School is back in session in DeSoto County on August 6. The DeSoto County School Board unanimously approved a Return-To-Learn Plan for the 2020-2021 school year during a special board meeting on Wednesday. The plan includes fully operating within the traditional school model while also offering a fully online distance learning program.
Face masks will not be mandatory for students or school district employees, but parents are strongly encouraged to provide masks for their children. Parents are also being asked to check their child’s temperature and symptoms each morning before sending them to school.
“Social distancing is going to be a challenge. Social distancing and school efficiency do not go hand in hand because schools are built on efficiency,” said Cory Uselton, Superintendent of Education for DeSoto County Schools.
Efficiency is king in school design. Whether it’s the amount of square footage in classrooms, the width of hallways or the number of buses that a school district buys, none of those decisions are made in a way that meshes well with social distancing.
Uselton also acknowledged that the structure of different schools in the district also prevent unique challenges. Elementary schools are static learning environments, with students remaining in the same classroom throughout the day, which limits potential spread.
Middle and high schools, on the other hand, see students changing classrooms throughout the day, which dramatically increases infection risks and sanitation needs. If there is a significant spread of COVID-19, these schools could be moved to a hybrid or distance learning schedule for a specified period of time.
These temporary changes could apply to any group if needed, all the way from individual classes to the entire school district.
“If there's anything that we've learned over the last few months, we must be flexible every day,” Uselton said. “And so there is a possibility that all three of those (instructional models) could be used throughout the school year if needed, depending on health conditions in our schools and throughout the community.”
The Distance Learning Option
Parents who do not want to send their kids back to school will be able to enroll them in a full-time Virtual Instruction Program, dubbed the VIP option.
“Some families are ready to return to school today. But we also have some other families who are hesitant, Uselton said. “They may have situations where their child may have some underlying health conditions, they may also have a family member who lives in the house that they're concerned about. So we want to work with all of our families.”
Students enrolled in the VIP program will not be able to participate in school athletics or fine arts programs.
Both the VIP and classroom settings will use the Schoology platform for students to receive and submit assignments. The current plan is to have lessons recorded and uploaded online the following day for any student that needs them.
Using one platform district-wide will prevent the confusion and problems seen during the distance-learning portion of last Spring, which Uselton described more as “emergency learning.”
“Let's say, you had students at three different schools, or even with three different teachers, they might be using a different platform. That’s no longer the case,” Uselton said.
At the end of each nine weeks, students will be able to decide to continue in the VIP program or return to in-person instruction. Parents have until July 22 to apply for the VIP program.
A School Day In The Era of COVID-19
For many children this year, their school day will begin as it always has, on the school bus. The school day has been shortened by ten minutes this year to allow bus drivers to sanitize between routes. A seating chart will also be developed for buses to help maintain distance and keep kids in the same seats. Siblings may also be asked to sit together in the same seat to free up space.
On the walk from the bus to the classroom, students will be greeted by walls covered in signage, offering reminders on social distancing and what to do if they begin showing symptoms. Students will also be asked at the beginning of each day to confirm that they are not experiencing eight different COVID-19 symptoms. If they eat a school breakfast, they will take it to their classroom.
Once in the classroom, students will be expected to remain seated in their assigned desk, face forward, until their teacher tells them otherwise. There will be no group work and each student will have separate materials (pencils, crayons, etc). Any shared items will be cleaned between uses.
Schools are able to alter their lunch schedule to limit the number of students in the cafeteria at one time. Social distancing will be provided in the lines and at tables. Instead of typing in their student ID number on a keypad to pay for lunch, students will be issued cards to swipe instead.
What If A Student Gets COVID-19?
When a student has a confirmed case of COVID-19, they will be quarantined by the Mississippi State Department of Health. Any student exhibiting symptoms will be brought to a designated isolation area while they wait on their parents to pick them up. When a student or staff member has a confirmed case of COVID-19, parents of the students in that class will be notified by email. In the following days, the school nurse will also take the temperature of the students in those classes. Confirmed cases will be reported by the school district to the Mississippi State Department of Health. After contact tracing, the Mississippi State Department of Health will determine if any students and/or staff will be subject to a 14- day quarantine period.
Academic Guideline Changes
DSC Schools have implemented several changes to their academic policies to make the upcoming school year more student-centered.
The absence requirement has been removed and students are encouraged to stay at home if they are showing COVID-19 symptoms.
The graduation requirement change implemented during the Spring 2020 semester was extended through the 2020-2021 school year. DSC high schools originally required 26 credits to graduate, but that was lowered to the state minimum of 24 credits. Uselton said this change was made to allow seniors more flexibility and prevent something like a missing elective from preventing their graduation.This change was made now because they cannot be changed after school starts. “So if we err, we're going to err on the side of helping students,” Uselton said.
The grading scale was changed, with the minimum passing grade of 65 being lowered to 60.