A preliminary survey of Amity parents in mid-July showed that some 14% are opposed to sending their students back to school this fall; but 64% responded with an “absolutely yes,” said Amity Supt. Dr. Jennifer Byars. In all they had 1,500 responses (2,400 students). She said the result gives them some idea what to expect in terms of attendance come September, even though the numbers may shift over time.
That survey will be followed up by a more detailed questionnaire closer to the opening of school, she said. At that point they will query parents about details regarding the need for transportation as well.
As in most school districts in the state, a re-opening committee has been working diligently to devise three different teaching and learning scenarios:
- a full back-to-school plan (“onsite”);
- a hybrid which would split the district student population into two groups attending school on an alternating schedule (“hybrid”);
- an all-online learning scenario (“remote”).
Which mode of teaching kicks in will be determined by state officials based on public health parameters, Byars told the Amity Board of Education at a special meeting July 23. “The perception that local administrators have a level of choice in what this return to school may look like is a false perception,” Byars said. “We are accustomed to being pretty independent operators,” she said. But under pandemic conditions, the district, like all other districts in the state, has to follow the guidelines issued by the state Department of Education and by health officials at the national and state level.
“Our job is to figure out how to work within the guidelines that are provided,” she said. But many of those guidelines are coming in only gradually, and many questions remain.
First day: The first day of school for all BOWA students will be Monday, August 31.
Onsite learning: Students and teachers are expected to wear face masks while in school. Desks will be re-arranged to allow for maximal distancing, even though it may not always be six feet apart, she said. In fact, the district medical advisor, Dr. Amir Muhammad, has recommended a minimum of three feet. Extraneous furniture will be removed from the classrooms and stored in storage pods.
At the high school each classroom will have about 20 students. Some bigger classes may be split into two sections, if need be, or moved to a bigger space. Some outdoor spaces may be available while the weather is conducive, but their planning has to be for those days when it is not available.
There will be traffic patterns throughout the building to help with physical distancing during passing time.
“Our biggest challenge is lunch at the high school,” Dr. Byars said, adding that that is one of the major outstanding questions they are working on. Schools are mandated to provide lunch for students. “We have to figure out the manner in which to do it.” It is also one situation in which students will have to remove their masks, making physical distancing even more essential.
Athletics: The CIAC (Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference) has issued its own set of guidelines to keep athletes as safe as possible. Fall sports will start on time, said High School Principal Anna Mahon, albeit with safety measures in place. She said the CIAC still has to solve some issues around busing, but so far, the fall season is on!
Middle schools: Middle school classes will stay together in one classroom throughout the school day, while teachers move from classroom to classroom. The students will be grouped based on their math classes, said Orange Middle School Principal Kathy Burke.
Each “cohort” will have at most 20 students. Lunch waves will be organized by keeping cohorts together. The only time students will be mixing with other groups is during health and PE.
There will be no extra-curricular activities for middle school students, said Bethany campus Principal Jason Tracy. However, they are planning to offer up period 8 for students to organize clubs virtually.
Facilities: Custodians will be following a rigorous cleaning protocol, with special focus on bathroom and high touch areas. They are continuing to follow Green Cleaning guidelines. As for ventilation, the district will keep windows closed so as to avoid allergens from entering; instead, maintaining proper filtering in the HVAC system is the best thing they can do, the superintendent said. In restrooms, they installed touch-free flushing and sinks; automatic hand dryers are out, instead they have to revert to paper towels from touch-free dispensers. They are considering of hiring staff to monitor the number of people entering bathrooms.
Hybrid model: Dr. Byars said she is not totally sure what “hybrid” means, other than reducing the student population at any given time. At this point, the plan is to form two groups, based on last name, with *A-K in school on Monday and Thursday; *L-Z in school on Tuesday and Friday. Wednesday would be a flex day under that model. However, Byars said she is looking for direction from the state as to what that flex day would accomplish. For families with different last names, they will deal with each on a case-by-case basis.
Remote learning: All students from 9th to 11th grade will be issued a district laptop, Principal Anna Mahon wrote to Amity families last week. Seniors will be expected to have a personal device at their disposal in school and at home. Should a senior not have access to a laptop, the district will provide a device.
After three months of remote learning this spring, the feedback from parents and students has been loud and clear in favor of synchronous teaching and learning — when all log on at the same time — which is considered far more supportive than everyone doing their work on their own schedule. The goal is to keep schedules that would be workable in either of the three modalities, which could allow students to log it at a certain time for their third-period class, for example.
Whether teachers will be presenting lessons live is part of the conversation the district is having with the teacher’s union, Byars said. These talks are under way.
Last spring, the student schedule did not start until 9:30 a.m., which allowed teachers to get technical support first thing in the morning. That model was well received, Byars said, and may be used again, should the schools have to revert to remote learning.
Getting sick in school: The health department has issued very specific guidelines of what to do when students present with symptoms. “Our first phone call will be to health department to get their advisement on next steps,” said Tom Brant. The school will have to provide an isolation room for students or staff who take ill during the school day.
Regular testing of staff or students is not a recommendation at this time, Dr. Byars said. Sending a student or teacher home who feels sick is not unheard of, Dr. Byars said. “We have been dealing with this forever.” Similarly, they have processes in place for those students who have to stay home for medical reasons.
Opting into remote learning: What’s different in this situation is the parents who decide they don’t want to send kids back to school under current circumstances. The state recommends that school districts provide “temporary remote learning opportunities for those parents and students voluntarily opting into remote learning programming while other students attend in-person instruction.”
That does not mean that families can pick and choose which activities to take part in – say band, for example; but stay home for the rest.
Parents who sign up for voluntary remote learning will be expected to supervise and engage their children “to fully and effectively access the remote learning programming that is offered through the public school district.” Districts will be expected to take attendance.
No guidance has been provided for special education students who choose the remote learning model.
Tracking expenses: The fiscal impact of all these changes will be significant, predicted Amity Finance Director Terry Lumas. She said the district spent a little over $400,000 just for PPE, and cameras and laptops for teachers – expenses that were incurred in the Fiscal Year 2020. The impact on the current year may be as high as $2million, she said, mostly due to staffing costs. The district will need to hire additional custodial staff as well as substitute teachers, which all school districts are trying to attract.
“We are tracking and trying to project the expenses,” she said. But predictions are as slippery as the plans that keep changing. By tracking expenses, she is laying the groundwork for claims when federal or state funds become available to public schools.
Of the three teaching and learning models, bringing back all students is probably the most expensive, she said.
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent