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Charles City School District unveils mixed in-person and online plan for start of school year

By James Grob,

Elementary students in the Charles City School District will be attending school in person every day to start the 2020-21 school year, while students in middle school and high school will be learning on site about half the time, and learning remotely the other half.

The hope is that all students in the district will be learning in the classrooms by the first week in October.

The Charles City Community School District revealed its “Return to Learn” plan to families, staff and the community late last week.

“We wanted to give the parents time to prepare, but we didn’t want to make the decision so early that the COVID numbers in our county would drastically change by the time school starts,” said Superintendent Mike Fisher, who added that the announcement would’ve come earlier had it not been for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proclamation in late July.

Reynolds ordered that school districts in the state would be expected to teach on site, in the school buildings, more than 50% of the time at the start of the school year.

Marcia DeVore, the Lincoln Elementary School principal who has been chairperson of the Return to Learn effort, said that the situation has always been fluid, and from the beginning her committee had been looking at several scenarios.

“Because of that, we were able to more smoothly transition to the governor’s requirements,” DeVore said.

The district’s hybrid plan includes both on-site and remote learning, and presents families with the option of 100% online learning if that’s what they’re comfortable with. The plan will go before the school board for official approval at next Monday’s meeting.

According to the plan, students in preschool through 5th grade will attend school five days a week in person.

“We as a team intentionally were very thoughtful about our PK-4 population, recognizing that those are the students who are the least capable of independent learning in a remote situation, and we wanted to prioritize getting them on campus as much as we could,” DeVore said.

“We also recognized that this fifth grade class is a small class compared to some of our other classes at the secondary level. When you factored that in with the number of students who would be choosing remote learning, we felt that it made sense for that group of students to come five days a week.”

DeVore said the committee looked at the size of elementary classrooms and “felt confident that we could have socially-distanced classrooms with 100 percent of our kids on campus.”

Students in grades 6-8 will attend school in person on either Monday/Thursday or Tuesday/Friday, with alternating Wednesday attendance. Students will participate in required remote learning the days not attending in person. Administration will notify families as to which group students will be in.

Students in grades 9-10 will attend school on Monday/Thursday with alternating Wednesdays, and 11-12 grade students will attend school on Tuesday/Friday with alternating Wednesdays. High school students will also participate in required remote learning the days not attending in person.

The district is also creating a “study site” for students who need instruction outside of the days they are able to attend classes. Students will also have the option to take home lunches for the days they are not on campus.

Fisher said the entire staff — teachers, para-educators, custodial staff, students and parents — have all been a part of the planning teams. He said more than 60 people have been involved, “from all walks of life.”

He also said that many personal contacts have been made to stay attuned to the staff.

“Every one of our employees has been personally reached out to by leadership in the last two weeks,” Fisher said. “Our principals … were calling each employee and asking them what we needed to do to make them feel safe returning to school.”

If all goes well, the district plans to reopen all buildings to 100% on-site learning five days a week on Oct. 5.

“There’s obviously some concern about what COVID numbers could do once school is back in session,” Fisher said. “We don’t want to do something too late, we want to be proactive.”

He said that he is personally collaborating regularly with Floyd County Public Health, looking for stability in the community.

“Our hope is that as long as things are stable, we can get kids back in school five days a week,” Fisher said.

For those families that don’t want their child returning to classes in any form, the district will be offering a “School to You” 100% online option.

DeVore said that will include Charles City teachers teaching lessons, making assignments, giving feedback to students and giving live online small group interaction. She said that families will have access to nursing, counseling and school lunches if they need it.

“We want to make sure that our students who are choosing to be home at this time are going to be ready to make the transition back to on-site learning at whatever point during the school year that their families feel comfortable doing that,” DeVore said.

The district will also offer study sessions for families of students in grades 6-12 at the North Grand Building gymnasium, when students are not scheduled to be on their primary campus. The district said that this will be “a safe, supervised place for students to work with an internet connection and support staff to help.”

“We know that for some families remote learning might be a challenge, either because of connectivity or because students need supervision, or the home environment is not the best place for them to be to do that learning,” DeVore said.

Students with individual education programs will be contacted the first week of school to outline individual plans for the upcoming school year. Educational services will be dependent on need.

Classes at Lincoln and Washington elementary schools will start at 9 a.m. and end at 3:25 p.m. High school and middle school classes will start at 8:50 a.m. and end at 3:15 p.m. The high school will have a “zero hour” for band, orchestra and choir starting at 8:05 a.m. Doors at all campuses will open at 7:45 a.m.

Beginning at 7:45 a.m. each day, schools will offer “Comet Time.” This is a staff-supervised enrichment learning and supplemental instruction time for students who need to arrive on campus earlier.

Fisher said that the later starting times were needed to get kids into the schools, as the extra busing will require more time, and teachers will need more time to prepare their classrooms in the morning. The district will add additional bus routes to meet the state requirements for social distancing on buses.

In addition to the Return to Learn schedule, the district said other parts of the plan include organizing students into smaller groups that will spend the day together to minimize contact with others and ensure a socially distanced experience for all students throughout the day.

All staff will be wearing face coverings when they have any contact with students. Guidance and expectations for face coverings for students will be released to the community on Aug. 12. A task force is still researching and developing best-practice standards for students.

Plexiglass is being deployed in certain high traffic and exposure areas, and the district is providing a “rigorous and constant disinfection protocol” in all campuses.

With all the extra transportation and supplies needed comes a need for more money. Fisher said that some has already come from Washington, D.C.

“We did receive around $281,000 from the federal government that has to by law be used for COVID activities,” said Fisher, who said the money is going to extra cleaning, sanitizing, social distancing, additional transportation expenses, additional technology expenses, and items such as personal protection equipment and plexiglass.

“That money goes quick, and we’re going to do the best we can with what we have,” Fisher said. “But at the end of the day we’re committed to our Charles City kids learning at a high level, regardless of where they are.”