By Zach Hagadone
The Lake Pend Oreille School District is nearing a final plan for how the 2020-2021 academic year will play out amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has risen to 19,679 cases in Idaho and 139 in Bonner County since data tracking began in mid-March.
LPOSD trustees met July 28 to consider the draft plan, and Superintendent Tom Alberston provided an overview of the protocols being considered — with an emphasis on as much face-to-face instruction as possible for area students.
“This plan is designed to get school open and keep schools open,” he said.
Based in large part on the framework proposed by the Idaho State Board of Education on July 9, LPOSD’s tentative reopening strategy will direct policies based on a color-coded rubric denoting levels of COVID-19 community transmission: green for no community transmission, yellow for moderate transmission and red for widespread transmission.
The local version of the guidance adds a fourth category — orange — which Albertson said was built into the plan to give some flexibility between the blended online/in-person instruction called for in the “yellow” phase and the fully online model required in the “red” phase.
LPOSD’s “orange” category provides for as many as two days of in-person instruction with the rest of the school week conducted online.
Yet, Albertson said the district has focused most of its attention on crafting policies pertaining to the “yellow” phase, which “gives us the most parental choice and also puts policies in place to keep us as safe as possible.”
As such, much of Albertson’s presentation at the July 28 board meeting focused on the nuts and bolts of how district schools might confront a moderate level of COVID-19 transmission at least through the fall of 2020. The emphasis of the plan, as he underscored, is for schools to safely reopen for face-to-face instruction while balancing as much as possible the freedom for parents and caregivers to determine how much potential viral exposure they are willing to risk for their students.
According to the most recent survey from LPOSD, about 68% of 1,014 respondents said they are planning to return their students to school on Sept. 8 — down from 77% in an identical survey released in June. As many as 12% said they were not planning to return their students to school while 21% said they remain undecided.
While acknowledging that any plan would have its detractors — cueing off comments from a trio of area residents who testified at the top of the meeting that they didn’t believe COVID-19 posed a serious threat to young people — Albertson stressed that the district is attempting to “provide as many educational choices as possible.”
Still, those who testified during the open forum portion were critical of any option other than full, face-to-face instruction. Area resident Ron Korn asked, “What’s the deal with our teachers? Are teachers still being paid?”
“You might be working, you might call it that … but you’re not teaching our kids,” he said, after stating that his children had to attend summer school because the online-only instruction in the spring did not adequately prepare them to go on to the 2020-2021 academic year. “You’re sitting in your classroom by yourself or whatever it is that you’re doing, looking on the computer, grading work that people have turned in or whatever’s going on, I don’t know, I didn’t see it.”
Another resident vowed to start a co-op and enlist others in the community to educate students who won’t participate in online education.
“I feel that the left side of the liberal agenda is always, you know, what’s catered to, so maybe you should open your eyes to the people that don’t live in fear, trust Jesus and live our lives,” she said.
As with the state’s guidance, under “green” conditions, in which no community spread of the virus is evident, five-day instruction would continue face-to-face but with increased sanitization and social distancing policies in place. Staff and students exhibiting symptoms would be encouraged to stay home, facilitated in large part by parents and caregivers actively monitoring school children before sending them to school.
Under the “yellow” plan, the school day would follow a “modified traditional schedule,” with elementary students organized in “cohorts” — meaning, they would arrive at school to be met by their teacher, with whom they would have breakfast in the classroom from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Face coverings would be “expected” on busses and in hallways and “encouraged” in the classroom.
Those groups of students would spend the entirety of the day together — including recess — so that if any positive cases should arise, that particular cohort would revert to online-only instruction for a period of time, rather than requiring a full shutdown of the school. Dismissal would be at around 12:45 p.m., with students leaving the building between 1 p.m. and 1:10 p.m. and additional academic time being made up for at home: as little as 10 minutes per day of online instruction for students in first through third grades, and 40 minutes for fourth- through sixth-graders. Kindergarteners would not be required to perform any additional school work after dismissal, Albertson said.
“We feel that if we can strongly cohort we will not have to shut schools down,” he told the board.
Secondary students — those in middle and high school — would pose additional challenges, as they attend several different classes in various rooms throughout their respective buildings. Cohorting would not work in those schools, Albertson said; rather, the strategy is to reduce class sizes by reorganizing teacher prep periods to the end of the day, thus freeing up more class sections.
Like the elementary schedule, secondary students would arrive at school between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., with instruction from 8:30 a.m. until about 12:45 p.m.
Online instruction would be provided via Schoology for secondary students and Google Classroom for elementary. Those tools, Albertson stressed, are “not the end all be all” and emphasized that “we really need parents to partner with us to keep our schools open” by monitoring their students’ health and keeping them home when manifesting symptoms of illness.
Likewise, staff will be keeping active track of any potential signs of sickness, with a positive case — for staff or students — triggering a 14-day self-isolation at home. Those with close contact, defined as being within six feet of a confirmed case for at least 15 minutes, would be required to self-isolate for 14 days from last contact and be allowed to return to school or work after a minimum of 10 days after a positive test, 10 days after symptoms arise, and/or 10 days after symptoms have improved and no fever is present for at least 24 hours without fever-reducing medication.
In cases where staff or students are in self-isolation, instruction would turn to the appropriate remote learning platform. No COVID-19 tests will be administered at the schools, and individual buildings will be tasked with creating their own unique policies within the district’s framework.
The LPOSD plan remains a work in progress, and the board agreed to table adoption of the plan until its next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 11, when it is expected to make a final determination.
“I’m not the scientist; I’m not the person that’s going to tell you the right theory,” Albertson said, reiterating that the goal of the plan is to “get our kids in the schools and keep them in the schools.”
“This is one of the strangest times in society in my lifetime,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”
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