With school districts throughout the state struggling to develop a plan to reopen school safely for the 2020-21 school year, Grove City Area School District put the question to one of the most important stakeholders — the families of students.
District officials distributed a survey to students’ families to solicit input on back to school plans to protect students, staff and the community from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the things they learned from the survey is that it will be impossible to please everyone.
The first 1,300 responses to the survey included feedback from some parents who said they wouldn’t send their children back to school if they are required to wear face coverings, while other parents replied that they would not be willing to have their children return unless the districts mandate masks or shields.
There has been agreement on some issues relating to having students back in school for the first time since mid-March, said district superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Finch said. About 70 percent of the respondents said they wanted instruction in the fall to be carried out in a manner as traditional as circumstances allow.
What the circumstances will allow is another matter.
Students finished out the 2019-20 school year under remote instruction situations, with many classes taught online. Few Grove City Area parents want to see that continue when the new school year starts — only about 8 percent of parents said they would be interested in remote learning in the fall.
About 22 percent of the responses said they’d be interested in a hybrid schedule — a mix of remote and in-person instruction.
Regardless, the district is preparing for the continuation to some degree of remote instruction. Officials have ordered new Google Chromebooks, ensuring that each student in kindergarten through 12th grade has access to the devices.
More than 60 percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to use their own transportation so the district could more easily maintain transportation with social distancing.
But that effort becomes more complicated because districts have to operate within parameters set by the state Department of Education and Department of Health, which can change at any time. Just last week, the state placed new restrictions on restaurants and taverns in response to a spike in cases.
Finch said Grove City’s plan, whenever it is adopted will include responses to a wide range and scenarios, such as what the district will do to prevent an outbreak if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
While the health and safety plan has yet to be finalized, Finch said face coverings might not be required if staff and students can maintain adequate social distancing. If conditions won’t permit adequate social distancing, masks would be mandatory, and administrators are looking into the cost of providing them.
If students return, strict cleaning and sanitation methods will be in place, and adjustments will be made to policies covering issues like visitors to the schools, Finch said.
He said the district is trying its best to create a plan that has some flexibility while also following guidelines from the state and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are committed to not being overreaching,” Finch said.
Mercer Area School District is trying to adopt an innovative solution to the issue of maintaining social distancing on one of the school districts’ most intimate services — school busing. Superintendent Dr. Ronald Rowe said the buses will be loaded back to front, with students who are related or from the same household, who have presumably been together for months, sitting next to one another.
The district’s school board was scheduled to adopt its reopening plan Monday. District officials planned to share details from the approved plan on Mercer’s website.
When the students do arrive at school, it will be for in-person, five-day-a-week education, instead of virtual learning or a staggered hybrid approach. Staff will also be realigned to help reduce the number of students per classroom, Rowe said.
“We’re going to social distance as much as feasibly possible,” he said.
Finch recently hosted a kickoff meeting for Grove City’s teachers and administrators, and said the district has formed focus groups to work on elements like academic program readiness, mental health support, and technology and resources.
Officials are looking at how to improve tools used for online learning, though Finch said they have already learned a lot from remote instruction in the spring.
“We’ll be more ready than we ever were...We got shocked into it like everybody else,” he said.