Change will continue to take place as the Baker School District plans to welcome its 1,700 students and a staff of more than 300 back to class in the fall.
Superintendent Mark Witty said that because elementary school children are easier to manage in their self-contained classrooms, the plan at this time is for those in kindergarten through sixth grade to attend in-person school Monday through Thursday as usual.
But because of social distancing requirements and sectional scheduling of students and staff in Grades 7-12, those grade levels will be divided in half and rotated through in-person classes every other day.
“At the high school the risk goes up quite a bit as students are switching into classes,” he said. “There is no cohort at the high school that has all seven classes together.”
Witty said that while half of middle school and high school students are attending in-person classes, the other half will participate in the same classes online from home. And the next day those who were at home will come to school and vice versa.
“We only have so many teachers and you can only have so many kiddos in a space at a time,” Witty said of the required split at the higher grade levels.
The online instruction will be improved by the District’s $600,000 investment in new technology, Witty said.
“It will be just like they have a seat in class,” he said of the online instruction. “They’ll be able to hear, see and ask questions.”
The District’s goal is to provide as much in-person instruction as possible while keeping everyone safe, Witty said.
“As we read the rules, we want to make sure we stay healthy and have the best chance to avoid an outbreak,” he said.
“We’ve got to manage this so we can keep students, people in the community and my staff healthy,” he said. “If my staff gets sick we’ll struggle mightily.”
An outbreak of coronavirus in the schools also would call for contact tracing in cooperation with the Baker County Health Department, and isolating those affected for two to four weeks, Witty said.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to mitigate that potential,” he said.
Some families have expressed concern about their children returning to school because either the children, or others in their family, have medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, Witty said.
The District is developing a survey to send to families to help determine how many of them have those concerns.
In those cases, especially for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, the District would provide online instruction similar to the model offered through the Baker Web Academy.
Students in Grades 7-12 would be able to work online from home on all school days, rather than alternate days, Witty said.
Accountability is another issue that schools are working to improve beyond the pass/fail grading system that was put in place by the state when spring vacation was extended to the end of the 2020 school year, Witty said.
Some students under this year’s system decided to do only the minimum needed to pass rather than putting their best efforts into their school work.
“This curriculum is curriculum they need to move on for their careers,” Witty said of the lessons being taught. “We believe accountability has got to be built in.”
The District also is continuing to work on transportation issues.
Current requirements call for students to maintain personal distance of 6 feet from bus drivers and 3 feet from other students, which Witty noted is closer than health officials recommend as safe.
Bus schedules are still being worked out, he said. There is a possibility that some families, who live within the distance that would allow the District to forgo busing under state requirements, might have to have their students walk or drive them to school rather than having them catch a bus, he said.
In addition to social distancing, the District also will focus on other practices aimed at keeping people healthy.
“We’ll emphasize hand sanitizing, personal distancing and hammer home personal hygiene — wash your hands and keep your hands away from your face,” Witty said.
The District will work with the Baker County Health Department throughout the year to ensure proper safety measures are in place.
In addition to the District’s moral obligation to do its best to protect the community, Witty pointed to a financial liability schools could face if the recommended guidelines are not closely followed.
The District’s insurance provider has announced that it will not cover any COVID-19 related claims after June 30. A plea has gone out to the Legislature, which began meeting in special session Wednesday, to help solve the liability issue.
“This can blow up very quickly,” Witty said. “We’ve got to try to do our very best to keep an outbreak from occurring.”
As planning continues, Witty said building principals are working to share information with families and to gather feedback from them and their staffs about how best to proceed.
The Baker School Board will review the preliminary plans during a Zoom video work session Tuesday, beginning at 3 p.m.