With two “Return to Learn” choices presented at a special meeting Tuesday night, West Plains R-7 Superintendent Dr. Lori Wilson highlighted district efforts to return to safer in-class learning this fall while acknowledging some parents will still not be comfortable with that, and offering an online-only option for those students.
School board members and district administrators were joined in the public meeting, held at the West Plains High School, by audience members viewing online via Zoom.
Wilson emphasized the plan was put together with input from public health officials including the Howell County Health Department, as well as from district faculty parent questionnaires and state education officials including the Missouri State Teacher’s Association and the Missouri School Board Association.
“And we’re all in the same boat,” she reminded, before acknowledging that the area has seen a spike in positive COVID-19 cases in recent weeks and repeating that the safety of students is the district’s number one priority.
In a survey of district parents that netted about 1,000 responses, nearly 90% of parents expressed willingness to resume seated classes, results presented to the school board showed. Of those, about 61% said they would be comfortable returning their child to the classroom, but 28% had concerns about in-classroom instruction.
About 3% said they would not be comfortable allowing their child to return to the classroom and a little more than 3% would not allow their child to return to the classroom until a vaccine for COVID-19 was developed, according to the survey.
The West Plains R-7 district has a student population of about 2,600 in grades kindergarten through 12.
Of the district's estimated 210 teachers, Wilson said, about 84% surveyed said they were OK with classes resuming with in-person instruction, knowing there will be extra measures put in place to help stop the potential spread of COVID-19, but the remainder, about 16%, were not comfortable with it.
The plan is for school to resume Aug. 24, with a choice for students to either attend in person or online, but no hybrid classes, staggered class days or other “in between” options.
Online learning is distinguished from virtual learning by the delivery method of the curriculum; online learning is any process with a pre-designed curriculum and with virtual learning, the teacher delivers the curriculum.
District families are being asked to make a commitment to one of the two choices starting Monday through Aug. 7, so the district will know how to proceed in scheduling and class placement. For example, the online option will have restrictions on class choices, due to the hands-on nature of some classes like art or vocational skills like welding. As a result, those classes will not be available for online instruction.
Those choosing online learning may take advantage of an opt-out period of about a week, if it turns out the choice isn’t in the best interest of the student and their family.
Some accommodations will be made for student participation in activities like sports, despite online enrollment, per recent Missouri State High School Athletic Association decisions, and there will be some building-to-building accommodations for programs like A-Plus, Z-Caps and SWAT, Wilson said.
Questions regarding specific activities and classes should be directed to the building the student will be attending, Wilson reminded. Call 256-6150 and follow the prompts for the high school, middle school and West Plains Elementary School; call 256-2836 for South Fork Elementary; or call 256-6152 for South Central Career Center.
In-class instruction will be held with risk mitigation measures put in place under the direction of the Howell County Health Department, Wilson said, and was planned taking into consideration keeping contact surfaces as clean as possible and social distancing practices.
The measures will include daily temperature checks of staff and students before entering buildings and masks worn by all faculty, staff and students in grades five through 12, unless otherwise indicated by special needs.
In addition the district will implement assigned seating and cohort grouping to limit contact, and take hygiene measures like offering prepackaged cafeteria meals, rather than self-serve, and providing single-serving or personal refillable water bottles to replace water fountains. Plexiglass barriers will be placed down the middle of cafeteria tables during meals when mask-wearing is not possible.
Students will not have their temperature checked when they board school buses, but if they are showing a fever or are otherwise symptomatic when they arrive at school, they will be placed in a “quarantine” care area until a parent or guardian can pick them up, Wilson said.
Checking temperatures at bus stops was considered bad practice because there is no responsible way for the district to refuse entry on the bus, not knowing if a child was being sent back to a home where parents had possibly already left for work, leaving a child unsupervised.
Visitors to district buildings will also be temperature-checked before entry and unnecessary entry will be discouraged. Parents will be expected to drop their children off at the car line rather than walk them to the building, and should call ahead to arrange entry into the building if necessary and expect to have their temperature checked on arrival, Wilson said.
In that same vein, no indoor activities will be held at district facilities during the first quarter, and no volunteers will be allowed during in-class birthday parties at the elementary schools as they have been in the past.
Absences due to illness or COVID-related quarantine will be treated as any other absence related to illness, under Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines, Wilson said, with a possible option of doing online classwork in the case of a prolonged quarantine absence if that option is available, she added.
Common contact areas will be sanitized each time buses are emptied; in classrooms, hallways and restrooms throughout the day; and door handles, playground equipment and other commonly touched surfaces at night after buildings have been emptied.
A third-shift custodian has been added for the sole purpose of sanitizing classrooms with electrostatic sanitizing equipment bought by the district for that purpose, Wilson said.
For the full plan, click here.
Edited at 10:19 a.m. July 30 to update the expanded time period for parents to register students for online learning and to include the link to the detailed plan on the school district website.