‘Every day is a challenge’: 8 lessons from the toughest school year ever

‘Every day is a challenge’: 8 lessons from the toughest school year everDecember 2, 2020

There’s no blueprint for how or whether to open schools during a pandemic, leaving districts across the country to draw up their own.

What has emerged is a patchwork of strategies that reveals lessons about what works — and what doesn’t. Or what has worked at least sometimes. Big districts with deep pockets point to regular Covid-19 testing for teachers and students as the only option. Other districts are giving families — and teachers — a choice in the matter, leaving it up to individuals if they want to reenter classrooms. Some schools are prioritizing ventilation, contact tracing and access to computers at home.

One thing that’s clear is that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to educating kids in-person during a pandemic. But schools and districts across the country have found things that work for them and may be options for other places as they navigate the months before widespread vaccination.

Districts across the U.S. seem to agree that the most at-risk students should have access to in-person learning first and foremost, and that a hybrid attempt, allowing at least some in-person teaching, is better than a rush back to the real thing or nothing at all.

Education equity concerns are starting to edge out virus concerns, and states are weighing the risks and rewards of reopening schools. Coming off of little national guidance other than President Donald Trump’s imperative to open schools, the pressure is on President-elect Joe Biden to deliver his campaign promise of more emergency funding for schools and “clear, consistent, effective” national guidelines.

Until then, here’s what schools can learn from districts that have forged ahead on their own.

— Mackenzie Mays

The district went into full-on fortification mode, keeping teaching entirely online while it outfitted its three school buildings’ ventilation systems with bipolar air ionizers, scraped off floor wax and replaced it with a special anti-microbial coating, installed plastic desk dividers and added HEPA air purification units. Water fountains were replaced with water-bottle filling stations. Friendly owlish, robot-like thermal imagers are parked in the entryways to screen students and staff for fevers.

Those defenses are about to be tested.

The district closed buildings in mid-March, when Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy ordered schools shuttered as cases began to soar in the New York-New Jersey region. Lessons were entirely online until Nov. 16. The district started to bring back students in phases, with special education classes returning first and the rest of the district scheduled to be back at 50 percent capacity as of Dec. 14.

Arming buildings against the virus wasn’t cheap. Superintendent Rocco Tomazic said the bipolar ionizers alone cost the district $206,000, paid for with the second round of federal coronavirus aid money and $130,000 from the district’s capital reserve account. But he noted the ionizers are one of his proudest achievements.

“Whoever thought I could give a sales pitch on bipolar ionization?” Tomazic said. He credits the time he spent waiting for the filtration upgrades and his commitment to having kids remain in online classes for a full six-hour-plus school day for his success.

“Because I had to delay for the air filtration, I think I ended up better,” Tomazic said, noting that other districts in New Jersey that rushed to open have been forced to close repeatedly because of outbreaks or staff members quarantining. “I was worried I was getting behind, and now I realize I’m ahead,” he said.

San Diego Unified, one of the largest school districts in the country, has developed its own coronavirus testing plan for students and staff — the only solution to a stable path forward, said Superintendent Cindy Marten.

The district teamed with the University of California, San Diego and sought advice from nine experts there on how to reopen schools in the face of Covid-19. The result was a plan that launched in November to test all students and staff every two weeks, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

While many schools don’t have the $5 million San Diego Unified is paying for initial testing, they can look to the UCSD guidelines for guidance and seek similar partnerships on their own while waiting for a national plan, Marten said.

“Absent a national or state response, we had to come up with one on our own and I do believe what we’ve developed with UCSD is a replicable and scalable model,” she said.

San Diego Unified has a gradual approach to reopening, allowing elementary students identified as having the greatest needs to get appointment-based in-person instruction. The district plans to open that to older grades this month. Those who qualify are struggling academically or are special education students who need “intense support.”

But the district didn’t make teaching those students in-person mandatory, creating a voluntary policy for teachers willing to come in. That has revealed lessons of its own: While the district estimates up to 12,000 students qualify for the initial phase of instruction, they’ve only been able to serve about 3,000.

The voluntary policy is part of a deal worked out with the San Diego Education Association, with a full reopening contingent on the union’s agreement. SDEA says schools should not reopen until proven “scientifically safe” and that local Covid-19 rates need to decline before that is considered.

Frustrated parents worried about the quality of distance learning have criticized the limited access to instruction and slow pace of reopening, but Marten pointed to districts across the country that have had to close because of outbreaks, saying that could be more disruptive than it’s worth.

“It is a really adaptive challenge,” Marten said. “You’ve got to figure out a way to stay open once you open, not flip flop back and forth.”

The Mehlville School District spent an estimated $3 million over the better part of a decade to provide all K-12 students with their own Chromebooks. That investment paid off when the district had to shutter schools in March, Superintendent Chris Gaines said.

The students were already familiar with the devices and software programs. “I’m not going to say it was seamless, but … we seemed to make the move a little bit better than others,” he said.

The district returned to in-person learning with a hybrid model that’s been bumpy, upset by the latest Covid wave. Employees have had to quarantine, either after failing the district’s screening or because of a close contact with a positive case. Only a small percentage of the workforce that quarantined has tested positive. “The aggressive quarantining seems to be effective,” Gaines said. As of mid-November, almost 1,600 students had been quarantined and of that group four tested positive while 37 total students from the district have tested positive.

Still, teachers in quarantine have connected virtually into physical classrooms, and in some cases, both teachers and students are quarantined so they move to temporary remote learning, Gaines said. “Every day is a challenge,” he said.

Viral photos of packed hallways made North Paulding High School and its northwestern Georgia school system the topic of a national conversation over the summer.

The high school welcomed back 2,000 of its 2,700 students for in-person classes at the start of the school year. The district encourages students and staff to wear masks but says face coverings are a “personal choice” and not required. Schools use social distancing when it is “feasible and practical,” the district said in August, but added it would not be possible to enforce distancing in classrooms or on school buses in most cases.

North Paulding reported two dozen confirmed infections during August’s first week of classes. A few weeks of steadily declining case reports followed. But by mid-September, district Superintendent Brian Otott, who declined a request for an interview, told parents that “hundreds of close contacts” were quarantined after the district’s larger schools logged higher numbers of Covid-19 cases.

The district says schools notify public health authorities when confirmed cases arise in buildings, then attempt to identify close contacts of the infected. People with confirmed cases must quarantine for a minimum of 10 days, while close contacts must quarantine for at least two weeks.

Three months later, Georgia’s health department lists Paulding County as one of the state’s “high transmission” areas, with dangerous rates of new cases and positive tests.

So after trying to return to a 2020 version of in-person learning, climbing cases forced county education officials to rethink some of their plans.

The district shifted to hybrid schedules at four high schools and its largest middle school in September, in an effort to cut the number of students in those buildings by 50 percent at a given time. Some affected schools are returning to more typical operations. By mid-October, cases began climbing again at North Paulding High. The school reported at least 20 new confirmed cases among students and staff between Nov. 2 and Nov. 15, according to school district statistics. Seven additional cases popped up by Nov. 22.

In early November, Otott and North Paulding Principal Gabe Carmona announced plans to stick with a hybrid schedule and delay the campus’ planned expansion of in-person instruction until after Thanksgiving break — citing a “concerning number of new Covid-19 cases” in the high school’s community.

“Increasing in-person instruction at this time would not be prudent,” they wrote to families.

Officials also shut in-person instruction at one the district’s elementary schools for at least part of this week, after administrators said Covid-19 cases discovered during Thanksgiving break put “a large number” of students and staff into quarantine.

Brewer Schools once beat a small coronavirus outbreak with quick contact tracing and a mandatory self-quarantine protocol that allowed the school to remain open. But that wasn’t enough to prevent a shutdown from a second outbreak as Covid-19 cases surge across the country.

Since reopening the first week of September, the small Maine district used a mix of in-person and online classes. Ninety percent of Brewer’s students chose to come to school for the part-time in-person lessons. Superintendent Gregg Palmer said the plan to help them get through the pandemic was: “Wear your masks and return to school with a hybrid model.”

“Our idea was that we knew that there were going to be ups and downs in terms of case numbers, so we wanted to pick a model that would allow us to have the fewest number of times that we had to alter our structure for kids,” he said.

Students are broken into two groups so that only half are in the district’s two buildings for grades pre-K through 12 at any one time. One group attends classes in-person only on Mondays and Thursdays, and the other attends on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays were left as a “flex day and were used by staff to teach students that needed the most help. On the “off days,” students are taught online.

The groups initially were created based on alphabetical order but also took households into consideration to make sure that parents were able to arrange child care plans.

This model came in handy when the district saw its first case. After conducting contact tracing, fewer than 10 people had to self-quarantine while the rest of the school remained open. Students who were forced to stay home could still study remotely.

Having the mix of in-person lessons and online classes turned out to be especially useful when the entire high school of about 700 students was shut down by the state’s public health agency days before Thanksgiving. Even so, there was little disruption to learning because students could shift to virtual lessons they were already used to.

“When there are a total of three positive cases within 14 days of one another the Maine Center for Disease Control (MCDC) can identify it as an outbreak and decide to close a school in order to exercise appropriate caution and stop further spread of the virus,” Palmer told parents in a note.

Following the Nov. 23 alert, the school nurse and administrators reached out to families of students who may have been exposed to the virus but ultimately said there was “no way to conclusively determine where a case originated due to community spread.” In other words, the contract tracing that prevented disruption to in-person classes earlier in the school year wouldn’t fully work this time. Despite this, in-person classes will resume Thursday, and the district will rotate its two sets of students every other week on Wednesdays, adding another in-person school day to the December schedule. Only students who were contacted by the district will attend school fully remotely.

Before the November outbreak, Palmer said there “was a lot of pressure for Maine schools to fully reopen from their local communities.”

“We had been in school a month and a half, cases were low and people were saying, ‘why aren’t you fully reopening?’” Palmer said. “And we were saying, ‘We’re looking at that, but we don’t want to fully reopen and then have cases go up and have to fully shut down.’”

Florida’s experience deploying a state-run online school since 1997 helped states across the U.S. throw together distance learning options on the fly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lacking digital platforms to serve droves of students flocking to online courses, schools in states including Alaska and South Carolina turned to Florida Virtual School and its ready-made K-12 curriculum.

Horry County, S.C., where some 45,000 students enroll in schools in towns including Myrtle Beach, has used FLVS for about a decade to supplement course offerings. But when Covid-19 hit, Horry County Schools found itself needing to increase access to online classes in a big way.

The school district quickly went from enrolling students in a total of 1,500 online courses strictly for high school students to needing an entirely remote learning option for 14,000 of its students at all grade levels this fall. Thousands more students enroll in a hybrid model where they are on campus for two days each week and take classes the rest of the time through the district’s version of Florida’s online courses.“It’s not easy to turn on a dime and develop hundreds of courses,” said Edi Cox, Horry County Schools’ executive director of online learning.

Before the pandemic, Horry County depended on Florida’s virtual classes to offer select courses to high school students that the district doesn’t offer. The school district this semester licensed the FLVS ready-made curriculum and tweaked it to meet South Carolina’s standards, drastically widening its online ability.

“I think our families realize now that the curriculum is rigorous,” Cox said. “It’s probably more difficult and more challenging than some families expected.”

FLVS courses became available to every student in Alaska earlier this year as the pandemic was taking hold — a deal brokered with the help of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush was instrumental in growing FLVS from a pilot program in two counties to an organization with a massive reach.

Florida students, too, are taking advantage of this homegrown option. From July 1 through Sept. 30, there was a 57 percent increase in its part-time program – more than 231,100 new course enrollments, according to school officials. Its full-time program enrollment grew by approximately 98 percent, or by 5,644 students, compared with last year.

Schools in Florida are open for in-person learning and offer online options through FLVS or locally developed online platforms. School districts have reported drops in enrollment declines this fall, which could explain some of the online school growth.

The frustration felt by Shenendehowa Central Schools parents last summer over a remote learning option once labeled too restrictive has cooled in recent months, its superintendent said in an interview — even to his surprise.

The upstate New York school district released a draft reopening plan in July that prioritized in-person learning for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Older students would have a hybrid format blending in-person and remote learning.

But tensions were borne out of its remote learning offering — which families could not opt into at the time simply for feeling uneasy about the virus or having objections to in-person instruction beyond their child’s health conditions or that of a family member.

Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson said the remote learning option unveiled over the summer adhered to requirements under state guidance to accommodate populations vulnerable to Covid-19 — specifically students and family members in high-risk groups.

“There were so many things unknown, still very much unknown, that we didn’t want to come in with ‘this is the end all, be all on this,’” Robinson said in an interview.

So the school district assumed some “nimbleness,” Robinson said. In his view, it appears to have paid off.

The district has since pivoted its remote offering to include families who may simply be afraid of coronavirus exposure — regardless of underlying health conditions.

Families have been “supportive” of the district this fall thanks to its willingness to revisit decisions made earlier in the reopening process, Robinson said. Roughly 17 percent of students are enrolled in an all-virtual option, he said, though he expected many to transition back into in-person instruction.

Robinson said his intention was always to absorb community feedback. He said he planned to meet the basics of state guidance first.

“Therefore, we’re not going to be wedded to 1.0, because there might be a 4.0 version of it that’s going to be the one that’s going to be seamless,” he said.

Heidi Stinebrickner, president of the Shenendehowa Teachers Association, a group that wrote a letter this summer pushing for a more inclusive all-remote option, said the change in atmosphere described by Robinson was “accurate.”

“It’s not perfect, not everyone’s happy about it,” said Stinebrickner, an 8th grade math teacher in the district. “But they were glad to have the option.”

Boston Public Schools began the school year in September with virtual instruction for all students and plans to gradually resume in-person classes beginning in October. But that target reopening timeline aligned precisely with a second wave of coronavirus cases, sending the city backpedaling.

The school district at the beginning of October began offering in-person instruction to about 3,500 students with high needs — such as those with disabilities, experiencing homelessness or with limited English proficiency — only to shutter all classrooms several weeks later when the city’s coronavirus positivity rate shot up to 5.7 percent. However, there were relatively few Covid cases in the reopened schools, with the district reporting only 39 confirmed positive cases this year among students and staff participating in in-person instruction.

The city has since reopened just four schools that serve about 200 students with special needs.

School officials have said they plan to reinstate in-person learning for all high-needs students when the city’s positivity rate remains below 5 percent for two consecutive weeks and begin the phased-in return to classes for other students when the rate falls below 4 percent for two consecutive weeks.

Some public health experts and parents criticized the school district for waiting until October to begin considering reopening classrooms when coronavirus cases were relatively low in August and September and as the city eased restrictions.

Boston school officials have also clashed with the city’s teachers union over how and whether to safely open schools. The union unsuccessfully sued the city in October over the start of in-person instruction for high-needs students because the positivity rate had ticked up to 4.1 percent above the agreed-upon 4 percent threshold.

State education officials, meanwhile, have been pressing local leaders across Massachusetts to physically reopen classrooms even in areas where cases of coronavirus are spiking.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, issued new guidance in November that recommended school districts rely on hybrid learning instead of fully remote classes in communities where coronavirus transmission is considered to be high by the state. The guidance says schools should only close as a “last resort” in areas where coronavirus cases are extremely high, a designation that as of early November included only a handful of communities across the state.

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