The Vermillion School Board reviewed a preliminary draft of the Vermillion School District’s Return To School Plan at a July 27 meeting and is scheduled to approve the final version of the plan, after making any last revisions to it, on Aug. 10.
The plan calls for classes to resume in all Vermillion public school buildings on Aug. 19. The meeting also ended with board members agreeing that the use of masks by all students, teachers and staff shall be mandatory as the new school year begins.
The introductory page of the plan notes that it was created in conjunction with the school board, school administration, staff, parents and the local health care community.
The plan also follows guidelines of the South Dakota Department of Health, the CDC, and the state Department of Education.
Superintendent Damon Alvey described the various components of the current draft of the plan which he described as a “working document.
“Much of this is ready to go and be implemented, but there are some things that will have to be worked out over time in terms of policy review and some of the implementation,” he said.
Online registration has begun earlier than usual to not only help families get their children enrolled, but also to help identify families who prefer either a remote option or a traditional option of education.
“We learned a lot from the parent surveys and the staff surveys that have been implemented over the last two months in terms of what parents are needing to return their children to school, what students are needing and what parents’ thoughts are about the remote learning plan and staying home and that’s what guided the discussion that’s before you tonight,” the superintendent told board members.
It is anticipated that traditional learning will be somewhat the same in the school buildings this year.
“We will be asking that students wear masks, and staff … the Vermillion School District will be mask-required for all visitors, all of our students and our staff,” Alvey said. “We will encourage social distancing and enhanced cleaning of our buildings which has been practiced and is continuing at this point.”
He noted that the school board has allocated a professional day to allow school staff to return to school buildings early to prepare their classrooms for social distancing where appropriate.
“Enhanced hygiene practices will be taught and practiced,” the superintendent said. “We’ve discussed this as a community for a long time and that a large component of this is teaching students why these practices are important and helping them to practice it -- for it to be taught and reinforced in a positive manner.”
Under the traditional start of school that hopefully will occur, food service will also run as normal as possible. Students will eat in cafeterias when possible and social distancing will be encouraged. Meals may be eaten in classrooms, from time to time, Alvey said, to help reach those social distancing goals.
“As much as possible, we’ll try to have kids eating in their normal settings, without masks on, during lunch periods,” he said. “Other mask breaks will be encouraged and used throughout the day as well.”
The plan also includes a remote learning component for students whose parents decide that their children will learn at home and not at school.
“Our remote learning plan, at this point, is designed to be a mirror of our in-school traditional learning classroom,” the superintendent said. “Nothing can replace a good teacher in front of the class and our committee decided that we would like to promote our own staff. That was heavily sought out in our parents’ survey that our teachers teach our children.”
The current draft of the plan proposes that on the elementary level, the district would find staff after it is determined how many students would be taking the remote option or asking for volunteers to teach students remotely.
“For example, we might have 12 kindergarteners, three first graders and 10 second graders and so we would take those 25 students and place them in a multi-grade classroom where teachers would be assigned to work with the students,” Alvey said. “An elementary teacher might assign work and Zoom with all of the kindergarten students for a certain period of time of the day and then students and parents would work on those details throughout the rest of the day and evening and turn them in the next day.”
Students in grades 2 through 4 may be assigned a classroom teacher and would be learning the same things as the students who are being taught traditionally at home through a remote option.
A remote preschool option will not be offered “with the exception that if we start school and a parent has their child enrolled and we take a short break like we did this spring and it turns into a longer break, we continue those pre-school services throughout that hiatus,” he said.
To provide remote learning to middle school and high school students, teachers in traditional classrooms will be asked to be teachers of record and allow students at home to join in with the learning that’s taking place in the classrooms.
“If I’m a high school English teacher, I might have 20 of my English students in front of me, but also have three freshman English students signing in from home for that class,” Alvey said, adding that those same students would Zoom into other classes from home at the times they’re being taught at school. The Zoom option would reduce the number of elective classes that students would be able to take.
“For example, you won’t be taking our culinary arts class if you’re remote at home,” the superintendent said. “You won’t be taking our shop or ag mechanics or auto mechanics or things like that because those things would not be suitable for remote learning.”
Google platform will be used by teachers in high school and middle school for communication and assessment. Attendance is mandatory and a device will be provided for students to do their homework. That is a requirement from the state Department of Education “because last spring, we had a number of students – upwards to 50 or more – that were totally unengaged from school and were no longer participating in the education process,” Alvey said. “Those students may or may not be attending school this fall, but at this time, attendance will be taken and grading will be done as normal with the Vermillion School District’s grading scale.”
The Return To School (RTS) Committee that helped formulate this plan built in four over-arching goal. The first goal is academic support.
“That’s providing staff, students and parents with the support that they need to be successful in school,” the superintendent said. “What that will look like is a little bit different at every level, but it’s to be able to provide service and platforms to help students achieve their education at a high level and also support the teachers by providing them with the correct resources.
“You’ve already done that as a school board by allocating extra dollars towards personnel as well as extra technology initiatives that will be used this fall,” Alvey told the school board, “so we thank you for that.”
One issue that school administrators are working to achieve is providing services to students with special needs and being able to do those things remotely.
“Our special services department is working hand in hand with their staffs to work on plans to meet the educational needs of all of our students that might have some challenges in school,” the superintendent said. “If they choose to use the remote option, we’ll be trying to find ways to address those things – whether they’ll still come in for individual services such as OT (occupational therapy), PT (physical therapy) or speech, or if those things will be done remotely through Zoom or a Skype platform.”
Ultimately, the educational outcomes of the return to school plan are based on the social and emotional health of the school district’s students, he said.
“Our staff was very concerned with this with our Return To School Committee. We have to be prepared for students who will be returning this fall who have some gaps in their education, but more importantly, they have fears and anxieties that we will have to deal with in terms of coming back to school,” Alvey said. “Our school nurse, our social worker, our counseling departments have worked very hard, along with the administrators to start planning for what those outcomes for those students will look like.”
He once again thanked the school board for providing extra dollars and resources to help address those needs.
Alvey said the plan calls for the schedule of each day to be flexible.
“The high school is working on a schedule at this point that will allow for three to four periods of instruction to happen in a day’s time. We would do that for one week at a time and then it flips,” he said. “For example, you might have periods one, two and three happening this week and with longer periods of time to reduces the cohorts.”
Alvey said middle school and elementary school schedules will remain largely unchanged.
“Those schedules will be fine-tuned in the course of the next week and will we will be able to give them to parents, but as they’re registering, that’s being made to known to parents so they can make decisions for their children,” he said. “Along with schedules, calendars are probably the next biggest thing that the board will have to make decisions on. At any time that we deal with a virus or an outbreak, we’ll have to consider the potential of changing school and altering that calendar.”
The school district will ask for staggered pick-ups and drop-offs of students.
“Our bus company will be running a normal schedule,” the superintendent said. “How that looks at each building is being tweaked at this point, but we’re encouraging parents that do not need to send their children to school before 8:15 a.m. to not do so, but breakfast and normal morning options will be there in case that happens.
“We’re trying to eliminate or reduce the number of students who will be socially gathered on the playground before school starts,” he said. “There will be times when we’ll have up to 100 kids at a time social gathering and we’ll have to find ways to deal with that and staggered drop-offs and pick-ups is one of those.”
Each school building will have designated areas for students to enter and exit.
“We have partners who are working to try to provide masks for all students. Multiple masks will be needed because, of course, to mask properly, they should be changed throughout the day and/or washed every single night, so the nest day they’re starting with a clean mask,” Alvey said, “but we know there will be some challenges with that and we’ll have some practices in dealing with those when that time comes.
“With a mandated mask protocol in the school district, all mask wearers will be expected to do so on the buses and our transportation company is supportive of that,” he said, “and will be able to help us engage families to make sure students that forget a mask will be offered a mask when they get on a bus.”
Visitors to school will be largely discouraged this year, Alvey said, and traffic to and from school will be limited. A link to the entire draft version of the plan can be access on the school district’s web page. Log on to https://vermillion.k12.sd.us/covid-19/