Cedar Rapids schools will send the district’s Return to Learn plan to families on Friday

The Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Board of Education and district officials met virtually on July 28 to discuss an updated version of the Return to Learn plan. — YouTube screengrab

An updated version of the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s (CRCSD) Return to Learn plan was shared during the Board of Education’s special meeting on Tuesday. The final version of the plan will be made public on Friday.

The updated draft and additional details come after the district received feedback from staff and families through surveys and town halls. Board members also asked questions about how Gov. Kim Reynolds’ most recent proclamation requiring schools to prioritize in-person learning impacts the school district.

Once the plan is published later this week, families will have until Aug. 5 to decide if their students will do virtual or in-person learning. Those decisions will inform how the district determines classroom size and school staffing. District officials are looking at a ratio of 20 students to one teacher, but a lower ratio would be ideal, especially at the elementary level.

“Of course, the health and safety of our students, staff and families is number one,” Superintendent Noreen Bush said during the more than two-hour-long meeting. “Secondly, of course, education, equity [and] access for all students is a second priority. We also have heard loud and clear that our families want choices and options for what’s best for their circumstances. And then finally, listening and taking feedback from staff and families in order to best plan to move forward for students, as well as staff and families.”

Based on survey results from families and staff who responded, more families are thinking about picking the virtual option than staff, “which is a good problem for us to have,” said Linda Noggle, the district’s executive director of human resources. Noggle added that this is preliminary information since families haven’t made their final choice yet.

A total of 6,233 families responded to the district’s second family engagement survey. The district received 1,076 more responses to this survey than to the one administered in late June.

Of those families, 38 percent are planning on sending their students to school, 26 percent are planning on the virtual option, 24 percent are unsure and 12 percent did not respond.

With the virtual option, families were concerned about student connections, engagement, distractions at home and technology issues. Concerns about in-person instruction were catching or spreading the virus, social distancing, schools closing again, cleanliness and not having enough staff.

Results of CRCSD’s second family engagement survey. This information was shared during the Board of Education’s July 28 special meeting. — Board of Education documents posted online

About 72 percent of teachers are planning to or are comfortable to return to work in person. Teachers who responded to a separate survey indicated that 34 percent are planning to do in-person instruction and 38 percent indicated they can do either in-person or virtual instruction. The numbers were similar for teacher associates.

Staff concerns mirrored families’, said Adam Zimmermann, the district’s executive director of middle schools.

The district’s Return to Learn draft plan was first shared during a board meeting on July 13. Since then, there have been some changes to the elementary, middle and high school plans for in-person instruction.

Elementary school

In the elementary school model draft, all pre-K to fifth-grade students who return to in-person instruction would have a homeroom teacher. Each homeroom cohort would remain the same to limit contact between students.

The district is working on ways to minimize contact between specials teachers and students. Teachers of special subjects, such as music or physical education, will interact with one-third of the students every six weeks instead of constantly rotating between classes in order to minimize contact.

There is also a goal of reducing class size below 20 students to 12 to 15 students.

Middle school

Students in middle school who return to in-person instruction would be assigned an advisory teacher. Each advisory cohort would remain the same with teachers rotating but the students staying in the same group. There would be a component of virtual instruction so teachers won’t be responsible for teaching subjects they aren’t familiar with.

The main change at the middle school level is that buildings will be given flexibility on how often teachers rotate to make teachers in each building feel comfortable. Some schools are looking at a three-week rotation while others are looking at a six-week rotation, Zimmermann said.

High school

High school students who return to in-person instruction will be split into two cohorts by the first letter of their last name and follow a hybrid schedule, which was announced last week. Students will be in class for two or three days a week and have online learning for the remaining weekdays.

The school day will follow a block schedule. There will be fewer classes per day, but the classes will be longer. Instead of an “A” day and “B” day as originally announced, there will be an “A” week and “B” week. This means students will be taking the same three or four classes for one week before switching to different classes the next week. Half the students would have in-person classes three days a week during an “A” week with two days of in-person classes during the “B” week. The other half of the student body would follow the opposite schedule.

“The biggest change in that is that we are grouping all of the A day classes into one week, and all of the B day classes into a second week to cut in half the number of unique exposures for teachers and to cut by half the number of courses that teachers and students will intensely focus on in a one-week time period,” said Cynthia Phillips, the district’s executive director of high schools.

Visualization of the “A” week and “B” week block schedule model for Cedar Rapids high schools. — Board of Education documents posted online

Students at all levels will be required to wear face coverings, which the district announced earlier this month. The district will provide face shields to elementary students and face masks to middle and high school students. Staff will also be provided with face masks and shields.

Students riding the bus will be required to wear a face covering, in addition to sanitizing their hands when they enter and leave the bus. Buses will be disinfected after each route.

Students will also be asked to sanitize their hands when they enter a school building. Hand sanitizers will be installed in all classrooms without sinks and in common spaces, and floor decals to help with social distancing will be placed around the building. Custodial staff will clean the school building throughout the day, as well as each night.

Eating meals will also look different come fall, but this will vary by building, Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said.

“So in elementary, they might be eating … breakfast and lunch in their classrooms, but in middle school and high school, we have some larger areas we can spread students out,” Kooiker said. “Because there’s more students, there would be more students eating at a time, but we can appropriately social distance within certain areas.”

Air purifiers will be placed in areas of the building that need them, such as the nurse’s stations where kids go if they’re showing symptoms. Air purifiers will also be placed in areas where it’s difficult to wear masks, including band and vocal rooms or special education classrooms.

School nurses will do preliminary contact tracing, said Sandra Byard, the district’s health services facilitator.

“There’s a lag between the time a person gets tested, the result comes back and that result gets reported to Linn County Public Health,” Byard said. “We’ve been instructed by Linn County Public Health not to wait. We’re going to be doing preliminary contact tracing by the school nurses in our buildings to, say, go through the contact tracing questions with staff members and parents if we can get that information and then start recommending that 14-day quarantine for that person until we hear back from Linn County Public Health.”

Anyone who has had “close contact” with an individual who tests positive will have to quarantine for 14 days. Byard said LCPH has defined close contact as within six feet for more than 15 minutes.

Byard said it’s possible, especially at an elementary school level, that an entire classroom would have to stay home for the two-week period. Byard said the likelihood of an entire building needing to close is slim in her opinion due to all the mitigation efforts.

Board members also wondered how Gov. Reynolds’ proclamation requiring school districts to prioritize in-person learning will impact CRCSD. The board submitted an op-ed to the Gazette focusing on how local control has been taken away, among other concerns.

Board President Nancy Humbles asked what would happen if the proclamation wasn’t followed. Kooiker responded that not following the mandate would lead to accreditation issues for the district, as well as potential impacts on funding.

In her proclamation, Reynolds does outline four exceptions when remote learning can be provided by a district: if a parent or guardian selected the on-line learning option for a student; if weather forces schools to close; if children have can’t attend classes because of the need to self-quarantine; and if a district is forced to close a school due to the spread of COVID-19.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, Superintendent Bush said the district has been seeking guidance from the Department of Education on how to get approval for the exceptions, but has not received it.

“Within the proclamation are four exceptions to the proclamation, but we don’t necessarily have guidance yet as a district how we apply for those exceptions to the rule,” Bush said, adding that she does not believe a waiver process exists at this time, as others have mentioned.

Closing out the more than two-hour meeting, Humbles said she is very supportive of the work the district has done for the Return to Learn plan and that flexibility will be important in the coming weeks as things continue to change.

“We know that we are looking out for what is best for our teachers, our staff, anybody affiliated with the Cedar Rapids Community School District and our community because we want everyone to be safe. We’ve never gone through this before, and so I thank each and every one of you for all of the work you have put in.”

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