Schools: ‘It’s a whole new world’

Allen County's three school districts are preparing to enroll students next week amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The superintendents have spoken about the ongoing preparations.

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Local News

July 30, 2020 - 10:29 AM

Parents across the county will begin enrolling their children soon, with face masks and hand sanitizer now considered essential school supplies. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

As parents enroll their children in area schools next week, they’ll have a big decision to make: allow their children to attend in-person classes, or keep them home for remote learning. 

Administrators say they’re working on plans to keep students safe when they return to classes in August. They are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on safety and cleaning measures, and developing procedures for things like temperature checks, hand washing and sanitizing.

Districts have developed plans that allow for both in-person and remote learning, but are waiting to finalize and adapt those plans until they see how many students will be in the buildings versus how many will learn from home.

For the most part, though, the districts have put safety measures in place with the expectation that students will return to school buildings starting in mid-August. 

For those students who will stay home, expectations will be much more stringent than in the spring, when schools were suddenly closed at spring break. The theme at the time was “less is more,” with a goal to finish the school year with a minimum of anxiety during an uncertain time.

But, as Humboldt’s Superintendent Kay Lewis said, “It’s a whole new world.”

USD 257 — Iola, Gas and LaHarpe — will require six hours of documented learning each day. How that works will be developed on an individual basis, adapting to the needs of the child and family, the district announced Wednesday afternoon. Teachers will lead videos and lessons, and students will practice on their own at home. It will require direct daily contact with the teacher and parents will sign off on a learning log. 

Superintendent Stacey Fager said administrators and teachers will communicate with parents as soon as the plans develop further. The district is looking into a special online program for high school students. 

“We’re still looking at delivery methods for our remote learning,” he said.

Remote students can participate in school activities and athletics as long as they have good standing in at least five class periods.

Families will be expected to answer a survey during enrollment about their intention to learn in the classroom or remotely.

Both the Humboldt and Marmaton Valley USD 256 districts expect students who choose to learn from home to attend classes online just as they would throughout the day at school, by watching a teacher give lessons in real time, and completing assignments by deadline. Students who do not attend the live-streamed classes will be counted as absent, and truancy policies will apply. 

But at all districts, the expectations are clear: “You’ll be treated just the same as if you were in the classroom,” Lewis said.

 “Our curriculum will be more rigorous and robust than it was in the spring. At that time, we learned some good things. We learned that you have to give teachers time to plan.”

Marmaton Valley Superintendent Kim Ensminger said students there will have similar expectations.

“It’s not going to be anything comparable to the spring. There are a lot of requirements parents and students will have to fulfill if they go remote,” she said. “They will follow along so they can participate in the classroom, only digitally.”

Of course, there are logistics to figure out, Lewis said. Some classes may be more difficult to conduct in such a manner, such as art or welding. 

And although most districts offer laptops or Chromebooks for students, not all students have adequate internet or WiFi service. Districts will use the enrollment period to gather information about access to such services, and determine how to offer some type of “hot spot” internet access to students who need it.

In the event of a coronavirus outbreak, schools may need to offer alternative learning plans for those who attend in-person classes. 

It’s still not clear how that will work, Ensminger said. A small group of students may need to stay home, or the entire class, or possibly more.

“We’re waiting for guidance on that,” she said. 

 It’s also possible that school could begin, and a large community outbreak might force all students back to a remote learning model. That’s why Ensminger wants students to return to class in August, so they can start the year on the same footing and establish the relationships that could carry them through the school year, whatever may come. Students will spend the first week or two practicing new safety protocols; assessing their various educational, social-emotional and technological needs; and preparing for different types of learning, Ensminger said.

“We really want to get students here. We strongly believe kids need to see each other and have that social and emotional aspect taken care of. We also want to get them here, see where they are academically and prepare them in case we have to go remote at some point.”

“We’re asking for grace and patience,” she continued.

“Please, please be understanding that we’re doing what’s required of us when it comes to masks and safety measures. We’re here to protect those that need to be protected.”

DISTRICTS have made significant investments in increased safety measures.

The Iola district has purchased additional electrostatic spraying machines, which disinfect and sanitize surfaces quickly. The district already had six handheld machines, and purchased six more units and five “backpack” models that can disinfect larger areas like gyms and locker rooms. The machines will be used on school buses as well as throughout the various facilities.

The additional expense came in at about $17,000. The district also is looking at other safety measures, including Plexiglass partitions and possibly an air filtration system, Fager said. An estimate for those additional expenses was not available.

Those expenses could be significant, but all of the districts expect federal assistance programs could help with much of the cost.

Humboldt has purchased additional electrostatic sprayers as well as three air filtration systems for each building: elementary, middle and high school. Those systems cost about $85,000.

Humboldt also is considering the purchase of Plexiglass dividers for students, especially in classrooms that use tables instead of individual desks. 

The district is also considering a phone app that would allow parents to schedule pickup times for students, as district administrators worry about the large influx of crowds during morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up. 

By the time the district adds all of its additional safety measures, including extra staff members, Lewis estimates the cost at around $200,000.

Ensminger said the district will probably spend more than $100,000 on its additional safety measures. The district also purchased additional electrostatic sprayers and considered air filtration systems, but parts of the building do not have adequate ductwork for those systems.

All of the districts have implemented similar precautions such as requiring temperature checks, wearing masks, hand washing requirements and the use of sanitizer. Water fountains will be converted so that they can be used only to fill containers.

Lunch plans will be adapted as necessary at the various schools. Passing periods will be staggered to minimize the flow of middle and high school students. Recess periods could be limited to small groups or staggered to minimize contact.

What’s in the works for Allen County?

Iola-USD 257

Stacey Fager, USD 257 superintendent of schools

Students in Iola, Gas and LaHarpe will enroll at the school building where they would attend, regardless of their intention to attend class in person or remotely. 

Enrollment is from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4 and Wednesday, Aug. 5. Enrollment is from 8 a.m. to noon Thursday, Aug. 6.

Classes begin Aug. 24, which is about a week later than initially planned.

For more information, go to usd257.org.

Humboldt-USD 258

Kay Lewis, USD 258 superintendent of schools

Enrollment will be 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5 at the school where your child will attend. That’s a little different from previous years, where enrollment was in one central location.

Attendees will need to wear masks and practice social distancing. If the area becomes crowded, families may be asked to wait in vehicles until space is available. 

Families are asked to notify the district by Aug. 7 if they will attend in-person classes or prefer remote learning.

Classes begin Aug. 20.

For more information, go to usd258.net .

Marmaton Valley-USD 256

Kim Ensminger, USD 256 superintendent of schools

Marmaton Valley students will enroll at the high school commons area between 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. next Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 5 and 6. 

Online enrollment is not available, but parents can download paperwork from the district’s web page at marmatonvalley.org. The paperwork can be completed ahead of time, which will speed the enrollment process.

Everyone who comes to the building will have temperatures taken and will need to wear a mask. Typically, enrollment crowds are busiest in the mid-morning, and after work shifts end a little after 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Classes begin Aug. 19.

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