NEWARK – Worcester County education officials are exploring face-to-face instruction, distance learning and a hybrid of the two as they prepare for the 2020-2021 school year.
In a school board meeting Tuesday, officials outlined the Worcester County Public Schools’ Responsible Return model. The plan notes that while the traditional educational environment would be preferable, officials are anticipating continued public health restrictions in the fall and continue to explore available options.
“September is rapidly approaching,” Superintendent Lou Taylor said. “Our timeline is starting to condense quite a bit. It’s my hope that all this work at least for the most part will be done so the next time I meet with the board we can give them a final version of our plan.”
In the Responsible Return model, which is outlined on the school system’s website, officials describe potential face-to-face learning with new safety protocols, hybrid learning with an A Week/B Week schedule, and complete distance learning.
“Nothing will replace the face to face value we get when we have kids in our school building,” Taylor said. “Here in Worcester County we cherish the times we are with our kids. Unfortunately … since March 13 the world changed the way we educate, not only in Worcester County but across this country.”
He said the options for school in the fall had been developed to provide every student with a high quality educational experience. He said the final decision on what model to go with would be decided with stakeholder input.
“We feel it’s paramount to designing a return to school model that everyone believes in,” he said.
While the face-to-face model would be closest to traditional school, officials said the hybrid schedule being considered would have students broken up into two groups.
“On an A Week our A Week students would attend school in person, socially distanced with all the safety protocols in place,” said Annette Wallace, chief operating officer and academic officer for grades nine through 12. “During that A Week our B Week students would be virtually learning. On the second week our B Week students would be in person learning and our A Week students would be learning virtually using our learning management system.”
She said that the Schoology platform, which was used when schools were closed this spring, would continue to be utilized regardless of whether students were distance learning or not.
Wallace said that if the school system went with complete distance learning, students would receive virtual instruction. She said it would not be the same experience students had in the spring.
“Because if you remember in the spring it was ‘continuity of learning,’” she said. “This would be full on distance learning. We would not be exercising compassionate grading.”
She added that regular school attendance policies would be in place and that students would be expected to participate in “synchronous and asynchronous” learning opportunities.
“By synchronous we mean that students will be required, there will be opportunities, for them to join in with classrooms at their grade level,” said Dee Shorts, chief academic officer for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
School system staff said an operations and safety committee was working to ensure school facilities followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the local health department to address cleaning practices, food service, facility use and transportation.
“We are currently in summer school, which we started yesterday, and we are following guidance where we’re putting children every other seat, staggered,” said Dwayne Abt, supervisor of human resources. “We have a max of about 12 kids on a bus.”
Abt said an athletic plan was also under development and that there would be no indoor facility use when students returned to campus.
“The August 12 start date for fall practice has not been changed as of this time,” Abt said.
Officials acknowledged the importance of communication throughout the reopening process. Carrie Sterrs, the school system’s director of public relations and special programs, said internal communication methods were being established and that the school system’s website would become a central information hub. She noted that internally, childcare was a concern for teachers and staff.
“To support our WCPS team, our subcommittee has compiled a comprehensive list of resources to help assist our people securing flexible childcare options during these times,” she said.
She said the school system would continue to stay in contact with community members through its website as well as social media posts and video messaging. A school status alert system under development as well to “enable parents to see at the classroom, school and county level any closures as a result of increases in numbers due to COVID.”
Taylor said now that the Responsible Return presentation had been shared with the board, officials would be putting together a stakeholder group to gather feedback.
“We will look at trends, or any things that really are glowing as we prepare to put this plan in place,” he said. “That will happen over the next few months.”
He said he hoped to share a final plan with the school board at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Aug. 18.
“I too will have more direction from the state superintendent of schools as to what direction our school system may be taking as we plan to open school on Sept. 8,” he said.