by Terry Rogers
On Thursday, August 6, Milford School District Board of Education voted to start the school year in a remote learning format. The vote was 5 to 1 with School Board President Jason Miller abstaining. On Monday, August 3, the board heard that almost 60 percent of parents surveyed wanted to see school start in a hybrid model. Before the vote, the board heard comments from the public.
“We are experiencing something we have never experienced before,” Superintendent Kevin Dickerson said at the start of the meeting. “We are charged to provide the best education for our children. We were provided a plan three weeks ago with three scenarios. That meant we had to make a plan for all three. We looked at the numbers for our area. In recent weeks, in Milford, we have had less than two cases of COVID-19. We had one in Lincoln. On Tuesday, Governor Carney declared that we could use Scenario 2 and we think this is the best choice for our students and families. Our hybrid model will significantly limit the number of students in school at one time. We are appreciative of the board to allow families to make the decision on hybrid or remote. We feel we can bring a limited number of students in with state guidelines. We had a successful summer school. We even had an outside consultant commend us for our efforts.”
Dr. Dickerson pointed out that Milford School District students have participated in the Delaware State Fair, driver education and other outside activities. In June, the district held a graduation ceremony with more than 600 people in attendance. His belief was that in-school attendance was critical for student learning due to issues with internet access and students who did not learn well with the remote learning in the spring.
The district put together a plan should the schools open in a hybrid format. The plan required several health and safety protocols to keep children and staff safe. Students would be kept in stable groups with little to no mixing of classes. Elementary schools would assign a teacher along with a related arts teacher in the cohort of classes. Milford Central academy would have grade-level cohorts with teams of teachers rotating in as well as an assigned CTE-Related Arts-Elective teacher assigned. Milford High School would have a different look than elementary as the district worked to minimize student travel between classes.
“All students and staff will be required to wear face coverings,” Dr. Dickerson said. “Students and staff will be required to maintain a social distance of six feet. Hand sanitizer will be provided so students and staff can wash their hands regularly, especially after activities or changing classes. Throughout the day, we will clean and disinfect high touch areas every two hours, at least twice each day. This includes lights, doors, doorknobs, railings, bathrooms and more. We will increase the cleaning of our hallway restrooms and clean playground equipment after each group. Materials will not be shared between students, there will be no assemblies, and no field trips. Visitors will be limited with everyone required to wear face coverings and sanitize their hands before entering.”
After Dr. Dickerson spoke, the meeting was opened up to public comment. Overwhelmingly, those who commented were teachers who were against the reopening of schools. Of the more than two dozen comments, at least 12 of them were teachers who were against opening to in-classroom learning.
“I am the mother of three and a teacher,” Grace Parker said. “The high school HVAC system is unreliable. Some days, I have to supply blankets to my students. Something I cannot do right now. Other days it is extremely hot. Medical workers have PPE and they constantly say they need more. Educators do not know if there is adequate PPE.”
Dr. Glen Stevenson explained that the HVAC system at the high school is actually running better than it has in 15 years with new compressors and condensers installed recently. Sara Croce, Chief Financial Officer, stated that there was significant PPE available for teachers and students.
“Our filters are changed every three months,” Dr. Stevenson said. “It is true that the system at the high school is an older, retrofitted system. We had a good meeting today with our custodians. They felt very upbeat about the overall cleaning. We would like to get some additional help, like some part-time people, but we also talked about some hour changes to overlap the day and night crew. We are looking forward to doing what we need to keep our kids and staff safe.”
Bryce Bayliss was concerned that his son would be more concerned with health regulations than what he should be learning in the classroom. Ann Mahan, a teacher, was comfortable returning to in-classroom teaching but after Monday’s board meeting when she spoke about the need to return to the classroom, she received emails and texts from other teachers stating they were not willing to go back.
“About 60 percent of our staff is not comfortable returning,” Mahan said. “That actually surprises me. But it was pointed out that while the board gave the parents and students a choice to return, teachers were not given that choice. I am comfortable going back but if my co-workers are not, we need to keep that in mind.”
Jim Purcell is the father of a fourth grader in Milford School District and expressed concerns with remote learning.
“I know it was put together hastily,” Purcell said. “I know the teachers are concerned. But my concern is the six weeks. What is the plan after six weeks? Do we go another six weeks and another after that? Everyone says this could get worse. So, do we keep doing this? I do think, at some point, we will need to get our children back in school. Research shows that one-third are not in environments conducive to learning.”
After hearing public comment, the board was provided the opportunity to make statements.
Rony Baltazar-Lopez pointed out that the DSEA overwhelmingly suggested remote learning to start the school year and asked why the district was not listening. His belief was that children will not follow the rules and that adults should not expect them to because they are children. He also felt it was wrong to divert additional funds for extra bus transportation and that children would be stressed, depressed and concerned because school would not look like it did before they left in March.
“We are here,” Judy Purcell said. “What is the best thing we can do for our students and staff? If we go with remote, we will have to have more aggressive lessons. If we go with remote, it leaves the parent’s choice out of it. If we go hybrid, we have the option of saying what we want our children to do, but it puts more work on the teachers. If we do hybrid, parents have an option. But we have to consider the teacher. A lot of teachers feel they have no say, but I feel like we need to give them a say.”
Kris Thompson stated that he listened to what Dr. Dickerson had to say and felt that the district had worked hard to create a comprehensive, workable hybrid option.
“I think we can make schools a safe place,” Thompson said. “We are a month and a half away from putting kids in classrooms. If our students see teachers modeling PPE, they will follow suit. I look at all the places that have remained open during the pandemic. I see kids at the beach, at sporting events, in daycare, all without issue. The governor has said that we can open in a hybrid model and that must be based on science.”
David Vezmar disagreed with Thompson’s assessment, pointing out that even the governor acknowledged that there will be cases when children go back into the classroom.
“I don’t want that to be Milford,” Vezmar said. “I just don’t think it is fair to the staff to put them in this position. Two or three months down the road, we will say we made the right decision or the wrong decision. I would prefer to be conservative so we can look back and say that no one got sick. Every communication I received was that we remain in remote learning except one. I think that tells me what the community wants.”
Jean Wylie also referenced comments, letters and emails she received from teachers who were fearful and anxious.
“They are requesting we think of the virtual model for the first six weeks,” Wylie said. “I would like to see that when the staff returns to the classroom, they get the help they need for their great fear and anxiety. We need more support to lower that anxiety. Whatever we decide tonight should relax our teachers but if we choose virtual that will but an additional burden on our parents. Tonight, I heard that we need to work with our staff.”
Renate Wiley commented that Dr. Dickerson and his staff always put the needs of students and staff in the forefront. However, she also knew that planning and implementation were two different things.
“There are heart thinkers and there are head thinkers,” Wiley said. “I am a heart thinker, but I need to look at this on the basis of fact. I know the facts change constantly. What has not changed is that we have no answers on how to control COVID. WE know it is still out there. The numbers are still increasing. Until we find a vaccine or treatment, there is no way to control this disease. I know what is good for my family, but what is good for my family may not be good for all. I do know that if we start with remote learning, all our children start at the same time and in the same way. Having just one way to teach is much better for our teachers than the hybrid model.”