IRSD: Public comments by speakerphone

A sign of the times: IRSD's Reneé Jerns holds a cell phone up to the microphone so that union President J.R. Emanuele (not pictured) can speak before the Indian River School District Board of Education on Aug. 19, 2020. He participated remotely, after the public asked that he give the teachers' perspective on the IR reopening plan. On the dais are, from left, Assistant Superintendent Karen Blannard, Superintendent Jay Owens and Board President Rodney Layfield.

Everyone’s first day of school will be Sept. 17 at Indian River School District. But most students won’t physically return to the buildings until October or even November.

At a special meeting on Aug. 19, the school board voted to bring students back a few grades at a time, from youngest to oldest.

“That allows students who are most in need of support to start in school with [minimal crowds]. Our youngest learners are the ones that really need the support of a teacher,” said Superintendent Jay Owens, while presenting the new plan.

Older students will have a better handle on technology, so they will spend more time in remote learning, even if their family chose “hybrid” in the recent surveys.

“We’re never going to meet everyone’s needs with this. We understand that,” Owens said. “But this is our way to find some middle ground, for our staff, our community, and just try to get back in school as soon as we can.”

This plan only applies to the first quarter, and then the district will reassess. Students in the hybrid model will physically return to school during the following weeks:

  • Sept. 17: Prekindergarten, kindergarten and grade 1 (although lessons begin for all IRSD grades)
  • Oct. 5: Grades 2 and 3
  • Oct. 19 Grades 4, 5 and 6
  • Oct. 26: Grades 7 and 8
  • Nov. 9: Grade 9
  • Nov. 17: End of the first marking period
  • Nov. 18: Grades 10, 11 and 12 (if Delaware remains in Scenario 2 of the governor’s education plan

High schoolers are split into four cohorts, who attend school one day a week. All other grades are split into two groups, who either attend Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday.

Students will continue studying on Wednesdays, but buildings will undergo deep cleaning. Wednesdays will also be for professional development, lesson writing, but not active teaching or lessons. Teachers will work in the building, but can work from home on Wednesdays.

All of the above planning applies to hybrid model students. Families that chose remote learning for the first quarter will always study from home.

“When we broke in March for the pandemic, we immediately turned to remote learning for our staff and finished out the school year … and rapidly shifted to planning for the start of the 2020-21 school year,” Owens said.

This summer, nearly 50 people have met regularly in three “reopening” committees, which then merged to create IRSD’s reopening plan.

“We have been grounding ourselves in research to make sure the plan meets all requirements,” said new assistant superintendent Karen Brannard. “As you know our priority is the safety of our students and staff. That is the foremost priority of this plan. And we also want to maintain a high-quality education with equitable outcomes and access for our learners.”

Although IRSD administrators and nursing staff helped draft this plan, it also has guidance from the department of Education, Department of Health and the state epidemiologist.

All staff and students in grades PreK-12 must wear a cloth face covering on school grounds, including buses, except during outdoor mask breaks. IRSD will aim for the stricter six-feet of social distancing between individuals. The board also discussed disinfection between bus routes and classes.

There is a section on well-being, including mental health for students and staff, plus the continuation of meal service for all IRSD students, whether hybrid or remote learners.

Families of students with special education supports will be contacted on an individual basis, to see how they can best learn and how to continue various therapies.

The district will prepare to lend laptops again, just like they did in spring when buildings were first closed. But paper print-outs will be available to any family that needs a non-computer option, especially since reliable internet still isn’t available in every Sussex County home.

The plan was announced after the district conducted a variety of surveys this summer.

The school year would have typically begun on Sept. 8, but now teachers will have seven more work days to prepare for a totally new style of education.

Some parents will also need that extra time to learn the laptops and programs that their children will use at home. Videos and other tutorials will be released.

The district has also conducted wellness checks in an attempt to speak to or lay eyes on all children who haven’t been in contact with the district.

Transportation is still a sticky situation, since the northern buses are particularly tight. With social distancing, at 48- or 72-seat bus may only carry about 14 or 23 students at a time. “We do have some concerns whether we’ll have enough bus drivers. The slow roll-in will help. We’ll be able to see how many students are riding our buses,” Owens said. “We have encouraged parents that if they’re able to provide transportation, to do so.”

“This to me just makes a fair amount of sense, although is an ungodly amount of work that’s gone into this … this has been rough,” said boardmember Donald Hattier, who noted that no decision will make everyone happy. “This is basically being done within the constraints of what the governor allows us to do.”

Now the teachers, families and community can start reviewing this plan. They can get the answers to ongoing concerns, and will probably have new questions, for instance about vulnerable populations and childcare.

But there was “definitely a commitment to safety when this plan was put together,” concluded J.R. Emanuele, president of the Indian River Education Association staff union. Broadcast live by cell phone and microphone, he thanked the IRSD reopening committee: “The CDC guidelines were the top list at every single meeting, and the DPH recommendations.”

Ultimately, the board decided this is the best option for now, and they wanted to vote so the administration can move forward.

The plan passed, 8-1, with dissent from Leo Darmstadter III (who at the time did not state a reason for his vote) and Jerry Peden Jr. being absent.

The document “Reopening & Reimagining: A plan for a safe start” was posted along with the meeting agenda for Aug. 19, 2020 (http://www.boarddocs.com/de/irsd/Board.nsf/Public).

Although the board had intended to have a virtual public comment portion, the online text chat box became so overwhelming with audience discussion that the board will be sent a copy of the text after the meeting. Only one person spoke in person during public comments, and she shared displeasure with the board’s recently using secret ballots to anonymously choose a board president. The board will revisit this topic at their Aug. 24 meeting.

The next regular monthly meeting of the IRSD Board of Education will be Monday, Aug. 24, at Sussex Central High School at 7 p.m. Face coverings and social distancing are required for all attendees.

Coastal Point will have more coverage of both meetings in the Aug. 18 edition.

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.