by Terry Rogers
Over the past week, Milford School District surveyed parents in order to get feedback on whether schools should open in a hybrid version or remain virtual learning for the first marking period. The district will not make a final decision until Governor John Carney announces which scenario Delaware school districts must follow based on the spread of COVID-19.
As of Monday, August 3, of the 4,216 students enrolled in Milford School District, 2,574, around 61 percent, responded to the survey. Of those who responded, over 95 percent of parents indicated they wanted to have a choice in which learning model their child used. At this time, almost 54 percent of parents preferred a hybrid model where students would be in school a few days a week with remote learning other days. Just over 46 percent preferred full-time remote learning.
Breaking down the responses by school, over 63 percent of Morris parents preferred the hybrid version with almost 37 percent requesting full-time remote learning. At Benjamin Banneker Elementary, over 56 percent preferred the hybrid model and 43 percent preferred remote learning. Parents at Lulu Ross Elementary School were 52 percent in favor of hybrid learning and almost 48 percent in favor of remote learning. Of the parents at Mispillion Elementary, 53 percent wanted a hybrid version and 47 percent full-time remote. Parents at Milford Central Academy were less in favor of the hybrid version with just over 49 percent preferring that option and 51 percent preferring remote learning. Milford High School parents responded that over 54 percent preferred hybrid while 46 percent preferred remote learning.
In addition, just under 40 percent of parents stated that they would need bus transportation and over 92 percent stated that students can connect laptops or computer to internet at their home. Less than four percent of parents stated that internet is not available where they live. Parents stated that almost 24 percent of students would not have an adult at home during the school day to assist students with remote learning.
If the district was able to use a hybrid format, more synchronous learning, where the student would be in the classroom remotely at the same time other students were physically in class would be required. With this type of learning, the student would need to be present while class was conducted using web conferencing technology. Even if the district used only remote learning, there would be more synchronous learning required. The hybrid version would require physical distancing within the classroom and students would be cohorted in order to reduce exposure.
The plan presented included three cohorts in the hybrid model. Cohort A would attend Monday and Tuesday in school with remote learning Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Cohort B would have students in class Thursday and Friday with remote learning on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday while Cohort C would have students in school each day.
The plan also included details on safety protocols regarding face coverings and cleaning of classrooms and school buses. Only 23 children will be permitted on a bus at one time and will be seated in a staggered fashion. Classrooms and buses will be cleaned and sanitized regularly as well.
After the presentation of the plan, school board members were provided an opportunity to ask questions. Judy Purcell was concerned about the teachers and what was being asked of them.
“Not only are we asking teachers to come into the classroom, but you also have to teach remotely and you have to test some in class and some remotely,” Purcell said. “You have to address different student needs as well as dealing with your own family, concerns that they will get sick, so I have a real concern for our teachers and their mental well-being. I love the approach that we are looking at all teachers and we are going to be more rigorous.”
Dr. Kevin Dickerson, Superintendent, explained that they are keeping safety in mind in every decision regarding the reopening of schools. He did comment that the survey, despite not being complete, showed that the majority of parents wanted their children in a face-to-face learning environment.
“My number one concern are the kids who are on IEPs,” Board Member Kris Thompson said. “I have two children who do very well in school and one of them failed a class during COVID because she struggled with the online learning. As good a student a she is, I worry about the kids who do struggle daily. I understand a single death out of a disease is a tragedy, but I don’t want to be so hung up and scared to return to school. Our two counties have 414,000 people. We have less than five percent who ever contracted this disease and, within that, less than 0.2 percent have actually died from it. I don’t want to shape 95 percent of student learning based on that five percent. I agree it is scare. I agree we must be cautious.”
Laura Manges, Director of Student Learning, explained that Individual Education Plans (IEPs) develop plans based on a student’s special needs. The district has customized learning plans and process for students with special needs and offered an Extended School Year that provide baseline assessment and additional support to be sure those students did not slide backward.
“We received a letter from DSEA that stated over 90 percent of teachers in the state are concerned about going back to work,” Board Member David Vezmar said. “When you have 90 percent of your workforce scared to go back to work, we have to consider that. We cannot take that lightly. I also understand better in the classroom. I get that kids will learn better in the classroom. I am afraid if we start out with the hybrid, we will see more retirements. I understand the numbers show low rates of infection, but when you look at local businesses using OSHA guidelines, social distancing and facemasks, people are still getting sick. You translate that into putting children in a building. I greatly appreciate the work that has gone into this but I think we need to start with virtual learning initially.”
Board Members Renate Wiley and Jean Wylie both expressed concerns regarding sending students to school but agreed that there were many parents and students who needed to have the face-to-face instruction in a classroom. Once the board completed their questions, they voted to allow parents to choose to opt out of the hybrid model if that is the decision when school starts pending the Governor’s decision. The option passed with a vote of 6 to 1 with Rony Baltazar-Lopez the only dissenting vote.
Public comment was also taken regarding the plan presented. Several members of the public expressed concerns in sending children back into the classroom. Kerry Stahl, a teacher in Milford School District, suggested continuing remote learning for six weeks while Jenn Rowan, a parent in Milford School District questioned whether mental health services will be available.
“We do have a wide range of service opportunities and providers,” Manges said. “We have a Wellness Center, we have counselors, several in every building. We have crisis therapists, social workers plus our nurses. We have established and identified screeners so that we can determine a baseline for emotional well-being. We already had some of those measures in place this spring. Things did arise and we were able to get resources to them quickly. WE also have some changes at the state level regarding how we manage mental health among students, teachers and staff.” School Nurse Sue Smith, who sat in on the Governor’s Task Force to reopen schools, stated that the district has strict protocols in place should a child develop a fever while at school.
“I think one of my biggest concerns is the overwhelming responsibility we are going to have as teachers,” Ann Mahan, a teacher at Ross said. “We have all seen the social media posts of parents talking about teachers not being responsive. Some of us could not get up from our computers each day. I was answering emails and texts into the evening. I think we need to establish some type of office hours for teachers as well.”
Vezmar, whose wife is also a teacher, stated that Mahan was right and that his wife was dealing with texts and emails into the evening. As teachers, he stated, they feel the need to respond because they understand parents are struggling, too, but the board should establish some timelines so that teachers are not even more overworked. Dr. Dickerson said that the administration would work to better communicate this information to parents.
“I am in contact with nurses in hospital and clinical settings,” Smith said. “I have to tell you that many of them have come to me and told me we need to get our kids in school. They agree that there should be an option for parents who want their children to remain home, but also an option for those who want to send their child to school. These are nurses on the frontlines, in a hospital setting, who are saying, send those children to school.”
Mahan also explained that she understood the difficulty of remote learning after helping her own child during the spring.
“Parents want their child in school,” Mahan said. “I struggled as a teacher with my own at home, trying to help him do his work while also teaching my students. While I think it is important to keep safety in mind, it is also important to remember that some people simply don’t have the option of staying home. It is not just a matter of safety for them. It is a matter of necessity.”
The Governor is expected to announce which scenario Delaware schools must follow later this week. Milford School District Board of Education will meet again on Thursday, August 6 where they plan to vote on the reopening plan for schools in the district. Public comment will be accepted at the meeting as well.