Schooled Reporting on education

Getting back to school

Education | Large facilities will require significant changes, but it will be business as usual for most small schools
by Laura Edghill
Posted 5/27/20, 05:38 pm

Sunshine Bible Academy and Dakota Christian School are calmly planning a “pretty normal” start to the school year in August.

“Honestly, especially since we’re in such a rural area, I don’t know that we will be terribly affected,” Dakota Christian School CEO Jeremy Boer said. The private Christian school in Corsica, S.D., switched to distance learning in the middle of March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It plans to resume on-site classes in August.

Principal Jason Watson of Sunshine Bible Academy in Hand County, S.D., predicted an unremarkable return, as well. He explained the boarding school already has called back some students for the final two weeks of the current school year, with teachers taking added precautions such as temperatures checks for the returning teens. But the school does not require masks, nor does it have plans to do so for the upcoming school year.

Another small school in Montana is giving the nation a glimpse of what fall could look like for students. Willow Creek School was one of 11 in the state to reopen in early May once Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, gave the go-ahead. Teachers wear masks and use colorful, 6-foot pool noodles to remind students to keep their distance.

But Willow Creek has only 37 students. Dakota Christian School and Sunshine Bible Academy serve just 29 and 75 pupils, respectively. And all three already have the class sizes that easily accommodate the social distancing needed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Larger districts in major urban centers like New York and Los Angeles face a much more difficult challenge. With school populations in the thousands, looming budget cuts linked to empty state coffers, and uncertainty lurking at every turn, how will school leaders address even the most basic barriers to bringing students back?

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance this month attempting to answer those questions. The CDC document contains a laundry list of recommendations, including advice to pare down class sizes, limit field trips, and constrain students to a single classroom for the entire day.

About one-third of French children returned to classes in mid-May, allowing for what school officials hoped was ample social distancing in classrooms. But within a week authorities reported 70 new COVID-19 cases with possible links to schools. The flare-up prompted the closure of seven schools in northern France.

Germany has fared a little better. Classes there slowly resumed over the month of May with virus mitigation strategies such as wearing masks and copious use of hand sanitizer. Education officials in the European nation report they’ve experienced a handful of isolated infections that required temporarily closing individual classes but not entire schools.

And just last week hundreds of thousands of high school seniors in South Korea switched from online learning back to on-site classes. They wore masks, endured strict social distancing guidelines and temperature screenings, and sat behind plastic screens on their desks. But two students tested positive for COVID-19 early on, prompting 66 schools outside of Seoul to abruptly shutter and send everyone back home and back online.

The new normal for larger schools likely will include students attending in shifts or on just two or three days per week. School districts in Fort Worth, Texas, and Bloomfield Hills, Mich., unveiled plans for hybrid instruction, with students spending some time learning online and some time on campus. The on-campus time would occur in smaller classes and less densely packed buildings.

“I think that we would be naive to ever think about American schools going back to the way that they were,” Wyoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said in a town hall meeting last week on CNN.

Going into the next school year, local officials know any time in a school building could put students and teachers at risk. But schools help power the economy, with many parents depending on them for child care while they work. There’s a sober awareness that distance learning has not worked well for everyone, and some children will return with significant learning gaps. And many students will go back to school traumatized by the loss of a loved one to COVID-19.

Parent and Forbes contributor Alison Escalante wrote this week that we might all do well to take a deep breath, grieve the loss of “normal,” and move forward: “Maybe it’s time to stop freaking out about the school reopening guidelines and start thinking about what is feasible.” Beddoe Beddoe

No objections to LGBTQ+ studies course

One of the largest school districts in the nation will launch a pilot course next spring on LGBTQ studies at two of its 25 high schools. Officials at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland plan to eventually offer the social studies elective throughout the district, which is just north of the nation’s capital. The district’s Board of Education voted unanimously to authorize the new curriculum on May 12.

Promoting the course as the first of its kind in the region and one of only a handful nationwide, school officials said it teaches LGBTQ+ identity, history, and culture. Juniors and seniors can take it after completing a required American History course.

Although a dozen parents and students addressed the Montgomery board at the meeting, none questioned the new course, focusing instead on the controversy surrounding the district’s grading policies for the remainder of the coronavirus-interrupted school year.

“I think one of the reasons you didn’t see parent involvement is that all indications were this was going to be a unanimous decision,” said Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations. —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by Seth Perlman (file) Associated Press/Photo by Seth Perlman (file) A student studies in preparation for the ACT Assessment test.

Testing out

The University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously on Thursday to stop using SAT and ACT scores in admissions decisions at all 10 of the schools it oversees. The public university system will phase out the standardized testing over the next five years while it develops its own entrance exam. But the board could decide to eliminate such tests altogether.

The decision was not without controversy. A faculty task force recommended in April that the UC system continue using the tests as part of the admissions process, saying they predict whether a student will succeed in college more reliably than high school grades.

The UC system has come under increasing pressure to reexamine its use of the tests following last year’s sweeping college admissions scam as well as a 2019 lawsuit alleging that the use of the SAT and ACT unfairly discriminates against minority applicants. —L.E.

Facebook/Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop Facebook/Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop Cakes for graduates from Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop

Sweet reward

A Red Wing, Minn., bakery owner gave cakes to every one of the 200 graduates at the local high school.

“Our seniors are going to be missing out on so much … that I just felt like I needed to do something,” Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop owner Bill Hanisch told CNN. “And cake makes people happy.”

But the idea caught on, and Hanisch quickly found himself fielding hundreds of orders from neighboring towns. Calls also came in from benefactors who were sweet on the idea of funding a project that eventually included 12 schools and 800 graduates. —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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  • AlanE
    Posted: Thu, 05/28/2020 09:39 pm

    Okay, a serious question for which nobody has an answer. How do they know the schools were the point of transmission for the virus? I can't speak to what things were like in South Korea, France, or Germany, but I can speak with some clarity to the question of whether kids in the United States have been intermingling more and more over the last month. In short, they have. In fact, they're getting together all the time. It's what kids do. And, few to none of those students have been wearing masks except as part of job requirements. Given all that, if we see a small spike (which is really all we're talking about in these cases) in infections in August, are we going to rush to blame the situation at schools? If so, why?

  • OldMike
    Posted: Fri, 05/29/2020 01:34 am

    Montgomery County (Maryland) Public School District is offering the LGBTQ+ course to Juniors and Seniors, and as an elective, not a requirement.  If such a course is to be offered, that is the right way to do it.