Grain Valley delays school start

Mike Genet
Grain Valley elementary students at their laptops during summer school in July. The district says it will start the school year on Sept. 8, with middle school and high school students on a hybrid learning plan for at least the first month.

The Grain Valley School District has pushed back its start date for the school year to Sept. 8 and will start all middle school and high school students on a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning.

The district had set up the hybrid model in case schools needed to reduce capacity during the pandemic. With metro area case numbers continuing to climb in recent weeks, school officials decided to update their back-to-school plan.

All staff and students, from elementary on up, will be required to wear masks during the school day and on the bus, outside of activities such as eating and recess. As of Friday morning, about 11 percent of families had opted for students to have exclusive virtual learning for the school year.

With the hybrid model, Deputy Superintendent Brad Welle said, half of the students – roughly divided by midway through the alphabet – will have in-person classes on Monday and Wednesday, with virtual on Tuesdays and Thursday. The other half of students will have the opposite schedule, and all students will have virtual learning on Fridays. The Board of Education approved the plan Thursday night.

By pushing the start of classes to the day after Labor Day, Grain Valley followed the suggestion of metro area public health officials and mirrored what some other districts have decided. Welle said the district pays close attention not only to Jackson County guidelines and COVID-19 case data but also local case data. With high school students, block scheduling will be a good fit for the hybrid model, and the district will revisit the hybrid model at the end of September, he said.

“There might be some students, where we’ll make an exception, with certain learning needs for more than two days in person,” Welle said. “Most of these students have not been face-to-face with a teacher for five months, and that’s the goal – find the safest way possible to get these students engaged with teachers. We want to let parents be a parent role in their education rather than a teacher role.”

Welle said the district opted not to do a hybrid model for elementary students because they are in one classroom most of the day, as opposed to the regular between-class interactions of older students. Most elementary classrooms will have closer to 20 than 25 students, he said.

“At the middle school and high school, we were worried that if we have a positive case, when we do contact tracing, we would have a large number of students that would need to be out for two weeks at a time, and more often,” Welle said. “If we have a positive test in an elementary classroom, it could just be that room. Compare that to middle school and high school – you might have 100 kids.”

Students can switch from in-person to virtual learning at any point, but the opposite way wouldn’t happen until the next academic quarter. Some teachers might wear a clear shield instead of a face mask because of lip-reading necessary for lessons.

“We want to be as flexible as possible,” Welle said, “but we don’t want the week-on, week-off fluctuation.”

One school district employee recently tested positive for COVID-19. Welle said through masks, social distancing and the school’s interaction logs, the district quickly determined who had been in contact with the employee during their three days in the building, and that nobody else had to stay away from the school.

A handful of families voluntarily pulled their students from the last few days of summer school, he said.

Extra precautions

Other items of note from Grain Valley’s back-to-school plan:

• Six-feet social distancing in classrooms will not always be feasible, the district acknowledged. Welle said they’ll take measures to maximize classroom and instructional space as much as possible. Lunch room capacity and elementary recess will be limited to 100 people, and recess also limited by grade level.

• Drinking fountains in school buildings have been disabled except for bottle-refilling stations, and schools have been “thoroughly cleaned” and equipped with hand sanitizer and additional cleaning supplies, the district says.

• For lunch, keypads, squeeze bottles, salad bar utensils and other points with multiple hands touching will be discontinued. Fruit, vegetables and salad bar selections will be grab-and-go or placed on the trays by staff.

• In addition to masks required on buses, the buses will be wiped down after morning and afternoon routes. The district said it can’t ensure six-feet social distancing during bus routes.

Welle acknowledged how much time and energy has been spent on crafting different plans and scenarios for this school year because of the pandemic.

“It’s an attempt to manage the uncertainty and bring some sense of routine and structure to the uncertainty,” he said. “None of these options are desirable; we’re in the face-to-face teaching business.

“I think every community’s going to have to strike the balance that’s best for their situation.”