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Policy addresses masks, bus rules and more for in-person classes and guidelines for those choosing distance learning
By ANNETTE HARVISON
It is official. The 2020-2021 school year will get underway in Greene County public schools on Thursday, Aug. 6 as planned. However, educators, students and parents will have to deal with numerous changes and modifications to the school day brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the July 13 meeting of the Greene County Board of Education, school leaders approved the district’s plan for the new school year, which has several adjustments for students and teachers alike. The plan, which was put together by school administrators for approval by the board, was a work in progress throughout the summer as guidance from state and federal officials shifted and the pandemic worsened.
Greene County Supt. of Education Charles L. Breland presented school board members with the plan for returning to school Aug. 6. Breland said a survey was conducted in which parents, administration and teachers were asked their opinion in reopening the schools. The majority responding to the survey chose the traditional return, although a fair percentage of parents said they would not be sending their children to school if the school chose to return to traditional methods. A plan had to be put in place for returning to school.
“I know this (the plan) is very long,” Breland said to board members. “This is something the principals and I have worked on for a long time.”
“We’ve taken a lot of things into consideration when coming up with this plan,” Breland said. “We’ve looked at other districts to see their models, and we’ve taken our time coming up with this plan.”
The Mississippi Department of Education released its latest guidelines for how K-12 schools should reopen in the fall last month. The recommendations were created by a group of 10 superintendents from across the state, and provided local districts with three options — traditional, hybrid, or virtual — for how their schools should reopen.
Traditional reopening means students are physically present in school so long as districts can continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state department of health guidelines. A hybrid reopening would mean some combination of in-person instruction and distance learning. Virtual reopening would have students return to school entirely through distance learning.
With Monday’s vote, Greene County officials opted for a traditional format with modifications, but are also providing options for distance learning for those who are concerned about returning to campus during the pandemic. See the accompanying story in this edition for more information regarding the distance learning path being made available.
“Things are changing every day,” Breland said. “Parts of this plan are subject to change depending on what happens moving forward.”
One big change for this year will be the daily schedule. Students will begin school at the normal time but will be released an hour early each day, with high school students loading buses at 1:50 p.m. Students will be released from school at noon on Fridays.
This change to the daily schedule is to give teachers time to address students choosing to participate in distance learning as well as cleaning the classrooms. Teachers will remain at school for the full school day. High school students will still remain on the block schedule, with four classes each semester. However, the normal 90-minute classes will be shortened, though Breland didn’t specify the amount of time in each class. Kindergarten through eighth grade will take their normal classes, but like the high school, instruction time for each subject will be shortened.
“Graduation requirements will be changed to accommodate the students that weren’t required to take state tests,” Breland said. “We will return to the same grading scale we had last year.”
While there was general agreement among the board and administrators at the meeting regarding the schedule, the issue of protectives face masks drew differing opinions. The plan approved Monday by a 3-2 vote states masks will not be required for students, although district officials said they will highly recommend students wear them.
Board members Sue Eubanks, Dorothy Clark and C.J. Hill were concerned about the lack of mandated masks for students. However, board members Shannon Denmark and Robin McCoy along with Breland were against a mandate, arguing there was no mandate from the state or federal government to require them, and even if there was, they saw no way to enforce such an order. After much discussion, sometimes heated, officials agreed to adjust the plan and require teachers to wear masks when in close contact with students or others in the school. The teacher mask requirement was added to the policy on a 3-2 vote by board members, with McCoy and Denmark casting the dissenting votes.
Another big question among parents going into Monday’s meeting centered around bus transportation. Masks and temperature checks will not be required for students to be transported to and from campus on the district’s school buses. Buses will run their normal routes, but seating arrangements will be different. Students will be seated according to family, and all family members from the first stop will move to the back of the bus to sit together. The next stop will do the same.
Students will have their temperatures checked upon arriving at school, and any students with fever will be sent to an isolation area until the student can be picked up. District officials said checking temperatures on the bus could create a liability issue for the district as well as violate HIPPA laws. The district will not provide masks for students who wish to wear them, but officials said parents will be strongly encouraged to provide their children with masks.
Once on campus, students and teachers will also face changes to breakfast and lunch procedures as well the transitions between class periods. All students will receive free breakfast this school year, but will not have the menu choices they have enjoyed in the past. Soft breakfast items such as a sausage biscuit or breakfast pastry/muffins or similar items along with juice and milk will be provided and students will eat breakfast in their classroom. Lunch will be served in the cafeteria, but the meals will be prepared and pre-packaged in containers for each student to grab and take to their table.
“There isn’t enough time to get students in and out of the cafeteria and have it cleaned in the morning,” Breland said. “And having the lunch in containers will allow the cafeteria workers to easily clean tables in between lunch groups.”
High school students will change classes each period, but students in lower grades will stay in the classrooms with teachers rotating as needed to cover the different subject areas being taught. Officials said keeping students in the same class will minimize contact and hopefully reduce the potential of exposure to the virus created by groups of students mingling in the hallways between classes.
District officials have also taken into consideration having to close all school campuses, or any school campus. Breland said in the event of a closure, students would be sent home with a Chromebook, which is a small laptop computer. Chromebooks are property of the school district. Breland said the district will have to make a policy regarding use of Chromebooks as well as any damage to them incurred by students, and board members will have to approve the policy.
“We have just about enough Chromebooks to supply every student in the district one,” Breland said. “We are waiting on stimulus funds to come through and we will be able to purchase the rest.”
Breland also said the district is working on a plan to provide rural county students with internet access. Such points of access, Breland said, would be at community churches, the school parking lot or other easily accessible areas in outlying communities.
District officials said students will be given instruction on how to use the Chromebooks and how to access class material in case of any school disruptions due to Covid-19. Breland said his office is working to find a way to offer training to parents as well.
There is the also the possibility of having to quarantine entire classes of students. If three students in a classroom are confirmed to have the virus, parents will be notified, likely through the ‘All-Call’ system, and the class will be quarantined, though Breland did not specify the length of quarantine. If this does occur, the Chromebooks would be sent home to allow children access to learning materials and distance learning during the quarantine period.
Coastal Family Health Center School Services will be working closely with county schools throughout the year. Coastal employees will be on hand to talk to students and teachers about the importance washing hands and distancing from others. The school clinics will also have rapid tests available for students or teachers needing to be tested for Covid-19.
Other modifications included changes to water fountains on the campuses and elimination of field trips for this school year, with the exception of athletics and Career and Technical Education classes.
Breland told board members that water fountains are being modified at all campuses as a precautionary measure for students. Instead of traditional drinking fountains, water dispensers will have faucets so students can bring and fill their own bottles throughout the day. Students may bring their own bottles, but Breland said he is working on trying to find a way to make water bottles available to all students.
Despite Monday’s vote, many questions and ‘what if’ scenarios remain. Breland said he and members of his administrative team have researched and considered many possible scenarios with the return of school. The plan is subject to change at any time due to changes in circumstances.
School administrators and board members will continue to monitor the situation and adjust the policies as needed throughout the school year. The plan for the 2020-21 school year is available on the Greene County School District website.
For more information see the complete GREENE CO. SCHOOL DIST. RETURN-TO-SCHOOL PLAN