Students are unlikely to be in classrooms five days a week when school resumes in the fall under scenarios under consideration by state education leaders.
Lunch is likely to take place in classrooms, rather than the cafeteria. And bus rides may require masks, windows down or spacing between students.
State schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said developing recommendations likely mean, “Children will not be coming back to school five days a week and that is something that’s happening around the nation.”
Members of the state school board discussed different scenarios for returning to school this fall, with the mildest change a proposed four-day week and the most extreme anticipating the possibility of a surge of coronavirus cases.
Gov. Jim Justice, during a separate daily briefing, said he is not fully familiar with the options yet but understands school is likely to change significantly this year.
“It’s probably going to be a little different,” Justice said.
Plans take shape but are not final
Public schools students finished the year learning as best they could through a blend of online studies and packets provided by school systems. Nutrition programs also continued.
“I thought shutting down was tough. We still have a lot, a lot of work to do” on figuring out how to reopen in the fall, Burch said.
Burch today said it’s important to get students back into classrooms but acknowledged the circumstances may be significantly different than they were before the virus hit.
Many of the details are still taking shape, but he described different groups making recommendations that he then described to board members. Those recommendations were then changed, on the spot, because of school board comments.
“I don’t want the public to think in mid-June that this is what school looks like in August,” Burch said.
But, he said, schools will need to start planning very soon.
“We’ve got a month to really help these superintendents start determining what these recommendations look like,” Burch said.
More changes, Burch noted, could take place because of the governor’s involvement, the public’s reaction or the needs of each local school system.
“Throwing out scenarios and ideas is good for us to begin planning,” he said.
Three outlines for reopening schools
Burch described three scenarios, with the first being aimed particularly at the circumstances of elementary school children. It is called “Safer at Home/Safer at School.”
Under that, school would only meet in-person four days a week. The fifth would be a cleaning and sanitizing day for the school, although Burch later said that might be unnecessary if systems can become more efficient at cleaning.
Elementary students would stay together as a “core group,” meaning they wouldn’t divert to the gym or the cafeteria or a separate art or music room.
“We’re really strongly encouraging outdoor classrooms and outdoor interactions as much as possible,” Burch said, referring to the belief that the spread of coronavirus is suppressed outdoors.
Lunchtime, he said, would likely take place in classrooms and would likely be combined with some form of instruction such as reading.
“We’re going to probably have to spend some time developing alternative schedules,” he said.
The second scenario, probably meant for older students, he described as a “blended learning delivery model.”
Learning would occur five days a week, but only a portion of those days would be in a school building. The population of the school might determine how many days students spend on-site.
“The goal is to limit the footprint in the schools,” Burch said.
Among questions to be resolved are whether students and teachers would wear masks and if coronavirus testing would be part of the school day.
Not having all students come to school every day would limit time on buses, he said. But there could be other changes to school transportation, too, such as having students space apart, wear masks or keep the windows down.
“Superintendents have been very clear. We’ve got to make decisions about transportation,” Burch said.
The third scenario would be for possible instances of a coronavirus wave, which could lead to another period of not being in school at all.
Teachers and students would need to communicate each day and develop ways to keep learning and assessing achievement.
“If there is a stay-at-home order issued in the future, I am hoping that order would only be for that region or district,” Burch said.
State school board members ask questions
Board members asked more about the philosophy behind the emerging guidance.
“What is the goal? To limit asymptomatic spread? To reduce the spread to adults?” asked board member Daniel Snavely, a doctor and medical director at St. Marys Wound Center.
“Do we have data saying that these measures make a difference in the transmission?”
Burch said the plan errs on the side of student health and safety.
“This plan is overly cautious,” Burch said. “I’m agreeing with you that it’s overly, overly cautious.”
Another board member, former Charleston Catholic Principal Debra Sullivan, noted a significant number of recovered coronavirus patients are represented among state statistics.
Sullivan said she is worried about students becoming isolated and resorting to too much screen time on electronic devices.
“I care very deeply about getting kids back in school. They need to be there full time,” Sullivan said.
“We do not want to have a lost generation here.”
Board President Dave Perry recommended a drop-dead date for guidance so people can make solid plans for the fall. He also asked for a list of possible legislative changes to allow for new duties and patterns in the schools.
“We’d ask that you use that bully pulpit to present these ideas to the Governor’s Office.”
Justice, during today’s daily briefing about the coronavirus, said state leaders will have to balance health concerns with the need for students to return to their usual learning environment.
“I’m concerned about the kids’ learning process and how disruptive this whole thing has been. And we are working hand in hand with our great Department of Ed to be able to try in every way to ensure that learning process will continue and absolutely be interrupted only to the smallest degree,” Justice said.
“This level of disruption can really, really hurt. We’re doing the best we can possibly do, listening to our experts. But at the end of the day we’re going to have to adjust.”