buff. Speech-language pathologists who provide speech therapy to students will use face coverings with a clear shield over the mouth. Other measures being taken include making computer labs staffed with teachers available by appointment to students and providing hot meal pick up and weekly boxes of breakfast and lunch available to families.
Once in-person instruction returns, students will utilize face coverings and social distancing to the extent possible on buses. Drivers will have hand sanitizer on each bus. Hallway traffic will be designated one-way where possible and some classroom furniture has been removed to make spacing better for social distancing. Classrooms and labs that utilize tables have been equipped with clear shields. Breakfast and lunch will be served in classroom, outdoors, and in small, spaced-out groups in the cafeteria.
“We know in-person instruction is the best model for education,” said Biggerstaff, “but we feel confident that our Virtual Instruction Program is rigorous and user-friendly. Our staff members are committed to helping parents navigate the challenges of distance learning. We have been very intentional in creating uniform practices for virtual learning across our district to make the process as beneficial as possible. As educators, we view this challenge as an opportunity to expand our expertise and to learn new ways to reach and engage our students. We are committed to our students’ menta health and well-being, and that is always our top priority.”