The Big Spring School District is set to open Sept. 8 with a blended schedule and extensive health and safety measures in place to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
In a two-and-a-half hour meeting Monday evening, the school board heard presentations from Superintendent Dr. Richard Fry and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kevin Roberts outlining a 24-page health and safety plan for the reopening of campus.
Fry stressed this is not what anyone had expected, but if the district and community work together, they can all come out of this bigger, better and stronger than they were going in.
Most students, with the exception of kindergarteners and cyber-school and homeschooled students, will start the year on a hybrid schedule that features both in-person instruction and virtual learning time. Staggered schedules, coupled with face coverings, increased social distancing measures inside of classrooms and hallways, a rigorous cleaning and disinfecting schedule and recertification of the district’s HVAC systems will hopefully keep the spread of the virus to a minimum, according to the administration’s proposed plan.
“What you’re seeing is four months of work here,” Fry told the board during the Committee of the Whole meeting Monday.
Fry said the plan is driven by key principles that revolve around the health and safety of ALL in the district and the community.
He noted the reopening plan also revolves around offering choices so families can ultimately make the decision they feel is best moving forward.
Fry also noted bringing the district into a position to bring more students into its buildings relies heavily on the cooperation of all staff, students and families.
“We researched what districts in other countries like Finland, Switzerland, Japan and South Korea saw upon their reopening, and what their rate of spread was. We will also base our actions moving forward on local spread and positivity rates. These are things we are going to monitor daily. We also need to communicate, communicate, communicate with everyone.”
Fry said as of Monday, the positivity rate in the area was 4.7 percent, up from 4.4 percent last week.
“In the Newville area, we have had five additional cases, and there have been six additional cases in the Carlisle area and 10 additional cases in the Shippensburg area since July 19. We have to maintain a low incidence rate and not cultivate an environment where this can grow,” he noted.
Fry said the safety plan is based on guidance from the state Departments of Health and Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Academy of Pediatrics.
“The reality is that opening school is not a challenge. We can just open the doors,” he said. “Staying open is the challenge. If we open too quickly, I am very leery of what would happen. We need to be patient knowing that our students need to be here, but our goal is not to get in here and have to go out. No matter what happens with the virus this year, we are going to be prepared with a robust educational plan.”
Students will also have live-streamed instruction available to them while they are learning at home. Students who have spotty internet access will have devices delivered to their homes to keep them on track with learning from home.
Fry said the district’s goal, however, is to make sure students are getting as much face-to-face, hands-on learning as possible.
Fry said the district is also working on a regionalized transportation plan that will keep students distanced on buses, and reducing exposure with shorter routes to school.
He touted the district’s pandemic team and the feedback from the community during their Thought Exchange sessions for providing crucial viewpoints in the decision-making process during these unprecedented times.
Fry also noted that students who require an IEP or have special medical needs that prevent them from wearing masks are being helped individually to develop plans to allow them to safely return to school. A child who cannot wear a mask due to a medical condition will have to have proper documentation prior to returning to school.
“No one has all the answers,” Fry added. “We will grow together through this.”
Roberts outlined the health and safety plan to the board, noting it is a format that is defined by the Department of Education.
“One of the key areas is cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting and ventilation,” he said. “Not just high-touch surfaces like desks and doorknobs, but all surfaces in school spaces, including buses, will be disinfected. We have also secured grant funding to purchase sprayers to help with this process. We are also going through a recertification process with our HVAC systems to ensure a greater number of clean air exchanges.”
The district will also install 425 Plexiglas shields in various areas of the district, and visitors will be limited to essential visitors only until they are comfortable with loosening the restrictions.
He noted parents will be required to monitor their children’s temperatures and symptoms at home. Students’ temperatures will also be taken prior to boarding the bus in the morning, and upon entering buildings. Roberts also said the district is using grant funding to purchase thermal temperature scanners to have in every building.
Roberts said one key element is “identifying and deploying key communication.” Contact tracing will be conducted if a student or staff member tests positive for the virus to determine the rate of spread.
Once Roberts finished the health and safety plan overview, Fry discussed remote learning and the reopening plan for BSSD.
“Remote learning will be different than what we did in the spring,” Fry assured. “In the spring, we deployed an enrichment and review model. This is about new learning, and specific requirements. This will be vastly different than what we did in the spring, and will be much more hands on.”
He noted the ultimate goal is to bring students back to school and remain there for the year. This will require restrictions, a reduction in class sizes and maintaining distance from one another.
“One key point that the community needs to clearly understand is if we see an increase in transmission at the local and regional level, we may need to revert to Tier 1 (an all-remote learning schedule). We might even see that prior to the start of the school year,” Fry stressed.
Fry noted the plans will all be posted to the district’s website, www.bigspringsd.org, for families to review prior to the start of school. A detailed transportation plan will be outlined for the community on Aug. 24.
Fry said another key element is consistency with following guidelines and cleanliness of buildings. Fry said the disinfectant that will be used is hospital-grade disinfectant, and there will also be 15 hand sanitizing stations added throughout the district, as well as hand sanitizer in all classrooms.
Fry said the district will likely have cases of the virus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will have to shut the entire district down for two weeks. Contact tracing will be done to determine how many people were likely exposed to the virus, families will be informed, and the process will go from there.
“It depends on the number of cases we see within our building coupled with what we see in the community. If we see a substantial spread in the community, and our building, that would be a more extensive process. It depends on each case,” Fry said.
Several parents shared their thoughts and asked questions pertaining to the reopening of school during Monday’s meeting.
Stacy Reed said she feels students of parents who work full time are going to suffer with remote learning.
“I am a nurse practitioner and I work 40 hours a week,” she said. “My sitter doesn’t have great internet access. I feel our students are going to suffer with Tier 2. Who is going to help school my child when I am at work? I know I am not the only parent with these concerns. What is the district doing to help those parents who work? I’m bringing this to your attention because my fear is our younger students are going to fall behind.”
Fry said there are protocols in place to help parents, and Reed said she guesses she will have to wait and see what happens.
Another parent asked about students who attend vo-tech, and Fry said they will still be able to go to the district in the morning and be transported safely to vo-tech by bus. Students who can drive may also be permitted to drive to the vo-tech now.
Josh Helms said he has twins going into kindergarten this year, and was wondering how the district is going to deal with younger students who are not wearing their masks properly, especially since social distancing is not easy with small children.
Helms was assured that students will be reminded to keep their masks on, and disciplinary action would be taken if students are purposefully being disruptive and intentionally failing to follow the rules. Helms also asked how the district is going to help younger students grow emotionally and socially while also maintaining distance between them.
Roberts said students will still be able to meet outdoors during recess, and measures will be taken to assist them in developing those crucial skills while also following guidelines.
Brandon Vasquez asked how virtual learning would work for younger students at the kindergarten level. Roberts said there will be mostly face-to-face instruction for kindergarteners, with AM and PM classes meeting for a few hours each day, Monday through Friday.
Kelly Thompson noted there are many areas of the district with unreliable internet access, and asked the district to consider providing Hot Spots to those families to keep their students from falling behind. She also said she has concerns with having her children staring at a screen all day. Fry assured her they can set time frames at home that work for them personally and that Hot Spots were already ordered.
Patricia Johnson asked the district to mitigate scheduling so all testing doesn’t occur on the same day when students return to school. Fry assured the high school would be operating on a four-by-four block so it can remain balanced, and said it would be similar at the middle school level so testing isn’t being administered on the same day. He noted the elementary school is more streamlined because most classes at that level occur in the same classroom.
Tavia Garland asked about virtual learning schedules to keep her junior and senior from waiting all day to participate in online instruction times so they can manage their days better. Fry said they are working on finishing schedules at the high school, and are running through those scenarios right now.
She also said she is concerned that a lot of parents are pulling their children from the district and enrolling them into expensive cyber charter schools. Fry said the district pays $14,000 for a regular ed student, and $32,000 for a special ed student at private cyber charter schools.
The Big Spring School District has its own cyber program through the Capital Area Intermediate Unit that only costs a fourth of that tuition for the district.
“We want everybody to stay a Big Spring student. It’s a learning community we are proud of,” he said. He also said the district has been holding open houses for parents who wish to utilize the district’s cyber school program, and more information on the quality program can be found on the district’s website.
After discussion, the board unanimously approved the health and safety plan, the alternative calendar and instructional time provisions, all of which will be posted to the website beginning today.
“These are very trying times. We’ve had our nose to the grindstone since spring. We will get through this together. We have some challenges in front of us that none of us are comfortable with. But, these are the things at the end of the day that we are going to do that affect the health and safety of our students and staff,” Fry said.
The board thanked the administration for its work in developing the plans.
“I realize there is no perfect option here. I am impressed that the district is looking out for the kids. I know there are lots of districts all over the country that are nowhere near this. A lot of people haven’t been communicated with, or they were given a ‘Here’s what we’re doing, take it or leave it.’ I know there are challenges for parents who work, and I know the district is working with all of them. I also know this took a lot of hours of work to develop this,” Director Alexis Blasco-Hurley said.
Director Frank Myers said the whole plan “stinks, but it’s necessary.”
“I’m still amazed at what the administration has done,” he added. “It could be a heck of a lot worse, and I hope it doesn’t get worse. We need to deal with it. It’s not going to be easy. But, we can’t turn our head and look the other way. It’s in front of us.”