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Independence schools taking precautions

Mike Genet
A couple of young Independence School District students observe a lesson during summer school at Mill Creek Elementary in July. The district still plans to start its fall semester Aug. 24, citing its success with summer classes and activities.

While several metro area districts have pushed back the start of the school year until after Labor Day, the Independence School District has decided thus far to stick with an Aug. 24 start.

Students and staff handled the health precautions well enough during summer classes and activities that administrators felt comfortable with not waiting an extra two weeks to start the fall semester.

“Our Summer Success staff did a phenomenal job ensuring student and staff safety and a high-quality education with both in-person and virtual learning,” ISD Superintendent Dale Herl said. “The time, care and dedication from our planning teams and summer school helped to inform best practices for our regular school year.”

In a message to staff and families late last week, the district reported that out of about 4,000 students and staff involved in workouts and summer school classes in June and July, just 12 tested positive for COVID-19. Through their internal contact logs, they say they believe none of those people contracted it in school buildings.

“There was no spread of cases within the schools,” district spokesperson Jana Corrie said.

About 25 percent of families and students have opted for virtual learning this fall, which allows schools to spread out desks and seating in classrooms for 6-foot social distancing as much as possible. If more families opt for virtual learning before school starts, students could be spaced even farther apart.

Teachers won’t be behind Plexiglas, but “there are some special programs where there might be additional safety measures in place, such as with special-needs students,” Corrie said.

If local health guidelines call for more capacity restrictions during the school year, ISD has a hybrid plan for middle school and high school students ready to go. Half of in-person students would take virtual classes two days one week and three days the second week, and the other half will be on the opposite schedule. If schools get closed like in March, the district has a full virtual learning plan ready to go. As with anything throughout the pandemic, the situation can change quickly.

“We may still transition to the hybrid, as we get new information,” Corrie said. “Things may change, wanted families to know they have options.

Students and staff will wear masks at all times including on buses, with exceptions for lunch and physical education classes. Non-compliant students will be required to switch to virtual learning, and Herl acknowledged that social distancing on the bus can be difficult.

“We will have assigned seating for all riders, and parents had to opt in for bus service,” he said.

As for lunch, it will be quite different for students who didn’t already go through it in summer school. Grab-and-go meals will be delivered into classrooms, or in some cases to large spaces like a courtyard or the cafeteria, to maintain social distance.

Per school board policy, middle school and high school students must be taking in-person classes to participate in extracurricular activities. Students will be able to switch from in-person to virtual learning at any time, but right now the opposite change will be contingent on building space and capacity restrictions at the time.

“It will be up to whether or not the school can accommodate,” Corrie said. “The transition could look different on day one of school than it will two months down the road.”