June 20, 2020 — Mapleton School District, in conjunction with Oregon Department of Education (ODE), has released a draft plan for reopening its schools in the fall by covering a host of preventative measures that ODE and state agencies will be requiring of districts across the state.
Mapleton is planning to transition to full onsite learning for fall; however there will be differences. Students will be required to remain six feet apart at all times and will be sent home for extended periods if they are ill. Classrooms will change, as will interactions between different grades of students — and the question of sports program requirements are still up in the air.
The plans are fluid, with requirements changing sometimes daily.
“The expectations for school reopening are going to change,” said Mapleton Superintendent Jodi O’Mara. “We just have to enjoy the time we have with our families and, when school starts in the fall, we’ll know what it’s going to look like.”
O’Mara sits on a small advisory committee with several other superintendents that meets with — and advises — the ODE.
“There’s about 10-12 of us that meet to help advise what this might look like,” O’Mara said. “I obviously represent smaller school districts.”
When the ODE, along with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), came out with guidelines on reopening, it gave three options for districts to open.
“There’s onsite, a hybrid, which combines onsite and distance learning, and the third option being strictly distance learning,” said O’Mara, who was asked to create a sample plan — or template — for what reopening under the OHA guidelines look like. These templates could then be shared with other districts to help them plan for the future.
Two superintendents chose the hybrid model, where students would spend a few days at home and a few days in school. But O’Mara decided to go for the first choice: onsite.
“My thought was, the best case scenario for our students and our families and community is onsite learning,” she said. “Best case, that’s what our kids need, and that’s what our community overwhelmingly wants.”
She pointed out that in an ongoing survey of families in the district, 96 percent of respondents thus far have requested students go to school.
“Our community and students want it, and so does our staff,” O’Mara said. “That’s why we’re here. We went into education to be around the kids and staff and the community and to support them. It’s been a rough end to the school year.”
While onsite is logistically difficult, Mapleton has an advantage over most other districts: recent large remodels to the school and a small class size.
“I think small schools are going to be able to implement the plan, and the expectations for onsite learning is much easier than larger districts,” O’Mara said. “It’s just the nature of the numbers.”
But onsite doesn’t mean that everything will be onsite. Certain regulations require some students to stay home for extended periods of time, which means that the school will have to be able to provide distance learning as well. And for those families who feel uncomfortable with sending children to school, there will also be options.
“We want them to be able to have the same educational opportunities as if they were on campus,” O’Mara said.
She stated that the district is still looking into online only options for students.
Most importantly, however, O’Mara said that the draft plan she came up with will most likely change.
“We’re living with this virus. The virus makes the timeline, not us,” O’Mara said. “If there’s a huge spike in the virus, or it’s affecting more children, this all could change. That’s why we’re saying, ‘This is a draft plan.’ It’s a living, breathing document that will change. We’ll probably start school one way and have to change and adapt and make it fit what the requirements are to keep all of our kids and staff safe.”
When starting the plan, the district looked at one of the most restrictive portions of OHA/ODE requirements — physical distancing for all students.
“We refer to it as ‘physical’ distancing instead of ‘social distancing,’” O’Mara said. “The main reason is that we want kids to socialize, we want them to interact with each other, but at a safe distance.”
Students must remain six feet apart from each other at all times, in the classroom and outside.
“It will not be easy to keep students six feet apart in any aspect of school, including recess, lunch, breakfast, classroom, transitions, etc.,” O’Mara said.
To help students, district staff will make floor markings, ropes with knots six feet apart when traveling and assigned seats in classrooms.
“For recess/PE, we will teach recess games that encourage distance and/or are singular activities like jump rope, hula hoops, frisbee, games of catch, as well as different tag games that use pool noodles,” O’Mara said.
The middle and high schools will also have floor markings, and they will stagger class dismissal bells to ensure kids aren’t mingling.
The one thing students will not be required to do is wear face coverings. Teachers will also not be required to, unless there is an instance where they have to break the six foot distance, such as providing one-on-one support. Front office staff will also wear face coverings, but the plan is to have face shields.
“Kids are learning to read emotions, but you can’t do that when you’re wearing a mask,” O’Mara said.
The students will also be broken up into cohorts.
“So for us, at my elementary school, each of their classroom square footage allows us to have 25 people in that classroom,” O’Mara said. “Well, my largest class is the fifth/sixth grade blended classroom, and that’s 24 students. So I can have 25 people in that classroom and still maintain six feet distance. That’s a cohort.”
Cohorts can’t mingle. This is to ensure that if an outbreak does occur, it can remain isolated. It also helps with contact tracing.
“If somebody within that cohort is either exposed to or has tested positive for COVID-19, we have to hand Lane County the contact tracing log for anybody in that cohort,” O’Mara said. “You just have to manage the tracing log of which teachers and specialists come into contact with that cohort.”
The district is hoping to make the entire high school a cohort, which only has 50 students.
“They could potentially travel to do their normal schedule throughout the day, as long as they’re just with 9th, 10, 11th, 12th graders,” O’Mara said.
That would require approval by a host of agencies, including Lane County Public Health.
For Mapleton, doing that would make managing cohorts simpler, as well as cut down on cleaning.
“If one cohort leaves the science room, and then the 7th and 8th grade cohort comes into the science room, it has to be cleaned before a new cohort comes in,” O’Mara said. “Working out those details, that’s the trickiest part. And then food service. We have to serve them, they can’t serve themselves.”
Even within cohorts, there will still be cleaning.
“We’ll start at the elementary,” O’Mara said. “Because they are cohorts and the bathrooms are in the classrooms, nobody outside that cohort will use that bathroom. It will be cleaned once or twice a day. So it can be cleaned in the morning, after school or in the middle of the day.”
Any shared supplies, like a pencil or scissors, will also have to be cleaned, but the district is providing each student a pencil pouch filled with its own supplies to make cleaning easier.
“In the high school, the cleaning will have to be more consistent throughout the day, especially with bathrooms,” O’Mara said. “Even though every cohort will be assigned bathrooms, we will still clean them a couple times a day just for the sheer volume. For instance, our sixth graders go to the high school for sixth grade math. Well, when they leave for the high school classroom, that has to be cleaned, the surfaces that they touch. Those moments are pretty tricky.”
Trickier still will be transportation to and from the school.
“On our Deadwood route, we have some kids three to a seat,” O’Mara said. “Now it’s one to a seat. We just met this morning to find creative ways we can have a double bus run.”
It also creates issues with cohorts. While a sixth grader would be in their own cohort at school, on the bus they share seats with third graders and tenth graders. The school can’t logistically make bus runs for each grade.
“So then they would have a separate transportation cohort,” O’Mara said. “And then when they get off the bus to come to school, they go into their educational cohort. Now they’re in that cohort for the rest of the day. And then they get back on the bus which is the third cohort.”
It makes the effectiveness of cohorts more challenging.
“Every time you mix cohorts, it does increase their exposure if somebody were to be symptomatic or asymptomatic and spread it,” O’Mara said. “But, we’re pretty lucky that the morning bus cohort is the same as the afternoon cohort.”
She acknowledged, “It’s tricky. We have three bus routes. There are districts that have hundreds of bus routes. Trying to figure this out is going to be challenging in many ways for many districts.”
When the students do make it to school, it’s possible they may not be let in.
“Part of entry to school is screening,” O’Mara said. “It doesn’t mean taking everybody’s temperature when they come to school, but just a visual screening. How are you going to identify when a student has a fever?”
There are four primary symptoms staff would be looking for: cough, fever or chills, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. If a student has any of those symptoms, they will be sent home for 10 days “after illness onset and 72 hours after fever is gone and other symptoms are improving.”
If a student comes in on a Monday and develops a fever, they must be sent home immediately. Even if the student’s fever subsides on Tuesday, they still must stay home for the remainder of the 10 days. If after 10 days they still have a fever, they must remain home until 72 hours after the fever is gone.
There is one expectation listed for coughing. If students have a cough from allergies or asthma, that could preclude them from going home.
But the symptoms are not just regulated to the student. OHA/ODE also asks if anyone “living in the homes or community living spaces” has the four symptoms. Even if the student is healthy, if they have someone in their home that has one of the four symptoms, the students will have to stay home.
There are other symptoms the district will have to look out for, including nausea, vomiting, nasal congestion and runny nose. Having just one of those symptoms wouldn’t exclude a student from going to school, but multiple symptoms in a student or family member could mean temporary exclusion from school.
“I can count so many times when I’ve come to school with a cough or a runny nose. Sometimes, my stomach is upset,” O’Mara said. “It’s going to be really hard to distinguish if that’s COVID or not. We’re going to have to err on the side of caution.”
The rule also applies to staff, which means that the district will be preparing substitute teachers all summer long.
For some students, it’s possible that they could go through rolling periods of at-home education, depending on how many times they or their families get sick in a year.
“If they’re in a high-risk living situation, they may be in and out,” O’Mara said. “In the fall, we will design a system for these short-term distance learners. That’s something teachers will be designing in the fall.”
There is technology the school district is looking into to help with online learning, from new software programs to swivel connections on iPads that will follow the teacher around class.
“There’s a lot of technology out there that can help support,” she said. “While it may not be livestreamed, the students at home can still watch recordings, and still learn and be a part of the classroom.”
While they are working out the technology of teaching online, students at home with insufficient internet access is another problem.
“That is a huge issue, especially if a student is home distance learning,” O’Mara said. “We have free wireless on campus. I know some districts are looking at taking buses and making them wireless hubs. We don’t have the capacity for that in the fall.”
Families without internet in the district are a small percentage, with only 10 students out of 160 without some form of internet. However, there can be bandwidth problems if multiple kids are at home, along with regular family usage.
While a student might have a satellite link or dial up internet, the slow connections can make streaming a class difficult, even more so if there are multiple children in a family that are required to stay at home at any given time.
“That, I think, is a bigger issue than access right now,” O’Mara said.
Finally, the most frequent question she receives is about whether or not sports will be allowed.
“It’s the $1 million question everybody’s asking, and nobody has an answer for it,” O’Mara said. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around fall sports in their typical sense. It’s hard to imagine, based on the guidelines for school reentry, what that looks like for football and volleyball. Maintaining six feet distance, it doesn’t happen. It’s not logistically possible in my opinion when it comes to football and volleyball. So I don’t know what that’s going to look like. We need to have sports, but what sports?”
The Oregon State Athletics Association is expected to come out with guidelines sometime this summer.
With all the changes that are expected and still unknown, O’Mara understood the concerns that families in her district have regarding reopening.
“This is a really hard time for everyone,” she said. “Not just because of the pandemic, but the state of our society right now. I think we all need to take a deep breath and just go a day at a time.”
Mapleton’s draft plan can be found online at www.oregon.gov/ode/students-and-family/healthsafety/Documents/Mapleton%20Operational%20Blueprint%20Final.pdf.
Students and guardians within the district are encouraged to take a survey on reopening, found at: rmd.me/6Yyb5iuOkT8.
Editor’s Note: In next week’s edition of Siuslaw News, Siuslaw School District administrators and board discuss their possible plans for reopening.