Local schools adjust, prepare for class

Mike Genet

Amid the pandemic, area school districts are planning to begin the fall semester as scheduled the last full week of August, and they’re giving students the option of choosing in-person learning or remote learning.

The Missouri State Board of Education this week allowed school districts to have alternate attendance days with remote learning in between – a move designed to help with social distancing without hurting student attendance requirements. But right now area districts don’t plan to do that.

“We are not looking at split days because of the hardship it puts on families for child care, especially younger students,” Independence Superintendent Dale Herl said.

The district is looking at a possible hybrid plan only if schools have to deal with stricter social distancing and capacity measures, Herl said. For now, the district says offering the remote option will help achieve the recommended social distancing.

“We know the number of kids in person will go down, and a lot of this will take are of itself,” Herl said.

Jason Snodgrass, superintendent at Fort Osage, agreed with that sentiment.

“We’re going to maximize our space in classrooms to put as much space as possible between students,” he said.

Blue Springs has asked parents to decide by July 17, Independence by July 24 and Grain Valley by July 29 which avenue their students will take this semester. Fort Osage will also ask families to decide within a couple weeks.

Most districts have made it possible for parents and students to switch from in-person to remote learning during the semester if they desire, and for the whole district to make that pivot if public health guidelines call for it. Switching the opposite way, from remote to in-person, isn’t nearly as feasible and would probably require a special circumstance, they say.

Blue Springs says if social distancing is required it can accommodate 70 percent of students opting for in-person classes. Beyond that would require alternative plans, the district says.

The Independence and Grain Valley districts both say any student without access to a laptop computer will receive one from the district, and Blue Springs says all students in grades 4 through 12 who need a laptop will receive one. Snodgrass said Fort Osage students in grades 7 through 12 already have an assigned device they can take home, and students in lower grades also use a device and will be able to take it home for remote learning.

Any student who chooses remote learning for the semester will likely have a different experience than when schools had to suddenly switch gears in March. The summer provided a greater chance to put together coursework and make remote learning as close to the classroom experience as possible.

“Our online learning will be significantly different,” Herl said. “We’re going to use a product called Canvas. It’s significantly more instruction by something via Zoom. The main difference is if a student can’t be online, it will be recorded.”

Bob Jerome, Blue Springs assistant superintendent, said in a social media video the district’s “distance learning” program will mirror curriculum and assignments from the classroom.

“We’re going to be very intentional with our virtual education plan,” Snodgrass said. “This will be more comprehensive and more rigorous” than in the spring.

In summer school, Independence and Grain Valley students and staff are wearing masks throughout the day, and Blue Springs will do the same next week. Come fall, Independence students will be asked to at least wear masks on buses, when entering or leaving the building, and during passing periods. Blue Springs students will have to wear them in buses and during transition periods

Herl said he’s been “pleasantly surprised” about the early reaction to wearing masks in summer school

“The kids have done great, and I haven’t received complaints,” he said. “It’s been better than expected.”

Brad Welle, deputy superintendent at Grain Valley, said masks will be “strongly encouraged” for the fall semester and required if need be by county health order.

“Some families are insistent on the use of face masks for everyone in school while others are adamantly opposed,” Welle said. “We began our in-person summer school program this week, with the mask requirement in place, and our students and staff have shown it can be done, if needed.”

Fort Osage does not have summer school, and with current guidelines Snodgrass said the district plans to have masks required come late August.

What makes going back to school most challenging, Jerome said, is dealing with moving goalposts because the pandemic data and public health guidelines constantly evolve.

“Our primary focus has been to provide the safest environment for our students and staff,” Jerome said in the video. “Restrictions constantly change, making it difficult to develop a comprehensive and accurate plan.”