IRSD Disinfecting the podium

As a precaution against COID-19, a staff member disinfects the podium at a Board of Education meeting at Indian River School District in November 2020. The microphone also gets a wipe down after every speaker.

All students in the Indian River School District will learn from home in the weeks surrounding winter vacation, as the district this week accepted Gov. John Carney’s recommendation to help the state get a handle on COVID-19.

At a special meeting held via Zoom on Dec. 4, the IRSD school board unanimously voted to temporarily have full-time remote learning at home (with no in-school instruction) from Monday, Dec. 21, through Friday, Jan. 8. Hybrid learning for students from pre-K through 12th grade will resume on Monday, Jan. 11.

Dec. 23 is a teacher workday, but all district employees will work from home on that day.

Under the temporary remote learning plan, Cohort A students will now learn from home on those Monday and Tuesdays, instead of getting on the bus. Similarly, the Cohort B students would stay home on the Thursday and Friday after the holidays.

School isn’t closed, since classes will still occur online or through home packets. (Hybrid learning refers to students who have opted to attend school in-person, two days a week. The rest of their education is at home or online, via remote learning. Other families choose to keep students home 100 percent of the time for remote learning.)

Schools will be closed for winter break from Dec. 23 through Jan. 3.

Schools will contact families regarding the transition to remote learning. Updates are also posted at www.irsd.net/News.

With coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rising in the past two months, Carney recommended last week that schools temporarily transition any in-person learning to remote learning from Dec. 14 through Jan. 8.

Delaware’s overall COVID spread had been at a Level 2 (or yellow zone) for most statistics, which means schools could operate in a hybrid model. But for Nov. 28 to Dec. 4, all data showed “significant” spread, in the red zone, which calls for remote learning only, though Carney left the decision up to individual school districts. (Sussex Technical School District also opted to move to remote-only learning for the recommended period, forgoing the “reverse field trips” that had some students visiting the campus, though those with special needs or internet connectivity problems will still be able to come into the school.)

“The staff is doing an unbelievable job,” said IRSD Superintendent Jay Owens. “The teachers, the custodians, the bus drivers, the administration, the nurses. It’s been a collective effort. We’ve been doing a nice job of trying to keep these numbers low, and it’s due to the people, and I want to thank you deeply for that.”

However, he said, “We have a lot of people that need to quarantine, whether it’s due to exposures” outside or inside of the schools, “so that does impact us daily with trying to piece together pieces of the puzzle” of staff coverage, Owens added. “That’s one of our biggest challenges.”

There were a lot of factors to juggle as the school board made its unanimous decision: teachers who have to simultaneously teach to a classroom and a Zoom screen; contact tracing, which is both time-consuming and necessary to reduce further spread; the potential impact of high community spread on the schools; families with poor access to internet and devices; and the increased workload and pressure everyone feels (without the extra compensation).

Board President Rodney Layfield said he will follow the science and the governor’s requirements, but he also pushed for students to be physically in school when possible. In the first marking period of 2019, Sussex Central High School had 450 failing grades. In 2020, SCHS reported more than 2,600 F’s.

“We’re following the science, but we’re failing our students, we’re failing society by closing up,” he mourned.

Governor wants to help agencies regroup

The IRSD’s decision meets the governor’s recommendation to temporarily stop in-person learning in order to help school districts and the Division of Public Health get a handle on their operations, as a result of increased number of cases.

Carney acknowledged that spread of this respiratory disease is less likely to occur in schools, due to the structured environment. Scientifically, he asserted, “there is not really a public-health reason to close schools right now. And I believe strongly that students learn better in person. However, we live in a complicated world and a complicated time, and it’s clear to me that there are operational needs that make considering a brief pause a good idea,” he continued. “Educators, school nurses and administrators need a chance to figure those challenges out and regroup.”

For instance, the IRSD has an official student population of 10,592. Of the 7,475 who chose to attend school a few days weekly for hybrid learning, 56 students (plus 45 employees among the 1,500-plus workforce) had tested positive for COVID-19 between September and Dec. 4.

However, “Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I heard [from nurses] every single day with positive cases being reported. Staff [and] families are looking for guidance, and our nurses have truly been our unsung heroes,” said Assistant Superintendent Karen Blannard.

Briefly learning from home is the right decision, said IRSD Lead Nurse Anna Miller. She said 22 of the district’s 25 nurses support the governor’s pause. Although no IRSD school has had a major outbreak, problems are starting to slip between the cracks.

The Division of Public Health is overwhelmed with contract tracing, so it’s having difficulty responding to schools. IR nurses have to perform more of their own contract tracing in their schools, in addition to regular duties. In the past two weeks, families seem to be less cautious as more students are coming to school with symptoms, “which increases our risk for spread within the school, although we have not had that yet.”

“Everybody knows that our numbers are jumping and increasing, and we still haven’t seen the full impact of Thanksgiving yet,” Miller said. DPH officials “need time to catch their breath and evaluate the new standards the CDC is releasing. DPH has not released any new protocols or new procedures for nurses to follow. I think it would be prudent to take the time and accept the pause.”

“We use the term ‘positive case’ when we have a positive case result. And we use the term ‘quarantine’ in various situations,” said Blannard. “So, if we have an employee or parent report [symptoms], we will always have the individual go home and continue to monitor those symptoms and we will recommend a COVID test.” That’s also the recommendation for people potentially exposed because of improper masking.

Quarantine is recommended to last 14 days, though the CDC this week said alternative quarantine timelines could reduce the length of quarantine in some cases, with minimal additional risk of spread. Negative tests and a lack of symptoms are key factors in the alternative quarantine timelines of seven or 10 days. Officially, the CDC recommendation remains to quarantine for 14 days after a possible exposure.

The recommendation to pause in-person learning does not apply to childcare centers. Schools that do not face significant operational challenges may remain in hybrid learning, with a mix of remote and in-person instruction.

Winter sports competitions will be prohibited from Dec. 14 to Jan. 11, but practices may continue under strict COVID-19 masking and social-distancing guidelines.

Carney’s full message was published online (https://news.delaware.gov/2020/12/03/message-from-governor-carney-on-covid-19).

Families and educators respond

During public comments at the IRSD board meeting, the employee association president reminded the board of another critical time in school health and safety.

“When we had [active shooter incidents], that was very much out there in the public before, we made sure we took all those safety precautions to keep our students and staff safe. … Now we’re faced with something different and we put all the safety precautions in that we could think of,” said J.R. Emanuele, president of the Indian River Education Association. “I’m not advocating for remote or hybrid. I’m advocating for the safety of staff and students, and for you guys to make sure that you look at the data and dig into it and make a wise decision for everybody.”

Several parents and staff members said they feared for the impact on children who are younger, who have unique educational needs, who have more trouble with remote learning or who don’t have home supports.

For instance, Ashley Elksnis is the mother of a kindergartener with an IEP.

“He has fallen so far behind. We struggle every day of the remote learning. It’s not adequate for his age range. It’s more frustrating than it is helpful.”

“This is destroying our children. As an educator of 21 years and parent of three children, I have seen firsthand the mental and emotional stress that not only our children are under, but also parents and caregivers,” said Angela Robbins. “It’s too much. Our students need consistency and routine, not extended breaks. … Bouncing between remote and hybrid isn’t beneficial to anyone involved. I can honestly say I feel safer in my classroom with the 40 students I see in a week’s time than I do out in the community.”

“It only takes one person who is asymptomatic to be spreading the virus back to somebody who is unknown,” countered Jude Anderson, a therapist in the school and community. “I don’t think the school district is doing anything wrong. I think the school district is doing an incredible job, but the virus is obviously amped up, and the numbers are rising, and it only takes one person to spread this virus” to a more vulnerable person.

“A vaccine is on the way but, make no mistake, we are facing the most difficult few months of this crisis,” Carney had stated. “I know we’re all tired of COVID-19 — but it’s not tired of us. We’re pleading with Delawareans to do the right thing. Wear a mask. It’s a simple sacrifice to protect others, and to make sure that Delaware’s children get an education. Do not gather with anyone outside your household. Wash or sanitize your hands frequently.”

The Delaware Department of Education will be meeting with educators and their district leadership or charter representatives to discuss any concerns or questions they may have. Educators may also share their experiences and feedback by sending an email to Educator.Feedback@doe.k12.de.us.

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.