From tents to bus rides: Social distancing in school reopening plans

Mark A. Griffith said he hasn’t slept much since the COVID-19 crisis first hit in March. The director of schools for rural Marion County, Tennessee, has had all of his attention focused on reading recommendations on how to safely reopen schools. 

The district has delayed its start from August to after Labor Day as cases increase in the area. When students arrive, they’ll find their classrooms look different, with plexiglass separating teachers from the group and in between desks. One of the biggest challenges, Griffith said, is conflicting guidance — that and the funding needed to meet new health and safety protocols.

“For the first time in 13 years as a school superintendent, I have not been able to give my teachers a raise because of the fear of the unknowns, and I hate that beyond measure,” he said. “We are getting $900,000 from the state to offset some things, but it is very restrictive in how those monies are utilized.”

Even before the expenses for personal protective gear and building upgrades, the district’s budget was already $204,000 less than the initial estimate from the state, according to Griffith. 

“We’re already behind the eight ball from the get-go,” he said.

Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark T. Bedell said his district has transformed one of its elementary schools with hand sanitizers, social distancing signage, touchless water fountains and classroom set ups to serve as a model for the rest of the district, which has also delayed its reopening to Sept. 8. 

When school resumes in Kansas City, Missouri, all 15,000 students will receive a “care package” with hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and water bottles for use with the touchless water fountains. Ideally, Bedell would also like to have plexiglass installed in classrooms between desks. However, the approved school budget doesn’t include the $550,000 price tag. The district has submitted funding requests to state and local funders, hoping major funders in the wealthy community will step up. 

“If we want the economy to recover and folks to get back to work, this is where all need to come together,” he said. “The more we can demonstrate that we safety procedures in place more likely teachers ready to come back and parents feel comfortable sending their kids to school.”

Scheduling shift

Limiting large groupings is the focus of attention for schools nationwide as they gear up for bringing students back. However, how school leaders stagger schedules and reduce class sizes is as unique as the communities they serve.

Unlike Kansas City, which is bringing students in on alternating days, the Ithaca City School District in New York will be “all in” or “all out,” according to Superintendent Luvelle Brown. For Ithaca, staggered schedules will be used to manage how students arrive and exit the campus rather than alternating days.

“Some students may arrive at 7:50 and the next group at 7:55 to avoid an influx of arrivals at the same time,” he said.

Brown’s district has one million square feet and can redesign spaces so students are spread out to achieve social distancing. However, students will be grouped in cohorts, and teachers will rotate classrooms in the elementary grades. But Brown has no intention of installing plexiglass barriers in classrooms  between teachers or student desks. 

“We are not going to be engineering correctional centers,” he said. “We have worked too hard to go back to putting up barriers. We will not traumatize our students.”

Refurbishing “mothballed” buildings

School consolidations and closures have brought the total number of public schools to 98,000, compared to 248,000 in 1929-1930, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. While those numbers do not necessarily reflect the number of school buildings that have been closed, there are thousands of buildings that have been taken out of commission due to population fluctuations and repair costs. 

The possibility of bringing some of those buildings back online to provide more space, however, is highly unlikely.

Bedell said his district will begin reusing one building that was recently rented to a charter school. But the facility requires minimal work to be put back into service. Aside from the burden of repair costs, reopening an older building would mean doubling staff and teachers.

“The budget isn’t going to support that, especially when parents are opting out of public schools. It is harder to justify how to add the [full-time employees],” he said.

As it is, school administrators are grappling with how to manage staffing needs, as substitutes will be needed as requests for leave are submitted or when a teacher gets sick or has an immune system concern.

“As a rural district, we don’t know how this is going to hit us. We have to look at how we’re going to rotate those individuals so they don’t become full-time employees,” said Griffith. “I wholeheartedly want to take care of teachers first and foremost. But if a leave of absence is requested, it’s going to be a situation where we’re paying two teachers at once.”

Learning among the great outdoors

Moving classes outside is also an option. Bedell knows for certain that when students return, certain music and physical education classes will meet outside, weather permitting. Griffith is considering using his schools’ stadiums for lunch instead of the traditional cafeterias. 

Some school facilities, like Brown’s in central New York, include outdoor amphitheaters that will be utilized until inclement weather hits. The Homestead School Montessori School in Glen Spey, New York, purchased tipis to provide additional teaching space and encourage ventilation as the school looked at creative solutions for getting back to school. But Brown said renting tents or erecting outdoor structures is cost-prohibitive for his suburban public school district.

“The guidelines even for tents are pretty restrictive in our state,” Brown explained. “They need as much ventilation as other spaces, and those can be cost prohibitive and onerous.”

Transportation remains a persistent challenge

Classrooms are only part of the equation. Transporting students to and from school is another. Brown sees this as the most challenging part of getting back to school for his district. 

“We are already facing a bus driver shortage. We can’t find enough drivers irrespective of having enough buses,” he said. “Cutting the number of young people on the bus in half is going to be difficult for us, and doubling routes means some will be getting there later.”

Brown and other district officials are asking the community for support by asking to drive their children when possible, and encouraging those who can drive or even walk to school to do so.

“This is where our district needs our community support,” he said. “So far we’ve gotten significantly positive feedback.”

The Kansas City district contracts with a transportation company, so Bedell isn’t as concerned about being able to provide transportation as needed. In rural districts like Griffith’s, where students have longer travel times, figuring out how to socially distance on the bus is more of a challenge.

“We are advocating on behalf of parents transporting students,” he said. “That is going to be a task within itself.”

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