The Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors reviewed options for the district to resume classes in the fall during a special board meeting on Tuesday night. Matt Degner, who is transitioning from assistant superintendent to interim superintendent, provided the board with the current details of the district’s Return to Learn Plan.
Degner said he understood how concerned parents are about school resuming while COVID-19 is still spreading.
“We know there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of anxiety and there’s a lot of questions any time you deal with something as significant as a global pandemic and the health and safety concerns that come through that,” he said at the beginning the meeting, which was held via Zoom.
Degner mentioned the reopening guidance the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) published last week. The document faced strong pushback from parents and educators, especially for the section stating, “Requiring face coverings for all staff and students is not recommended.”
Degner said the guidance “underwhelmed many of our stakeholders.”
ICCSD will require face coverings.
“Students and staff will be required to wear a face covering (i.e. facemask or face shield) while attending school and participating in school activities (certain circumstances, such as medical conditions, may allow for an exception to this requirement),” according to a summary of the current plan presented at the meeting. Face covering will also be required on school buses.
“We will be providing PPE for staff and students,” Degner explained in response to a question. The district said it feels it has a responsibility as an employer to provide teachers and staff with face coverings throughout the year. Details are still being worked out regarding how to provide face covering to students.
The plan includes other mitigation efforts, such as increased cleaning of buildings, reconfiguration of classroom to provide more physical distance between students and installing Plexiglas shields in all schools’ main offices.
But there will still be problems practicing social distancing in the schools, just based on the size of the student population and the space available in schools and on buses. What the district will do to address the issue depends largely on which model of instruction it adopts for the trimester that is scheduled to begin Aug. 24.
There are three models currently under consideration. All allow for families to choose whether a student will attend on-site classes. Students who don’t will be required to participate in online continuous learning. Unlike the online learning earlier this year, these classes would be mandatory and graded.
The district couldn’t make the classes mandatory during the spring, because federal law requires educators be able to ensure equitable treatment for students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs). In the new trimester, all IEPs will address off-site online learning, Degner said.
The first model — the 90/10 model — anticipates almost all students returning to on-site classes. Based on a survey of district families and four Zoom meetings with community members, the district estimates 90 percent of students would attend classes in person.
Degner did caution that if the on-site number of students approaches 90 percent, “we won’t be able to do the distancing that people expect. I mean, we don’t have room in our buildings, we don’t have the staff to be able to do the social distancing that people might expect.”
The second model involves planning for the majority of students to use the off-site continuous learning option. “[B]ut for some students, online learning will not meet their needs,” the summary of the plan states. “Consider bringing the most structurally disadvantaged students on-site, (estimated 25%) to help maneuver through a Required Continuous Learning (at-home) learning plan.”
The third plan is referred to as a hybrid model.
“In order to reduce some classroom sizes across the District and provide supervised learning for the youngest students, PK-4th grade students will be on-site daily,” the summary states. Students in Grade 5 and above would rotate between one day of on-site instruction and one day of asynchronous online lessons at home. Students would be divided for this A/B rotation on the basis on the first letter of their last name (exceptions will be made to keep family groups together).
Degner pointed out that whatever plans is selected its likely that COVID-19 will either cause the district or individual schools to close for a period of time. The district is working on metrics regarding closing, in the same way it has set metrics for when bad weather causes schools to close. The metrics will be made public.
Board President Shawn Eyestone said he favored the 90/10 plan.
“I think we do the best service for our kids if they’re in class,” he said.
“In any sort of A/B model, it makes it easier to do physical distancing… but that’s kind of the only thing it gives us, and it opens up a whole lot of other issues in my opinion,” Eyestone said. “Whether it’s childcare or learning loss because they’re not in classroom every day, or whatever it is, it will create other issues, if they’re not there every day.”
Eyestone said he was not diminishing the importance of physical distancing, but recognized any choice the district makes is going to be a balance between educational needs and health concerns.
Board member Charlie Eastham said he was also leaning in favor of the 90/10 plan because there were difficulties addressing equity issues for students when the schools shifted to online learning this spring.
J.P. Claussen disagreed. The board member said he understood the importance of having students in the classroom, but favored the A/B model because of the increased ability to engage in social distancing.
“I also know that every place we’ve seen social distancing go away has had major outbreaks,” he said. “And that’s what I’m worried about.”
Board member Lisa Williams also favored the A/B model. She said “what’s important to me is delivery consistency in the plan. And my fear with going to a 90/10 model is that it’s sustainable only for so long, and then we experience a surge and we have to move to online learning.”
Williams said she was concerned that students might have to shift back-and-forth multiple times as virus activity levels change.
“I think that type of inconsistency isn’t good for the kids and it’s going to be extremely difficult for the parents,” Williams said. “… It’ll be easier for parents to put together a childcare plan for the entire year,” rather than have to change their plans repeatedly.
Whichever plan the district adopts, the plan calls for certain specifics and some general goals.
“Students will not be dropped from classes automatically due to excessive absences. Attendance shall not be used as a criteria for grading in any course. Leniency should be given to students to accommodate their family needs and schedule,” the plans summary states.
The summary also outlines what the district will do to address issues related to social, emotional and behavioral health issues that both students and staff may experience.
• Provide a variety of tools and resources for students to request support.
• Implement multiple early warning systems/processes/tools to determine who needs additional supports.
• Create spaces for students to share experiences and connect with peers and staff.
• Identify and implement appropriate Social-Emotional-Behavioral Health (SEBH) interventions.
• Provide varying levels of professional development for staff to identify and support SEBH needs for self and students.
• Create internal system/resources/processes for staff to access SEBH support for self (buddy system, weekly check-ins, staff circles, etc.).
• The District will create professional development to support teachers with Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) implementation, cultural proficiency expectations, and ways in which to implement more culturally relevant curriculum.
The district also intends every part of the plan it adopts to address the need for equitable treatment of students, according to Lisa Glenn, ICCSD’s director of special education and one of the leaders of the Equity Team for the Return to Learn Plan.
“Equity can’t be an afterthought, it can’t be retrofitted,” Glenn said during the meeting. “Equity has to be a universal design, meaning that it can’t be the last thing we think of. It has to be the very first thing we think of.”
Degner said the district will be providing the board and the public with more details as they are finalized this month.