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School district unveils its back-to-school plan
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School district unveils its back-to-school plan

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The Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education saw a draft of the full back-to-school plan in a study session Thursday night. The board will formally vote on the plan in a special meeting Tuesday night, nearly a month before school will begin Sept. 8.

Debate and discussion ensued among the board Thursday night about whether they will vote to require masks, purchase cameras for classrooms, provide enough internet access to students and other viral topics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to provide a ‘normal’ start for the 2020-2021 school year for students, staff and families to the safest extent possible for in-class delivery of instruction,” Superintendent Lori Simon said. “The academic, physical, social-emotional well-being of our students and the health and safety of our staff and families are of utmost importance to us.”

Simon said she took notes on the board members’ questions and discussions and would be bringing their ideas and revisions to the senior leadership team (SLT) for consideration in the days leading up to the vote.

Simon also said she anticipated the SLT will break down pieces of the plan into action items for Tuesday night that the board can vote on individually before the board votes on the overall plan.

The plan

The plan is broken up into three levels according to varying levels of community spread, confirmed cases in a school and the spread of COVID-19 within the schools.

A Level 1 status means that COVID-19 cases in Pennington County are increasing by less than 50% from the two weeks prior, according to state Department of Health figures. At this level, there is low or mild community spread, and no confirmed cases in any of the schools.

If the schools are at Level 2, the COVID-19 cases in the county are increasing by more than 50% from the previous two weeks. At this level, there is moderate community spread, and there are confirmed cases in schools.

If the district moves to Level 3, there would be substantial spread of the coronavirus in both the community and in schools. At this level, COVID-19 cases in Pennington County are also doubling every two weeks from the prior two weeks.

At both Levels 1 and 2, schools are open but the second level denotes increased precautions. At Level 3, schools will close completely and move to off-campus learning. After a 14-day quarantine, schools could return to Level 2 after the district consults with the DOH.

Simon said Thursday night that she believes the schools will have to open in Level 2, considering the current trajectory of Pennington County cases and the amount of COVID-19 cases the area might experience after large events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

The plan states that positive cases and exposure will be monitored by the DOH on a daily basis. If there’s a positive case in a school, a general message would be sent to families in that school building.

Instruction at all levels will include daily pacing, deadlines and daily routines and schedules. Those enrolled in off-campus learning would participate in a real-time daily schedule with their teachers and classmates via technology.

Mark Gabrylczyk, assistant superintendent, said the $1.3 million Swivl technology the district is considering would allow staff to offer live daytime instruction to students.

Lisa Hafer, director of special services, said special education staff will reach out to families to review and revise the Individual Education Plans as needed.

Mask plan

In a staff survey with 1,167 respondents, 25% said it would be “very important” to require masks for all students. Another 21% of staff said it would be “important” to require masks. A family survey saw the same percentages for those questions.

In the plan, masks are required at all levels for all staff and students with some caveats.

At Level 1, students are required to have a mask on their person and will be required to wear them as instructed by staff and in scenarios where six-foot social distancing cannot be maintained. Staff are also required to wear masks at all levels of the plan, where social distancing isn’t possible, and when working with sick individuals.

At Level 2, mask precautions increase. Students will be required to wear them outside of classrooms and in close proximity — less than six feet apart for more than 15 minutes.

Health screenings and temperature checks also need to be completed at home and those with temperatures of 100 or greater shouldn’t report to work or school.

If a staff member observes any signs of illness in students, they may send them to a nurse’s office. Students with temperatures over 100 must isolate until their parent, guardian or emergency contact can take them home.

When asked about what staff will do if a student doesn’t comply with mask requirements, Gabrylczyk said it’s important to see how the board feels about the issue of governance in this situation, and said the student’s noncompliance would make a good teaching moment.

“We can’t punish kids because of not wearing a mask,” Gabrylczyk said Thursday night. “We need to be able to teach kids about why we’re wearing a mask. That’s going to rely on all of us, from the board level to the superintendent level, to administration and teachers. We should use it as a teaching moment, not a moment of consequence.”

Gabrylcyzk said the next step would be to contact a student’s parents to talk with them about the mask.

“Parents have to be involved in this so that we have an understanding,” he said. The district needs to “be able to answer questions that may arise in those particular kinds of conversations.”

Board member Matt Stephens said he thinks students will be able to understand the mask issue, for the most part, and he doesn’t anticipate any problems with compliance.

“The only ones who won’t get this are the ones who are being sabotaged at home with this idea of surrendering our freedoms with these masks,” he said Thursday night. “Just like our administrators in our buildings tell a kid to remove their baseball cap, any clothing requirement like that, they’ll do the same thing.”

Off-campus learning

Superintendent Lori Simon said 35% of elementary school students, 30% of middle school students and 40% of high school students did not engage in remote learning this spring. The district previously estimated 25% of students hadn't participated.

The statistics back up Gov. Kristi Noem’s estimate on Tuesday that as many as 30% of students across the state weren’t engaged in learning when schools closed in spring.

Sue Podoll, a teacher in the district and president of the Rapid City Education Association, said student disengagement this spring is due in part to the pass-fail grades in the final quarter, as well as the lack of access to internet and technology for many students.

“Once kids and families were aware that it was pass-fail and that nobody was going to fail, I think to teachers, anyone I talked to said that’s where they started losing kids,” Podoll said. “Going forward, it all counts. Truly last spring, that was crisis education.”

Simon also shared data on Thursday night that showed anywhere from 64% to 80% of students and families were concerned about the student’s learning and their social-emotional well-being during remote learning.

Andrew Hays, a math teacher at Canyon Lake Elementary, said going back into classrooms will revive students’ social-emotional health. The return of the informal morning meetings he holds in his classroom each day will help kids connect again, he said.

Students’ social-emotional health is “occupying a huge part of our brains as teachers,” Hays said. The morning meetings helped build community even over Zoom this spring, he added.

“There are ways you can continue to build community and check in with kids,” he said.

In a parent/guardian survey with 4,896 participants across the district, 18% of respondents at the elementary level wanted an off-campus option for their students and 20% of middle and high school families wanted to learn off-campus, too.

Simon estimated that this means 2,800 students will be learning off-campus in the fall.

Five percent of families also have no internet access, the survey found. But Simon said Thursday night that she suspects that number is actually higher.

Katy Urban, district spokeswoman, said neither Midco nor Vast is still providing free internet access to RCAS students, but that they’re both participating in a federal lifeline program that will give qualifying families internet access for less than $6 per month through a link she provided.

Urban said the district hasn’t decided at this point whether they will require families to demonstrate that they have a stable internet connection in order to do off-campus learning.

Simon said there’s communication with Gov. Noem’s office on an effort to provide free internet to families who qualify across the state, but said Thursday night that she hasn’t heard back yet.

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