Union R-XI School District’s elementary students would go back to campus five days a week, while middle and high school students would split time between the classroom and home learning, if a draft plan discussed at a Wednesday, July 29, board of education workshop is approved.
The proposal, which also has a virtual-learning-only option, calls for all staff and many students to wear face masks when they can’t social distance on campus. A vote is expected at a Monday, Aug. 3, special meeting.
“It is definitely a work in progress, it’s been a work in progress since about March, basically,” Superintendent Dr. Steve Weinhold told the board.
As the coronavirus pandemic expanded, the board voted in March to go to all remote learning, which Union R-XI continued through the end of the 2019-20 school year.
“We have people struggling trying to keep their jobs,” Weinhold said of parents who are balancing child care and staying at work.
The district came up with the proposal after surveys of staff and parents.
Half of the staff members, which includes teachers and other employees, responded that they want an all on-campus approach, with 41.5 percent saying they want a blended approach and 8.5 percent wanting online only.
Weinhold also has been meeting virtually with superintendents from other Franklin and Gasconade county school districts, as well as health department officials.
Among families, 57.9 percent of the 834 elementary parents to respond wanted all in-person classes, but that number dropped to 46.4 percent for the 457 middle school parents and 50.5 percent for the 658 parents of high school students who responded.
The district used those numbers and other data to come up with the proposal for five-day-a-week prekindergarten through fifth-grade classes. Weinhold said the district will be able to social distance the students, who will take classes at Central, Beaufort and the new Prairie Dell elementaries.
Elementary students benefit from taking classes in 20-student “cohort” groups that don’t change throughout the day, Weinhold said. The district also is taking precautions like removing extra furniture from classrooms to allow desks to be moved farther apart.
Secondary students would go to school twice a week and learn virtually three times a week. The plan discussed Wednesday would have students whose last names start with A-K attend class Monday and Thursday, while students with L-Z last names would go Tuesday and Friday. Students not in the classroom would learn electronically.
Since the district wants to keep students from the same family together, exceptions would be made in situations like when siblings have different last names.
Teachers would teach the same class twice to the different groups, Weinhold told the board.
Wednesdays would be reserved for online learning, and teachers would also use the time to record videos for their classes.
Students who don’t have proper internet access at home can go to their school and work from an area like the library or cafeteria on days they are scheduled for at-home learning, Weinhold said.
Based on the survey responses, about 20 percent of students are expected to take part in Wildcat@Home, a fully virtual school option for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Weinhold said. Though the virtual program is overseen by the district, it will use software made by Edgenuity, an Arizona-based online-curriculum provider.
“We have details on how we would run that, it would be a heck of a lot better than we did in March when we had to do it that fast,” Weinhold said. “We have learned a lot.”
Families with students taking the all-virtual classes are asked to commit to an entire semester of the program.
The district could go to all on-campus instruction or all-virtual classes depending on what happens with coronavirus cases in the area as the semester progresses. Weinhold said whether students go to the Google Classroom model, which students in the blended program are using, or Edgenuity would depend on factors like how long is left in the semester if campuses were forced to close.
The slide shown to the board Wednesday recommended students in fourth through 12th grades wear masks when they can’t social distance. But some suggested making the requirement for all students after Weinhold said the CDC has lowered its recommended masking age to those older than 2.
But exactly what age students would need to start wearing masks at, as well as what, if any, discipline would be in place for those who don’t wear them appeared to be undecided.
“I have some kindergartners who have it on, but then they take it off and play with it,” special education teacher Erin Meyer said. “As much as you try to social distance little 5- and 6-year-olds, it’s tough.”
Central Elementary kindergarten teacher Stacy Titter, who has young children of her own, said getting kids to wear masks for long periods can be challenging, though they could for parts of the day.
“There are times, if they’re going to sit at my table and we’re going to do something together, I can get them to wear a mask, we’re doing this together, we’re close” she said. “Working at their table, working where they’re spread out, it’s unrealistic. Walking in the halls, it’s unrealistic.”
Board member Matt Borgmann called the generalization that kids won’t wear masks “totally off base.”
“Every child is different, kids care about other people, and kids are very malleable,” he said. “If they see other kids wearing a mask, they are going to wear them. They are going to follow the line. Kids will learn to put that mask on, and they are going to go home and say, ‘Mom and dad, why aren’t you wearing your masks?’ ”
Borgmann added that he talked with kindergarten teachers who don’t want to go back to school if students aren’t wearing masks.
“There’s no point for the teachers to wear the masks without the students,” he said. “Wearing a mask does nothing if both people aren’t wearing them. This mask is designed to protect two people, not one.”
Students also could be required to wear masks on school buses, and masks will be provided if they don’t have one. To reduce the number of students on buses, parents are encouraged to drop off and pick up their kids.
Buses will be disinfected after each route is complete.
When asked if seating will be staggered on the buses, Weinhold said that is not the current plan.
“Right now, they are not recommending that, because it’s not financially and fiscally sound to do that,” he said. “The mask replaces the social distancing.”
Officials said masks could be available for students who did not have them. They anticipated that families who resist mask use will choose the all-virtual learning option.
Along with grouping students together, social distancing procedures include using outdoor learning spaces when possible and altering recess schedules to minimize the number of students on playgrounds at the same time. Only supervisors and staff required for instruction would be allowed in the classroom under the proposal.
“We can’t have all 700 kids from Central outdoors at the same time, but, if we can, we’re going to try to use it,” Weinhold said.
Weinhold acknowledged that the proposed moves were a sudden reversal of years of trying to have collaborative space in school.
“We’re working 20 years trying to get people to change, and do this cooperation, buy all this equipment, buy all this furniture, now we’re going back?” he said. “Yes we are, for safety of the kids.”
Health protocols include having a nurse in every building and sending anyone showing COVID-19 symptoms to the nurse, where they will go to a separate area.
Students are sent home if they show two or more COVID-19 symptoms, based on Centers for Disease Control guidance. The schools will follow a protocol for the student to be able to return to class.
High-touch common surfaces like doorknobs, tables and computers will be cleaned and disinfected multiple times a day. District custodians are being trained on enhanced cleaning procedures.
School breakfast will be “grab and go” and eaten in the classroom, something Weinhold said the district was considering before the pandemic. If cafeterias are used, additional spaces will be used at secondary school lunches to allow for more social distancing. More time will be allotted between lunch groups to allow for cleaning.
Students and staff will be strongly encouraged to wash or sanitize hands when they arrive and leave school each day. Hand sanitizer is planned to be available throughout the schools.
The meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday at the district administration building, 21 Progress Parkway.