A question received by the Vermillion School Board at its July 13 meeting about the district’s annual budget that it had just approved was COVID-19 related and was based not so much on what the district has already spent, but on what its future expenses in combating the virus may be.
“Is the school district expecting to get any additional funds specifically related for COVID … and things that need to be changed?” a woman in the audience asked.
“School districts received money from the federal government similarly to what businesses did,” Superintendent Damon Alvey replied. “In our situation, they allocated, basically, based on our free and reduced (lunch) numbers, so Vermillion’s allocation will be different from Yankton’s, different from Dakota Valley’s and things, but each school district will get an allocation towards expenses related to COVID-19 or ways to mitigate to COVID expenses in the future.
“What we’ve already allocated dollars for is new cleaning equipment during the time when we started to do the grab and go lunches from the middle school,” he said. “We had all types of purchases related to rubber gloves and sacks and all the things related to food service. We bought new equipment to sanitize the building. We continue to stockpile supplies and cleaning supplies and … we’ve put dollars aside for staff development as well as student development.”
The superintendent said it is believed that many of the students, as school classes begin again this fall, will have to overcome a gap in learning that began when in-school classes were canceled last March and replaced with in-home learning methods.
“We have an opportunity to hire staff to come back early and work with some of those student needs,” Alvey said. “But the most significant dollars were put into a one-to-one initiative for our students and while they are in school they won’t have to share devices this year. We’ve purchased enough devices that all of our students will have them – whether they are Ipads, Chromebooks or laptops – and we will also be able to send those devices home like we did this spring in the event that we have to go totally remote.”
Some of those funds, he added, are reserved for this upcoming spring and summer in the event that there are some unexpected COVID-19 expenses that return. These dollars haven’t yet physically been received by the school district, “but the promise is we’ll be receiving them sometime this fall.”
During a PowerPoint presentation, Alvey discussed information that had been collected from local parents from a survey that had been sent out in recent weeks. A second, more specific survey has been sent to families and school staff to bring in additional data that may be discussed at a special school board meeting scheduled for July 23.
Return To School Plan
A committee that is focusing on the district’s Return To School Plan has been looking at four broad concepts. One of those is academic support, which looks at such things as the district’s calendars, in-person returns, flex returns, scheduling, tech plans, staffing needs and professional development -- in other words, all of the things that might support the district’s staff and students.
A second concept being studied is operations, with two major topics: getting kids bussed to school and then once they’re there, feeding the students.
A third concept deals with activities that are going on this summer, which are non-school related, such as softball and American Legion baseball. “Our athletes are getting some time in our gyms and our weight rooms, getting some time to work out and practice,” Alvey said.
The fourth concept deals with health, safety and facilities.
“That talks about the cleaning routine of our staff, it talks about the ability to supply all of the materials for our school district, the wellness questions, the temperature checks, the social and emotional needs, the elements that when kids come back, most of them will have a gap in their education that we’ll have to deal with, the discussion on masks, the plexiglass barriers, the physical social distancing and all of those things that we are trying to put into place to safely return to school,” the superintendent said.
Alvey said the Department of Health and the CDC recommends that schools use three broad terms when talking about returning to school: low risk, more risk and higher risk.
“The one area that we can safely say that there is little to no risk is if all students stay home,” he said. ‘If everybody was learning by remote, that would be the safest option in our community. We also know that there are severe downfalls to that and many of the folks that reached out through our comment section (in the survey) or called me personally talked about the fact that they have concerns with not being able to send their children to school, either in a full-time capacity or at least part-time capacity.
A “more risk” plan defines bringing students back to school in some type of flex schedule that may include a staggered learning environment in which class sizes are reduced. “All of the things that help us mitigate kids being together are slightly more risky than staying at home,” Alvey said.
The higher risk alternative is a “school as normal plan,” the superintendent said. “Whenever you bring 400 kids back to a building, there’s going to be a higher level of risk and what we can do to mitigate that risk is really what the discussion will be focused on as we develop the plan.”
Alvey said school administrators are often asked how they will investigate COVID-19 exposures in the community.
“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ -- it’s when it will happen and we all are cognizant that this will happen, so how are we going to handle those situations when they come up? First and foremost, we’ll be partnering with our local healthcare systems and secondly, the Department of Health will be leading those investigations through contact tracing, along with school officials, so it’s not something the schools will be handling alone. We’ll be having experts in the field that will be guiding that.”
The school board, in formulating its Return To School Plan, has discussed what busing may look like when the maximum number of children allowed on each bus is 50.
“The CDC guidelines recommend that you have one student per seat, every other seat, so, effectively, you’ve got half as many students or a third as many students riding a bus at one time,” Alvey said. “It’s not very practical to have 30 kids on a bus that’s designed for 60 or 70 kids, but we’ve talked about what can be done to help mitigate that.”
Options include adding more routes with the school district’s bus provider. The estimated cost of doing that, both in mornings and evenings, would be approximately $40,000.
“Some school districts have chosen to not offer busing except for out of town,” he said. “Out of town, five miles or longer, is what the state of South Dakota requires of us. Anybody within five miles -- it is considered a parent’s responsibility to come to school with their children.
“In this community, that’s nearly 400 kids that we transport a day and that, too, is not a very good option to leave 300 kids to try to find their way to school,” Alvey said. ``We've had extensive discussion on what it look like to either reduce the number of kids on a bus and change the routes or do we reduce the routes completely and bring the country kids in where we can have social distancing.”
He said most schools are going to suggest that people wear masks while on buses, that the vehicles undergo enhanced cleaning and that seats can be assigned by families. Social distancing will be a challenge so the best option that the district may be able to offer is to allow parents to decide if their child or children ride on buses. Parents who are uncomfortable with allowing their children on buses may be required to transport them to school themselves.
The food service program offered by the Vermillion School District’s provider, Lunchtime Solutions, has served over 50,000 meals since schools were closed in mid-March.
“We’ve asked our principals to think about how will social distancing look (this fall) and can we look at lengthening the period of time of the lunch program,” Alvey said. “That way, we don’t have 100 students at a time in the cafeteria; we might only have 50 in there at time and those kids are socially distant.”
The school board is also considering having kids eat in their classrooms.
“If you’re an elementary student or a middle school student, you’re with those students most of the day,” he said. “Those cohorts are natural in grades K-5, so we feel like that is an option that we would be able to make available to our teachers and our kids.
“There are some struggles with eating in classrooms, though, such as being able to serve the meals warm,” the superintendent said, noting that serving soup in a classroom would be different than serving it in a gym with a tile floor.
Other factors must be considered, such as the delivery of meals, the removal of plates when students are done eating and whether to use traditional or disposable plates and silverware.
COVID-19 will mean that lunches will be served to students and they won’t have the ability to fill their plates on their own from, for example, the salad bars that are offered.
“A typical high school entree might have had six or seven entree choices,” Alvey said. This fall, students may get one or two entree choices, a fresh salad, fresh fruit and milk.
“Our folks and our students will have to get used to a new program,” he said. “It will still be great, it will still be nutritious, it will still meet the federal guidelines, but … it will not look the same as students come back.”
Should the school be required to once again offer only remote classes, the district will, again, be able to immediately offer grab and go lunches.
COVID-19 may cause changes in the upcoming school year’s calendar, Alvey said.
“Our board will be able to deal with that on the spur of the moment, if necessary. We’ve talked about if we should start school earlier, before USD returns,” he said.
The board has been advised that the incubation period for the virus is at least two weeks “so we would have to start within the next few weeks to beat the timing of when USD folks will be coming back,” the superintendent said. “It wasn’t practical for us to be able to put this plan in place safely to bring students back earlier.”
The board and administration has looked at the possibility of starting school after Labor Day, but that’s not an idea that has been highly promoted because if there is a spike in COVID-19 after USD students return to Vermillion, delaying the start of school would still put Vermillion School District students at a significant disadvantage.
“At this point, we’ve decided to start on Aug. 19, with a normal start,” Alvey said.
He said families, staff and the district’s substitute staff people shared similar concerns in the initial surveys that had been sent out to school district families weeks earlier.
“About a third of our people committed -- they’re ready to start tomorrow and come back,” Alvey said. “We’ve had another 10 or 11 say ‘I don’t think I’m going to be coming back,’ both those won’t necessarily COVID-related. Those were people that have graduated from college or have taken other positions and they’re not in the Vermillion community anymore. In a given year, we will lose eight to 10 of our substitutes and then we have another 20 or more subs who haven’t given us any feedback at all so we’re not exactly sure where they fall in that spectrum.”
Besides surveys, the school district is relying on a checklist from the South Dakota Department of Health.
“We checked off every item on their list. Any recommendation they had, we put into place,” he said,” whether it was a mask recommended, physical distancing, plexiglass, increased cleaning schedule -- 37 out of 37 items on their checklist, the Vermillion School District accomplished.
The superintendent said the school district is also following the guidelines of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Sanford Health, the local COVID-19 discussion panel of Clay County Emergency Management.
It is also relying on the Start Well Plan of the South Dakota Department of Education, the Return To Normal plan of the State of South Dakota and recommendations from the Associated School Boards of South Dakota.
An update on the local COVID-19 situation and further discussion of the district’s back to school plan were agenda items on a special meeting of the school board scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday, July 23, in the Vermillion Middle School library.