Thanks to the novel coronavirus, “back to school” this fall will likely look nothing like it has in the past.
This week, the Yankton School District (YSD) began asking parents for feedback on how they would like to see the 2020-2021 school year go if the community experiences another wave of COVID-19.
The five-question survey addresses parents’ concerns related to local rates of COVID-19 infections in the community as well as varying responses the district might take to a surge in COVID-19 cases during the coming school year.
The survey will be accessible through June 1 (Monday), according to YSD Superintendent Wayne Kindle.
“The 2020-2021 school year is planned to begin on Aug. 24,” Kindle said in addressing the school district’s parents. “However, due to COVID-19, the starting date and how we start may look different than past school years.”
The focus, he said, will be on student well-being, student education and providing meals for students.
This spring, South Dakota’s public schools closed down in mid-March on the recommendation of Gov. Kristi Noem to give the state time to prepare for an anticipated surge in cases.
This month, Noem declared that measures used to slow the virus were successful in “flattening the curve” of expected cases, and that the virus would spike manageably in early July. Also, she recommended relaxing the more extreme measures used to slow the virus or face not having a spike until September or October.
How communities may reopen safely is largely being left to local jurisdictions.
In the event of a COVID-19 spike next fall, the state may leave the decision as to when and how schools conduct classes up to individual districts.
School districts may quickly have to make decisions on closings based on advice from health care professionals.
Parent input on some of the broader questions will help shape YSD policy now in the face of unknowns down the line, Kindle said.
“I think probably the biggest intent of the survey was to gather some data from parents. The survey is not the plan by any means,” he said. “Our hope is that starting the planning this early, and given all the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changes, it seems — if not daily, for sure, weekly — we can have a pretty good plan in place for next fall when school is supposed to start.”
This week, the CDC issued a list of 21 recommendations for the safe reopening of schools. According to that guidance, all children over age two should wear masks in school; there should not be any sharing of objects; desks should face the same direction and be spaced six feet apart and schools should implement one-way hallways. Where six-foot spacing is unfeasible, the installation of barriers and sneeze guards is recommended. To read a list of all the CDC recommendations, go to www.yankton.net.
“There are a lot of circumstances between now and then — all COVID-19 related — that could prevent us from starting on time,” Kindle said. “We need to have some alternative options if we can’t start on time and be going to school every day.”
Options presented on the survey include students attending school on alternate days or alternate weeks, or schooling at home online and with take-home packets as was done for the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year.
One option presented in the survey involves opening the schools on time with students at school, regardless of the number of COVID-19 cases locally.
But, even adopting that option, school would still look very different from any other year.
“Regardless of whether we use one option, two options, a combination of options or no school at all, the fact of the matter is that we’re going to have to have our buildings cleaned — just like any other school year,” Kindle said. “But, in this case, there will be other precautions that will take place, especially regarding some of the cleaning.”
A best-case scenario would be that the COVID-19 threat is gone by the fall, but that seems unlikely, he said.
“Outside of the survey, there’s going to be a lot of planning that takes place, which includes: Are we going to try to have masks for every student? We need to have student desks so far apart and we can only put so many kids on a bus,” Kindle said. “I can go down a list of multiple things to do to make it seem like we’re coming back normally, but it’s really not because we have so many things that we need to think about.”
In addition to CDC recommendations, there will likely be local regulations as well as attendance limits for schools to follow.
There is also a possibility that not all the schools will have the same plan, which would affect families with children of varying ages. For that reason, the YSD survey asks parents to check which schools their children attend, he said.
“At least we can sort out some of that data, because we might have to make different plans for different grade levels,” Kindle said. “Middle school might be a little different than elementary school. Elementary might be different than high school.
“But again, we’ve never done this before, and we know it’s as serious as COVID-19 is serious.”
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