The Vermillion School made needed adjustments to the school district’s Back To School Plan at its regular meeting Tuesday night.
Superintendent Damon Alvey, with input from educators and administrators from the district’s four school buildings, suggested that the changes were needed.
Alvey also informed the board that after relatively low COVID-19 numbers this school year, the district experienced a small spike in the last week or so.
“In terms of our COVID numbers, we actually saw a spike this weekend. We had six new cases this weekend. In the previous eight weeks, we had 14 total, so we have seen a little uptick in our areas and right now we have kind of isolated that to some activities in the high school,” he said.
“We currently have 10 staff and 10 students over the course of eight weeks that have been positive cases of COVID. At this point, we’re working on how this will impact our school play coming this weekend or the school choir event next week, because some of the students who are out at this point, either quarantined for a close contact or maybe with COVID might be in one of the two of those activities,” he said. “We will be looking at if we’ll be making some adjustments to the schedule.”
He advised the board that changes to the district’s volleyball schedule also had to be made.
“Last Friday, when we found two cases related to volleyball that we wanted to take care of, we postponed the activities for volleyball through Thursday of this week,” Alvey said. “We will continue to look at those COVID numbers tomorrow (Oct. 14) to see if they warrant any more activities being postponed or moved around to help make accommodations for students or staff members.”
Alvey told school board members that the changes to the Back to School Plan he was bringing to the board tonight involve students who are taking classes remotely.
“What we are finding with some of our remote students currently is that we have students in all grades levels who are unengaged or they are not attending school,” he said. “In other words, part of the requirement to go to remote school is that you would attend school daily, that you would turn in your assignments, that you would Zoom with your classroom teachers. And, largely, many of them have. They’ve been really successful at that.
“But we do have a population of students who are not doing that. So we would propose this evening to the school board an amendment to our Return To School Plan that would require students who are failing two classes from home would be required to attend in person,” Alvey said. “Studies are clear that the most impactful thing on a student’s educational process is the classroom teacher and we feel that some of our students need to have those professional educators with them daily, encouraging them, pushing them and most importantly, teaching them at their needs level.”
Alvey and the administrative staff proposed that board policy be changed so that students taking classes remotely who are failing two classes be required to return to school for in-person instruction.
“The second part of that would be that if I am a remote student absent from school for 10 or more class periods, I must, again, return to traditional in-person learning. The reason for that is the same as the first example,” he said. “Students who are at home unengaged cannot replicate the instruction that they’ve missed and we can send assignments home but to students and families that this material might be challenging for, all we’ve done is set those students up for failure. Once again, we feel it’s vital for the students’ educational progress to be in person where the student can be in class with the teacher.
“So the first discussion issue I ask the board to consider is an amendment to the plan that requires students to attend if they’re failing two classes or if they’ve been absent for more than 10 class periods or 10 days this school term,” the superintendent said.
Initially, the school district had 200 students opting to take remote learning at the beginning of the school year. Alvey said that number has shrunk by 25 students or more who have voluntarily returned to school.
“Over the course of the first eight weeks, they found they were struggling at home or conditions at school were going so well and their parents asked if they could return to school early,” Alvey said. “In spite of the original intent of our plan to hold families accountable to the plan for the first nine weeks, we altered course mid-stream and allowed that.”
At the high school, there are 10 to 12 remote-learning students who are not engaged in their studies or have met the 10 absences mark.
The number of remote learners, as of Tuesday, had dropped to 42. “The amendment that Mr. Alvey talked about tonight would affect 15 seventh and eighth graders,” Tom O’Boyle, principal of the middle school, said, adding that no sixth graders would be affected.
At one point, there were over 80 students taking classes remotely at Jolley Elementary. Today, there are approximately 60.
“Of those, five is what I’d be looking at,” said Jolley Principal Samuel Jacobs. “I would also ask that those are many of the same families I would have struggled with whether they were online or in person, regardless. It’s just a history of repeated absences, as well.”
“I would agree with Mr. Jacobs,” said Kim Johnson, principal of Austin Elementary. “We started with 46 remote students at Austin; we’re down to about 38. One moved to home school and several of them came back … to traditional learning. We have a couple more that are still contemplating that move back to traditional and that would be a good call for them for increased engagement.
“We are being flexible in our role and encouraging that and trying to build that bridge to get them back on-site if at all possible,” she said.
Alvey’s proposal would likely mean that two or three students would need to return to the school, Johnson said.
“There are a couple more that need to step it up and increase engagement to not be on that list,” she said.
Alvey said that once a student who is currently taking classes remotely is returned to on-site learning under the proposal he offered Tuesday, they would remain in school and not be allowed to return to remote learning later.
“The intent of the remote was for the students and the families that felt they were the highest compromised under these conditions and students that maybe don’t fit that definition took advantage of the opportunity to not be a traditional, in-person student,” Alvey said, “and it’s proven to not be successful for them, it’s not successful for our community or our school district to allow it to continue and I think that we need to make a stand that our education system’s intent needs to be fulfilled and we need to strongly encourage and persuade people to return back.
“Our goal is not to be a remote school,” he said. “Our goal is to have students back in-person and this was an effort to curb the circumstances that we were handed. I certainly hope that we see this as something that goes away in the future for the Vermillion School District.”
The policy amendment came about after hearing staff express their frustrations, the concerns of parents whose children are returning to the traditional model and from the advice and recommendations of each school’s principals.
School board member Tim Schwasinger expressed concern as the proposed amendment would bring 40 students back to the district’s four buildings, with the largest number at the middle school.
“Can we handle that and how would that transition happen,” he asked, “and looking forward, to Sam’s point, these are the same families and kids that we would have struggled with, even if everyone had been in-person. So what do we do, to Mr. Alvey’s point, to do what’s right for these kids and keep them engaged? What are we going to do if we get to May and they have not made the change, which I think we will see. Are we prepared for them to repeat a grade?”
Alvey said the school district has partnered with the county state’s attorney and will be pursuing truancy charges for families whose children are repeatedly not attending school.
After lengthy discussion, the board voted in favor of Alvey’s recommendations regarding students who attending classes remotely and failing or not attending classes. Two other ideas that were brought up – allowing building administrators flexibility to modify parts of the Back To School Plan and reducing wellness checks to every other day, were set aside for now.