The St. James Board of Education heard a reopening strategy from school safety coordinator Josh Cahill during the May 21 meeting of the board. He highlighted how the district could be impacted by COVID-19 while it attempts to bring students back to the buildings.
Cahill, working with other school districts, administrators, faculty, and health officials, outlined several possible options on how the district could reopen for the fall semester. He stated these are only preliminary options, as there is much uncertainty on how the state and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will allow school districts to reopen and what rules and restrictions will be in place in a few months.
“This is one of the most polarizing subjects I’ve ever seen when it comes to health and safety. It ranges everywhere from ‘it’s a conspiracy’ to ‘you should never leave your house or you’re going to die,’” Cahill told the board. “After reading through all of this polarizing material from every place on the planet, other school districts, other states, the health department, the Department of Senior Services, our local health department, we’ve come up with a few guidelines and strategies.”
Cahill told the board the health department currently does not recommend any face-to face-contact through the month of June for students. “Potentially after that, we are looking at moving forward and potentially having small cohorts in July. Now, what that looks like, is going to be completely dependent on the climate, however, that is your testing field. That is how you actually test the waters before you get back into school,” Cahill said.
It was recommended to the school district to have a backup virtual plan for graduation, Cahill said. Virtual graduations are not popular, he told the board, but it might necessary depending on what information is available. The current plan is to hold graduation on June 26 outdoors at the football field. Information presented to the board by administrators suggested the district might limit the number of guests seniors may bring to two and participants will be spaced out accordingly.
The big topic to be discussed was what the return of students could look like for the fall semester. Cahill outlined several options for how students could safely return seated classes, assuming no new information or restrictions are imposed over the next two months.
“There’s four options. Tonight, I’m only presenting three because I think it would be willful neglect to even list going back to school like nothing ever happened starting August,” Cahill said. “The first option is the highest risk, which is bringing all students back to the buildings with added restrictions. Upon an outbreak, closing down seven to 14 days for health measures. Option two is actually bringing everybody back to the buildings with the same restrictions, but in cohorts. That means they are at different times. So, staggered, blended learning. Sometimes they would be in, when they are not in the building, they would be offered blended or online strategies.”
He said this was the moderate risk factor and would be very “complicated” to how the buildings would be broken up and contained. “That plan is still in development as to how that might look like. There would be a lot of communication because you have families that have multiple ages together, so you can’t do it by building, grade level, or group. You’d have to do it by demographic families and, as you well know, that is a sticky situation depending on what families actually look like and where they stay,” Cahill said.
Option three, he told the board, was the lowest risk, but would be very difficult to do. “That is continuing to do an at-home, online model through January or until we have a vaccine, which who knows how long that’s going to take. Everyone will tell you something different, and it’s also not bulletproof, since it’s voluntary,” he said.
Cahill said there might be pieces of each of the options that could be utilized together, depending on what the needs of the district are when it is time to implement a plan. Restrictions will also be in place if students returned to physical classrooms and there would have to be a disinfection plan in place before it could happen.
“Disinfection is very difficult. Wes (DeLuca, building and grounds supervisor) and his crew have been disinfecting very well. They use a product that is great. It is hospital grade, however most people don’t know, after it’s sprayed it takes 10 minutes for it to be fully effective,” Cahill said. “So, timing is an issue with that. It’s not like you wipe off the surface, you’re done and good to go.”
Disinfecting would have to be completed at least three times a day, including before students arrive and twice with students on the premises. Cafeterias would not be open. Lunches would be brought to students in the classrooms. Also, after school releases would have to be staggered for social distancing protocols to be implemented.
“Transportation also gets into a sticky situation. There has been a lot of different recommendations on this—everywhere from skipping every other row and having one person per seat, to having busses half full. And if you think having buses half full is fun, think about the transportation costs,” he told the board.
He added the district might be able to get some of the transportation costs back through federal and state money earmarked for COVID-19 relief, but the state is in a tough economic situation and the transportation fund will be impacted. Cahill said he has spoken with Copeland Bus Company and the district will work to ensure drivers have the correct disinfecting agents and policies necessary to keep buses sanitized.
Social distancing will be a large concern for the district. There is no metal playground equipment and students can’t congregate so recess will need to be heavily modified and staggered. How many students are walking the hallways and where they walk will have to be considered.
“Definitely for the little kids—first grade, kindergarten—it’s a straight shot. There is no way to do one way hallways in that part of the building,” Cahill said.
Protective equipment will have to be provided to faculty and worn regularly. Cahill said, St. James and Phelps County has been “blessed” that masks have not been as necessary as some other higher population areas, but they are a necessity as students return.
“To say that it won’t come or isn’t here is not reality. And, to also say that it hasn’t had an impact is not true because we know that it’s three times as deadly as the flu,” Cahill said. “So, I’m protecting my babies. I’m not worried so much about getting it myself, but I can’t take that chance.”
The information provided by the agencies he has spoken with, he said, have indicated masks will be a necessity when schools reopen. While it is too early to tell what approach and measures will be required when schools open, the district will be keeping abreast of the newest information and working on the safest way to bring students back.
Cahill told the board states are largely leaving it up to individual school districts, for now, to come up with their own plan to reopen, but there may be new information as the summer moves along. The topic was a discussion only and no decisions were made during the meeting.