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Greenwood Board opts for Sept. 1 school start date

The Greenwood Board of Education decided Monday night that it will stick to the traditional Sept. 1 start date for the 2020-21 school year rather than bring students back two weeks early. The school district will likely run a short non-mandatory summer school program in late July/ early August to try to get as many kids as possible back in a learning mode after they missed the last three months of the previous school year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the district had applied for and received a waiver from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to start the new school year on Aug. 17, the Board opted instead to return students on Sept. 1 even though it remains unclear exactly how education will look. The DPI has given schools an 87-page document listing various “guidelines” for resuming classes, but those recommendations include everything from full face-to-face instruction to a combination of in-person and virtual learning to possible plans for having schools in class only part-time. The Board decided in a Monday night special meeting that the positives of waiting until Sept. 1 to start the new year outweigh the possible gains of beginning early.

District Administrator Todd Felhofer said a survey of families (with 170 responses) showed a slight majority favored the Aug. 17 start date, while a clear majority want students back in classrooms with teachers. Of the responses, 71 said they prefer the Aug. 17 start date, 63 wanted Sept. 1, and 36 had no preference.

Felhofer said the survey also showed 80 percent of respondents feel comfortable with no concerns/minimal concerns in sending their children back to class with teachers. Fourteen percent said they were only somewhat comfortable and nine percent said they were not comfortable at all.

Board member Mark Shain said he initially advocated for the Aug. 17 start date to give the district a few extra weeks of instruction time in case the coronavirus situation creates further problems. However, he said, parents have told him they would rather start on the usual date.

“The majority of the feedback I’ve gotten … it just looks to me like there’s a push to move back to that traditional start date,” Shain said.

Board member Dean Lindner said an advantage of the Aug. 17 date is to give the district extra time in school in case classes are stopped again with a further virus outbreak.

“I have a feeling at some point in time we’re potentially going to have a relapse and we’ll be back out,” Lindner said. “Are we better off starting early giving ourselves some leeway built in?” Felhofer said the district has much work to do yet for preparing for the return of students. Plans still have to be put in place for either in-person instruction or some combination of that and on-line instruction, plus it has to enact and train staff on new protocols ranging from sanitation to social distancing to lunch procedures to school bus issues.

“We still have a lot of work to do, clearly,” Felhofer said.

With that, he said the Sept. 1 start date gives the school two more weeks to get everything ready.

“Are we going to be ready with all the protocols?” he said. “I’m not saying we can’t be ready, I’m saying we might not be ready. I think there’s pros and cons to both dates.”

Several parents attending Monday’s meeting spoke on the issue.

“I have a feeling at some point in time we’re potentially going to have a relapse and we’ll be back out. Are we better off starting early giving ourselves some leeway built in?” -- Greenwood Board of Education member Dean Lindner Lisa Artac said she has concerns with starting early, especially since the district struggled at the end of the last year to implement an online system that worked for all students. With some families unable to participate fully because of poor internet service, she said some children fell behind. Starting this year early would only make that worse, she said.

“How are we ever gonna be ready Aug. 17 to give all the kids an equal opportunity for learning?” she said. “I don’t think we’ll be ready teacher-wise, or technologywise.”

Parent Dave Denk said most people are talking about a need to get “back to normal,” but an early start date would not provide that.

“The most normal thing is to go back to school after Labor Day,” he said.

Parent Tony Horvath said an early start date might create problems for families taking late summer vacations. If some areas of the country reopen, August might be the only chance for families to get away, and an early start date could cause children to miss school.

“I don’t know if we would be here,” Horvath said.

Horvath also called for the district to use “common sense” in deciding how to resume education. Implementing such measures as arrows on floors to guide hallway traffic or frequent testing of children to check for fever are too much.

“I’m just not gonna subject my children to that indefinitely,” Horvath said. “Honestly, some of these things they feel much more traumatizing from her (his daughter’s) perspective than the disease.”

“I’d like to get back to normal in terms of schedule and expectations,” Horvath said.

Parent Chad Durrstein encouraged the Board to bring students back into the school rather than try to continue with online learning. He said the kids need social interaction and are not getting that now.

“They’re having difficulties with that,” Durrstein said. “In my opinion, these kids need to be interacting with their whole class. They learn from each other just as well as they learn from the teacher.”

He also said the school can do what’s necessary in terms of sanitation, social distancing, etc. to make it feasible to reopen the school without increasing the threat of spreading the virus. “They’re already hanging out together. They already have what the other ones have,” Durrstein said. Durrstein and other parents also expressed concern with the district’s online learning system, and the problems created by uneven internet access throughout the district. He said some kids did well with it, but others didn’t, and “We’re making a divide in our students.” Elementary Principal Joe Green acknowledged the problems the district experienced in spring in trying to suddenly implement a virtual learning system after the state shut down all schools in mid-March. Describing the attempt as “a complete catastrophe and a mess for a whole lot of people,” Green said work has been done over the summer to better train teachers and overcome the problems with the inconsistent internet service.

“Yeah, it will be better,” he said. “Will it be perfect? I guarantee it won’t.”

Green said it will be far better for education to get students back into classrooms with teachers. With the problems in internet access as well as the difficulty some students have in learning in a virtual system, “We have inadvertently created a bigger gap in learning,” Green said. “There are a large number of kids, the longer they stay out, the bigger that gap becomes.”

Green said he prefers the Aug. 17 start date, but can work with a summer school period and then a Sept. 1 start date.

“Getting kids back in school is beneficial no matter how you do it,” he said. “I’m all for an Aug. 17 school start date. The important piece for me is getting our kids back to learning.”

Felhofer said the district still has to decide how education will look when doors open again on Sept. 1. It has the DPI’s lengthy guideline manual, and will work within those parameters to make a plan.

“We’re working now to take some of the guidelines and come up with a plan that will fit Greenwood’s unique needs,” he said. He also said the summer school session will give the district a chance to “test drive” some of the new protocols brought on by the coronavirus situation.

As for the summer school period, Felhofer said Tuesday exact dates have not been set as the district talks to its teachers to see who is available and when.

“We’re reaching out to our staff to see how much staff interest there is,” he said.

A summer school session would likely be for two weeks and run either late-July/early August or the first two weeks in August, to provide a break between it and the Sept. 1 start date.

Felhofer said the district will inform parents as soon as details are worked out, both with summer school and the resumption of regular classes.

“Clearly, we’ll be getting a lot of information out to our families,” he said.