The Delaware City Schools Board of Education voted 3-2 Monday to go forward with its current plan to begin the school year with a hybrid model.
The district announced in July that it planned for a blended model of education where all students would be divided into two groups and would either attend school Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, with each group alternating Wednesdays each week. The other days of the week, students would study online. Families also can opt into an all-online academy taught by Delaware teachers.
However, during last week’s board meeting, board member Frances O’Flaherty suggested the district consider a move to all-online education after seeing other districts nationwide return to in-person education with some seeing COVID-19 outbreaks as a result.
Monday’s special board meeting began with Superintendent Heidi Kegley and Executive Director of Human and Material Resources Jerry Stewart reading nearly 40 emails that were sent to the board as public participation. The emails ranged from support for the hybrid model to give students more social interaction and structure, to support for remote learning to err on the side of caution and protect staff and students from the COVID-19 outbreak.
To speak on the safety of the district’s hybrid plan, Delaware General Health District Commissioner Shelia Hiddleson attended the virtual meeting.
Hiddleson said the district’s hybrid plan, along with rearranged classrooms, dividers that allow teachers and students to interact one-on-one, and more hand sanitizing stations constitutes best practices.
She praised the district’s plan to split up the student body to allow social distancing, and she said masks and face coverings will be very important to create barriers to stop the spread of the virus. Hiddleson added that parents checking their children before sending them to school and not sending them to school if they aren’t feeling well is essential.
“We have to help our parents and our students to know it’s okay to miss school if (they) aren’t feeling well,” Hiddleson said. “I cannot stress enough that these children who have been told they have COVID or are waiting for a test result, they need to stay home until they get those results back.”
Hiddleson added she’s encouraged by the fact the county has had students doing sports since June and has had no clusters until very recently when a student who was sick went to practice anyway. Hiddleson clarified that it was not a student in the Delaware City School District.
“That’s where that shared responsibility between the school, and the parent and the child have to come into play,” she said.
Hiddleson said she is confident in the health district’s ability to trace any cases at the school, because students will be in such small groups with limited exposure to each other.
“I do know that we will have a case in school, and we will follow up,” Hiddleson said. “I do know that we have a good plan to do that, and we’re going to know who those contacts are right away and we’re going to be able to get them into isolation or quarantine right away.”
Board member Michael Wiener asked Hiddleson to contrast the school’s plans with the plans of schools like those in Georgia that have seen outbreaks since returning to in-person learning. Hiddleson said she couldn’t speak to that because she was unfamiliar with the plans that those schools followed.
“All I can tell you is the plan we have in place is a solid plan based on the best practices that we have,” Hiddleson said. “As some of your parents point out, we don’t know every single thing about this virus but everything we know today, we do have a plan in place for and we will continue to change that the more and more that we learn.”
After hearing from Hiddleson, the board discussed moving to a remote start of school and eventually moved to take a vote on changing the plan.
“This isn’t a decision I’m taking lightly,” Wiener said. “Currently, we had approved the hybrid model with the virtual learning academy. My understanding is that 25% of our students have chosen to participate in the digital academy. With that in place, we’ll have a little under 40% of our students in the building at any given time. Our plans have been reviewed by the health department and it’s been indicated that they are in line with the current scientific understanding and the best practices are in place.”
O’Flaherty said she backed the hybrid model in July with the understanding that the board would review the plan as the start of the school year approached.
“I’m still not comfortable with the idea of having students back in the building,” O’Flaherty said. “I think what we will see, if we do that, is a spike. Having been in the classroom myself since 1990, I have a pretty good idea of how well high school students will follow the restrictions…”
O’Flaherty said that returning to school in the hybrid model will not be the return to normalcy that families want.
“I know that people want their kids to get back to what they are calling normal, to get back to school,” she said. “If you look around, those classrooms with the plexiglass and kids sitting six to 10 feet apart and not able to touch each other, you have got to see that is not what we have before, that is not normal and it might be even more of a problem for the kids than staying at home and staying safe.”
Board member Jayna McDaniel-Browning said she was “deeply conflicted” about the reopening plans.
“We can’t be back full time, five days a week and have everybody be safe,” she said. “However, based on what I’ve heard from our health commissioner, I think the hybrid model is the best choice we have at this juncture…”
Board member Ted Backus said the board is facing “a very difficult decision.”
“The decision I make tonight, is that the decision, if it was made for me — if I was tasked to be in the school and work and be there — would I do that and feel comfortable with it and be okay with?” Backus said. “And I would not. As a parent, if my children were still in school and I was asked to put my children back in school today on the hybrid model … I would not choose that for my child. I’ve lived a principle my entire life that I would never ask anyone to do anything that I would not do myself. I feel compelled to say the best way to start the school year is on a remote learning model.”
Board President Matthew Weller agreed that it was not an easy decision for the district or the board, but he believes the hybrid model is the best path forward.
“At the end of the day, I think this is the best plan to get us back in the schools and it’s the safest plan we have at the moment,” Weller said. “Certainly, that can change. We may well get to all remote learning at some point in the future and certainly I’m not opposed to doing that if the evidence and the new cases and that sort of thing comes up and forces us to go that way, but if the professionals are telling us that in their opinion that our plan is safe and we can get people back in the classroom in that manner, then I’m going to continue my position to support the hybrid plan at this time.”
O’Flaherty and Backus voted to move to online learning. Wiener, McDaniel-Browning and Weller voted to stay with the hybrid model.
The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 17.
Glenn Battishill can be reached at 740-413-0903 or on Twitter @BattishillDG.