Local schools need more time to prepare for the 2020 school year, so they are proposing a delayed start this September.

Indian River School District will delay the first day of school from Sept. 8 until Thursday, Sept. 17.

This will give returning IRSD educators about 11 total days to plan a completely new style of teaching. Frankly, the administration didn’t believe the usual four days was enough for returning staff (or nine days for new teachers) to prepare for radical changes to instruction and new safety guidelines, in addition to their usual mandatory trainings and start-of-school work. Teachers must learn how to use various online platforms and programs, and then plan how to effectively teach children at a distance.

“This is going to be a monumental task to get our teachers prepared for students — and frankly, to get our families prepared for the platforms,” Superintendent Jay Owens told the IRSD Board of Education at an Aug. 3 in-person meeting.

For instance, in a staff survey, about 85 percent of respondents feel comfortable using Zoom video conferencing, but many want more training on other educational or communications software.

In a parent survey, 58 percent of families support a delayed first day (if necessary); 22 percent were neutral; and 19 were opposed.

“This is certainly unprecedented times. Our staff is working tirelessly, a lot of times around the clock, trying to answer questions, create documents, get a plan in place for remote and hybrid instruction,” Owens said.

Right now, all IRSD families are asked to answer an online survey and commit to a decision on instruction and transportation, just for the first marking period. The Aug. 5 deadline was extended to Monday, Aug. 10 at 9 a.m. for the Fall 2020 Family Commitment Survey (www.irsd.net).

IRSD will evaluate the survey results and state requirements, and then offer specific details for September. There are two main options for the first marking period: a remote learning academy, where the child stays at home, or the hybrid model, where students have one or two days of in-person learning at school each week (with a mid-week district-wide disinfecting).

“We are gathering multiple data points from our families in terms of how to potentially return to school,” Owens said, adding that about 65 percent of respondents so far are willing to try a hybrid model, although 35 percent will remain in remote learning.

There are two main options for the first marking period. First: a remote learning academy, where the child learns from home entirely. Second: a hybrid model, where students attend school a few days each week. High schoolers would have one in-person day each week. Elementary and middle schoolers be split into two groups: some would come Monday and Tuesday; the schools would be closed Wednesday for cleaning; and the other students would come Thursday and Friday. They would work from home on the other days.

“We are gathering multiple data points from our families in terms of how to potentially return to school,” Owens said, adding that about 65 percent of respondents so far are willing to try a hybrid model, although 35 percent will remain in remote learning.

IRSD will evaluate the survey results and state requirements, and then offer specific details for September. There are no plans to eliminate any instructional pathways at the high school level, said Renee Jerns, director of secondary education.

It’s tough for parents to make decisions without all the information, said board member Gerald “Jerry” Peden Jr.

“It’s been difficult for families, I know, because we’re asking them to make some choices” without all of the information, “and we’re trying to get as much in front of them as possible,” Owens said.

Families can watch the IRSD website for more information flyers this week.

The IRSD Board of Education unanimously voted to approve the options for hybrid or remote — as long as it meets the governor’s guidelines. Gov. John Carney is expected to make an announcement about schools at his press briefing on Tuesday, Aug. 4, featuring medical experts and Secretary of Education Susan Bunting. The briefing will be livestreamed at de.gov/live.

This discussion came after a tight contest (and three separate votes) to elect Rodney Layfield as IRSD board president. Runner-up Leolga Wright was elected to take his former spot as vice president. Three new board members also took their oaths of office tonight.

This August, IRSD officials still have much to plan: enforcement or flexibility for mandatory masks in grades 4 and above; six-foot social distancing; changes to the bus schedule; and traffic management for all the families who will want to provide their own transportation.

A massive question mark hangs over everything, especially transportation. Buses could only fit about 23 students at a time, with social distancing requirements. There was already a shortage of drivers, many of whom are older adults, who may now be at higher danger from COVID-19. On the other hand, with fewer school days and more parents likely to drive, it’s possible the bus system won’t be overwhelmed.

Plus, children aren’t perfect on a normal day, and teachers will have to have even more patience in enforcing mask-wearing, at all ages. Also, students are supposed to stay in the same cohort as much as possible, to reduce spread of disease, but high school hallways are often jammed up with students switching classes. There is much to plan

“I’ve seen lots of different research points” indicating children can spread the illness, Owens said. “We need to be prepared to quickly pivot to a stay-at-home model if the state tells us to, or we decide we need to.”

He mentioned a Georgia youth summer camp, where the CDC reported that 344 of about 600 attendees were tested for COVID-19, resulting in 260 positive diagnoses, in a place where physical distancing and masks were not required. Youth may be less likely to fall ill or die from this coronavirus, but community and household spread is still a concern for a respiratory illness that has no confirmed vaccine or cure.

Meanwhile, Sussex Technical High School is considering similar options for the school year. At an upcoming school board meeting, acting superintendent Kevin Carson will be recommending that the ST School District move the first day of school until after Labor Day (instead of Friday, Aug. 31).

Sussex Tech logo

The seal of Sussex Technical High School and School District

With two staff committees brainstorming plans for instruction and operations, Sussex Tech is also looking at remote learning or a hybrid model.

“When we have completed our draft options, we will survey you for your thoughts, possibly this week,” Carson wrote in his Aug. 3 introduction letter to the Sussex Technical School District. “Following the review and surveys, the plan will be presented to the Board of Education for consideration, and final details will be shared with you when approved.

“Our first priority and hope is that we are able to welcome our students and staff back to school in a safe and productive manner … If the decision is made to open with in-person instruction, all required safety precautions will be in place,” Carson said.

To make up for lost time, the school boards can either pull from vacation days later this year; extend the school year by several days; or extend the school day. There’s also a chance the state will reduce Delaware’s mandatory 1060 hours of instruction for schoolchildren.

Sussex Tech’s next board meeting will be Monday, Aug. 10, at 2 p.m.

IRSD’s next board meeting will be Monday, Aug. 24, at 7 p.m.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.