Local officials frequently use three words when talking about reopening schools and colleges in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adaptability, technology and cleanliness.
With the ever-changing face of the pandemic and its effects and the government and public response to it, school officials are trying to prepare for as much as they can.
Every local public school district – Independence, Blue Springs, Fort Osage and Grain Valley – is scheduled to start the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 24. The Blue River campus of Metropolitan Community College in Independence plans to start classes on Aug. 18. But what that will look like is anyone’s guess, local superintendents and officials say.
“The hardest part through all of this – and it goes back to March 13 up through today – is that we are constantly planning for a moving target,” Independence Superintendent Dale Herl said. “If we knew what we were going to be dealing with – no matter how different it is from what a normal school year is – we could plan and easily meet the challenge. The problem is that that target seems to move daily – and sometimes hourly – just based upon the communication we get from the national, local and state agencies.”
As of now, local superintendents are planning for a return to face-to-face instruction on Aug. 24 with contingencies prepared should there be a resurgence in the pandemic.
“As you know, you have to be very nimble and continue to think outside the box, be prepared for these situations as we have been since the middle of March,” Fort Osage Superintendent Jason Snodgrass said. “We have ongoing conversations about this – what does it look like? And so if more guidelines or more information comes out, we can certainly think about all aspects of what education will look like in the fall.”
“But that's a challenging question to answer, because what is normal?”
‘We need the guidance’
And what is the biggest challenge to preparing for the fall?
“The uncertainty,” MCC-Blue River President Thomas Meyer said. “We need the guidance from local, state and national health officials. Otherwise the best we can do is put the courses up and hope for the best, knowing that we'll have to adapt when and if it hits. It would be nice to know what we can do and what we can't do – will we have to wear masks, will we be limited as to how many people we can have in a classroom? Without that guidance it's hard to prepare.”
Blue Springs Superintendent Paul Kinder sent a note out to parents on May 15 saying the district was convening task forces, which will include parent participation, in June to collect feedback and make decisions on the 2020-21 school year.
“The task forces .... will discuss a variety of topics relating to health and safety, face-to-face schooling, and curriculum and instruction,” Kinder wrote. “It is our goal to update you in mid-July with information about the next school year.”
One thing the superintendents plan to do is implement more social distancing, but exactly how to do that is an issue because of limited space and the number of children enrolled.
“Those are all conversations we're having, so to say we're back in school in the fall, there are certain safety measures and other things that need to be implemented,” Snodgrass said. “Every aspect of education – of what we would traditionally think of as normal, everyday business – is up for conversation, as are any thoughts to make sure students and staffs are in a position to be successful and safe.”
Not only do superintendents and their staffs have to prepare for how to provide instruction in each classroom, but there are all the other aspects of education to consider – how to safely feed children, how to transport them to and from school safely, what kind of extracurricular activities will be offered and how, and will sports teams be allowed to compete and how family and fans can gather to watch them.
“It's exceptionally difficult because we're dealing with so many different situations and trying to account for all the possibilities,” Herl said. “And frankly we're trying to think of situations that are even beyond virtual or in-person (learning). So we're just trying to account for everything at this point.”
Herl and Snodgrass hope to use the districts’ face-to-face summer schools as a trial run for the fall.
First schools are busy trying to finish off the 2019-20 school year with summer schools and delayed in-person graduations. Independence schools have scheduled graduations for Truman, William Chrisman and Van Horn high schools for July 18 at the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence. Grain Valley’s is scheduled for July 23 at the same venue. Blue Springs moved its usual Memorial Day weekend graduation at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium to July 19. Fort Osage has scheduled its graduation for July 31 at the Community of Christ Auditorium.
Reliance on technology
Fort Osage is offering a virtual summer school for credit recovery June 1-26 and then will have face-to-face summer school instruction July 6-24. Grain Valley will have virtual summer classes June 3-30 and possibly a July in-person summer school, but a decision has not yet been made on that. Blue Springs will offer virtual summer school June 5-July 2 and in-person instruction July 6-31.
Independence is planning to run summer school July 1-31 in a “dual platform” format – meaning parents can choose between online or in-person classes. Herl hopes to use that as practice for the fall in case a resurgence in the virus causes another lockdown.
“We are making preparations that are where students could be in person or could be virtual, or we may have to run it where we start in-person and then we have to quickly transition to virtual, much like we did in March,” Herl said. “We're going to treat our summer school as practice for the regular school year.”
That’s where the technology and cleanliness parts come in. While most area public schools provide their students with laptops and technology to learn online, not all students at MCC-Blue River can afford their own technology.
Meyer, Blue River’s president, says that will be vital if the college is forced to revert to online learning it has used since the onset of the pandemic shutdown to finish off the 2019-20 school year.
“It's hard to say what a post-COVID learning environment might look like. The only thing I think is certain is that the use of technology will remain critical,” Meyer said. “So we really have to keep working to close that digital divide – to make sure the students have the resources, and the faculty as well, that they have the resources they need to teach.”
Blue River is receiving donations of laptops and help in providing WiFi hotspots to use on their cell phones if they don’t have an internet connection at home.
“Sometimes internet connectivity is a challenge for some of our students,” Meyer said. “So we've been able to have them – through their professor – contact us. We do an evaluation and then we try to hook them up with the right technology so that they can complete their coursework. Our goal is that we continue our access and are helping students receive opportunities for education, so we want everybody to have access to it.”
One of the biggest questions they face is the safety of the school buildings themselves.
Snodgrass said Fort Osage schools will undergo a deep cleaning this summer – as they usually do – including wiping all surfaces “from floor to ceiling” with hospital-grade disinfectant, stripping and waxing floors and “soap scrubbing” all floors that don’t need waxing.
“During the year we will continue to use the electrostatic sprayer for all areas on a daily basis that have visitors, students or staff,” Snodgrass said. “The machine reaches all surfaces within an area with a hospital grade disinfectant.”
Herl said the Independence schools will be cleaned this summer and cleaning with hospital grade disinfectants “certified by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in consultation with the CDC” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) will continue into the regular school year “with an increased focus on disinfecting high use pattern surfaces.”
But all said adaptability will be the key.
“Absolutely,” Meyer said. “I've told my team many times those institutions that can adapt and react quickly are going to be the ones that are going to help their students succeed.”
Herl and Snodgrass both praised their staffs and teachers for carrying on during a tough time.
“Our staff has been phenomenal,” Herl said. “We are asking people to do things that they've never done before and operate differently, and I'm exceptionally proud that our people have risen to the task and the school district has continued to provide incredible resources and opportunities for our kids under the most difficult of situations.
“... We plan on meeting our kids' needs – no matter what arises and the challenges that we're going to have to face.”