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School start in limbo as districts await DPI rules

There are more questions than answers about when and how school will start next fall.

At next week’s Medford Area Public Schools board meeting, board members will address how school will start next fall including possibly seeking a waiver to start in August.

The challenge, says district administrator Pat Sullivan, is that the school district won’t receive guidelines from the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) until June 22, the day of the board meeting. The DPI guidelines are expected to provide direction to school officials about best practices for opening schools.

Traditional classroom instruction has been on hold in the state since late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While younger people and children seem to have, on average, less of a reaction to the virus, there are concerns that schools could serve as hubs where infections could spread in the community.

With much of the country reopening from pandemic shutdowns, there is a strong desire by many parents to get things back to normal for their students.

One of the major issues the board will need to decide is when school should start. State law mandates school to start no earlier than September 1. With the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have the ability to file for a waiver to allow for an earlier start.

According to Sullivan, the major advantage of starting earlier in August is that if would hedge the district’s bets if the anticipated second wave of the pandemic hit as predicted later in the fall.

He noted that an August 17 start date would give the district an additional 11 days of educational instruction which could be used to offset days missed if a second round of closures occurred. Sullivan said that whatever plan was followed, he did not see it increasing either the student contact days or the teacher contract days. The 2020-2021 calendar has 170 school days. Without a second wave of closures, the district could see school ending in mid-May by starting earlier. Alternatively, Sullivan said the district may adjust the calendar giving additional time off during the year to account for the days.

Sullivan said he recognized concerns over reducing the “summer slide” and wanting to be prepared if there was a second school closure and would do as the board directed. However, he said he still supports starting school on September 1 as originally planned.

Sullivan said an Aug. 17 start would be a challenge, since the district does not know what things like how many students will be allowed in the building at a time or if the district may do some method of alternating classes with online instruction.

He said that until the district had the DPI rules and have time to sift through them and plan, they won’t have a clear picture of how school will look in the fall. With some in the community calling for an even earlier start of Aug. 1, Sullivan said that is unrealistic when it comes to staff and being prepared.

“I don’t think we have enough time to meet DPI guidelines,” Sullivan said. He said sticking to the Sept. 1 start date would give the district more time to plan and be prepared for the challenges of reopening school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sullivan said staffing for an earlier start is a potential issue from having bus drivers to making sure teachers and support staff are ready to return to the classroom.

“The timing is not great,” he said, noting some have scheduled plans for August when they are scheduled to be off. “What do we tell them?” he asked, noting it could force the district into having substitutes at the start of the school year for some classes.

Sullivan said it is understandable that people have become riled up about the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, but when it comes to setting policy for the district the decisions made locally will be more impacted by what the state recommends.

Until then, the district and staff must prepare for a range of options from business as usual to online learning to a hybrid of the two.