Board opts for virtual start to school year

Published 6:36 pm Friday, August 7, 2020

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Students in Suffolk Public Schools will begin the upcoming school year virtually for the first nine weeks following a unanimous vote of the School Board Thursday.

The board did, however, amend part of the plan put forth by Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon IIII and other administrators to allow teachers to come into school just two days per week, rather than the four that was originally proposed.

It also decided to phase in bringing in special needs students with severe disabilities, rather than bringing them in four days per week to start the school year.

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Several division administrators presented various aspects of the plan, which detailed the current situation with COVID-19 leading to the decision to recommend a virtual first nine weeks. It also outlined health metrics that would need to be met in order to phase in hybrid learning and ultimately, regular in-person learning.

The plan also highlighted bus and classroom arrangements, COVID-19 screening, fall registration results, staffing issues and options, cleaning procedures for classrooms and buses, child care and the instructional plan.

“As we have always said, we will keep kids first in every decision that we make,” Gordon said. “The safety of our students and staff will always be our first priority. … We all know that every decision that we make will not always be the most popular, but it will always be the right decision for kids.”

He said that was the reason he and the division staff recommended that teachers return to school to provide instruction from there, rather than at their homes. He cited several reasons, including lack of broadband at home for staff, better access to teaching resources, provide a separation of work and home life and allow administrators to monitor and observe instruction and feedback more efficiently.

Gordon also noted that several staff members had been working other jobs from home during contract hours during the coronavirus pandemic, such as being tutors for homeschooled children or part-time waitressing. He said that by accepting outside employment, they were violating school division policy.

He pointed out that parent feedback the division received on its Virtual SPS model was that there was a lack of consistent feedback and engagement from some of the division’s instructional staff.

“We feel that following the same format as if we are in face-to-face instruction is the best method to improve instruction,” Gordon said.

The most important reason he wanted teachers back in their classrooms for virtual instruction was “to make decisions that are fair and equitable to all of our employees.”

Cafeteria staff, custodians, office staff, school counselors, administrators, maintenance staff and others returned to work, many, he said, for five days per week.

“We need to have the same expectation for our instructional staff,” Gordon said.

While saying he understood teachers’ concerns, other school divisions in the region also have plans for instructional staff to return to classrooms during virtual teaching. He said the safety protocols being put into place are the same that are in place now for staff who have worked inside school division buildings over the late spring and summer.

However, David Mitnick said the most feedback he received on the division’s fall reopening plan concerned the number of days teachers would be required to be in the building during virtual learning. He also said teachers were concerned about the severity of behaviors in some special education students — to include spitting, kicking and biting.

Board Vice Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck expressed a similar concern.

“They aren’t trying to harm anybody, but what they do can have serious consequences,” Brooks-Buck said.

Since March 3, Gordon said of the 74 employees in the school administrative office — which falls in the average range of employees at each of the city’s public schools — six of them have had to quarantine. Two had traveled out of the country, two had a family member diagnosed with COVID-19, one had a possible exposure and one had an elevated temperature. The person with the elevated temperature tested negative for COVID-19.

“None of our employees in the (school administrative office) have had a positive test result,” Gordon said.

If employees wear their masks, wash their hands and maintain social distancing, “our staff will be fine,” he said.

Terry Napier, the division’s director of facilities, maintenance and planning, said the division has bought disinfecting spray machines to clean classrooms and buses, and outlined new cleaning procedures that will be done even after the pandemic.

Gordon said staff needed to be in the building “on some days” for the division’s fall reopening plan to work effectively. Instructional assistants will need to assist with parts of the division’s childcare plan.

“Everything that we have laid out in our plan is a key piece of the puzzle,” Gordon said. “No piece can be ignored, every component works together, and we need that synergy for overall efficiency, effectiveness and success.”

Gordon acknowledged challenges with regard to broadband issues in the city impacting residents and their children’s ability to learn from home.

He credited Division Director of Technology John Littlefield and Purchasing Manager Anthony Hinds with working to upgrade Kajeet mobile hotspot devices to allow for unlimited data, in addition to buying another 525 devices.

Also, all pre-K through 12th grade students will receive Chromebooks, and attendance will be taken daily based on state Department of Education guidelines for virtual learning. Teachers are to follow the division’s grading policy and assignment expectations. Instruction will focus initially on what wasn’t learned and skills not mastered when the division closed schools in March.

Sean McGee, a parent of five children, four of whom attend Suffolk Public Schools, said internet access is not reliable and said they cannot watch videos online and his children do not have the ability to communicate with their teachers.

“We do not have internet where I live,” McGee said. “I have satellite internet. It’s limited, the Kajeets do not work.”

Board member Sherri Story, though she voted in favor of the virtual start to the school year, said many parents wanted their children to be back in the classroom — if not five days per week then at least on some days — and about half of the division’s staff wanted to return to the classroom.