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Superintendent addresses fall reopening plan in Facebook Live chat

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III addressed questions with Suffolk Public Schools’ fall reopening plan during an Aug. 14 Facebook Live session.

The School Board unanimously approved the plan, titled “Educate and Innovate,” which calls for most students to begin the school year virtually for the first nine weeks, with students gradually returning to school as metrics for COVID-19 improve.

“I have confidence in our kids, I have confidence in our school community that we will be able to adjust to this new normal,” Gordon said in opening the chat.

The plan put forth by Gordon and his administrative team had special education students returning to school four days per week. The board, however, tweaked the plan to have those students be phased in. Initially, it also had called for teachers to perform their virtual lessons at school four days per week, rather than at home. However, the approved plan from the board calls for teachers to return to their school to teach just two days per week. On the division’s website, it said teachers would be in their classrooms for virtual instruction on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Fridays will still be used for enrichment and remediation.

His chat sought to address questions about the fall reopening plan, while also providing resources for parents to learn more about it.

Gordon said students would not be required to be online for the entire 6.5-hour school day during virtual learning. Rather, they will have times in which teachers will be live with students through the Canvas program, though those lessons will be recorded and available for two weeks, which he said would address concerns of working parents being able to supervise their children. They will also have lessons allowing them to work on lessons independently, or allow time to collaborate with other members of their class.

Instructional assistants will also be provided with Chromebooks and be trained in Canvas so they can provide necessary support and allow for more one-on-one time with students.

For those who don’t already have Chromebooks, deliveries to students will start around Aug. 27. Schools will communicate with families directly and will have distribution information posted to their websites.

All orientations, Gordon said, will be virtual. Principals have been asked to set up a map of the school and take students on a virtual guided tour, providing them with logistics on key places and faces.

After the first nine weeks

Parents will be allowed to resubmit forms regarding their plan and transportation preference, Gordon said. They still had questions about what the learning plan is going to be for the entire year. Gordon said that would be contingent on what is happening with COVID-19 in the city and state.

In the second nine weeks, if the data supports it, the division would try to bring all students into schools for one to two days per week, with being below a 10% positivity rate being the threshold for allowing students to return to the classroom. Currently, it is just under 13%. Gordon said the number of days per week would depend on transportation.

Currently, parents say about 67% of students would need transportation to school, according to the division survey.

“Second semester, in February, is when we’re hoping that we can get our kids back to school five days a week,” Gordon said. “But again, that’s going to depend on the data. We’ve just got to be patient with that, folks.”

Broadband

One of the more common questions parents have been asking, he said, has to do with poor broadband connectivity.

The division has 1,025 Kajeet mobile hotspot devices — up from the 500 that were available when schools when virtual in the spring — that have been upgraded to provide unlimited data.

Resource access centers will also be opened at five of the division’s schools, Gordon said. Those will be open for three hours in the morning — from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. — and two hours in the late afternoon and early evening, from 4 to 6 p.m., for kids to come in and download needed materials to their Chromebooks. He said the supervised resource centers would likely be set up for students to stay from 60 to 90 minutes.

Director of Technology John Littlefield and the city have set up some exterior wi-fi at several locations, including the Whaleyville Recreation Center, Lakeland High School, the old Southwestern Elementary School and Pioneer Elementary School. The exterior of those locations can be accessed 24/7.

“We definitely want to make sure that we give as many opportunities (as possible) in case there are broadband issues,” Gordon said.

He said it’s possible the division will work with some mobile companies, and it has asked the city about the possibility of putting up new cell towers, especially in more rural areas of the city where broadband is spotty.

Class time/attendance

Gordon said the goal should be for students to log on for the start of the school day at 8:30 a.m. However, the lessons will be recorded for those who aren’t able to log on at that time. He said there should be communication between families and teachers to make sure students do not fall behind on their work.

The state Department of Education has given flexibility on attendance guidelines, though it will be taken daily. Besides virtual attendance, it can be gauged by email, one-on-one meetings or through other means.

Teachers are to give feedback to families within 48 hours. If that doesn’t happen, Gordon asked for them to contact the division’s administrators.

He said elementary students would likely spend just under four hours in virtual learning, while middle and high school students would spend slightly longer. Gordon said children should have a designated workspace if at all possible.

September will be used to assess where students are, and though benchmark tests will be given, no schedule has been set yet, as that will be determined. He said students would have some kind of assessment every three weeks — “let’s think quiz, quiz, test, or quiz, quiz, project, or group work,” Gordon said. Any required test will take the place of a quiz, test or project.

Teachers will also be keeping a log of every contact they have with a student or parent. No grading policies have been changed, and students will still have homework.

Students can still have physical textbooks, but Gordon said the division ordered fewer of them this year.

Clubs and student activities will also take place, albeit virtually. School directors of student activities — a name change from being called athletic directors — will work with club sponsors and administrators to set up club meetings after the regular school day and on Fridays.

Childcare/Substitute teachers

As discussed at the Aug. 6 board meeting, the division will be partnering with AlphaBEST to provide this service for children of staff members and disadvantaged students ages 4 to 12 from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Registration for the program is currently open, and he said spaces are still available. It will be likely be open to non-SPS staff sometime during the coming week.

Gordon said staff members must designate how many days per week their child will need care.

Though teachers are only obligated to be in school to teach their virtual lessons twice per week, the other days are optional and they can choose to come in. He expects there to be two to three teacher assistants working at each AlphaBEST location.

“When the adjustment was made to move from teachers being in the building for four days versus two days, all that means is the other three days are optional,” Gordon said. “And I know that we’ve had more people that were probably more vocal about teachers not being in the building. But I can tell you there’s more teachers that want to be in the building than do not.”

He said there will be no childcare for teachers coming in for pre-service. The AlphaBEST program begins Sept. 8.

Substitute teachers will still be available to teach when a teacher needs to take a day off.

Special education

Initially, the division’s fall reopening plan was to have special education students in specialized programs — those with severe mental or physical disabilities — to come to school four days per week. With the board deciding to phase in those students, Gordon said the division is still working on that plan — whether it would be two full days per week, four half-days, or something else.

Gordon said individual conversations are taking place between case managers, special education teachers, special education staff at the school administrative office and parents on how best to manage the education of special education students, likely being based on their individualized education plan, or IEP.

“When our board said phased in, we want to take a hard look at each individual student’s needs,” Gordon said. “And the biggest thing for a lot of our students — and this is not just special education students in specialized programs — is really developing that routine.”

Details

More specifics on the fall learning plan can be found at spsk12.net/fall_learning_plan. Gordon’s full Facebook Live chat can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjxH51e2jEs.