KENNETT SQUARE—When school returns in September, will students be required to wear masks? Will there be plastic shields on their desks? Will there be staggered schedules? Will new hand-washing stations be installed? Will buses be transporting fewer children while making more trips to and from school? Will recess and lunch be safe? Will class size be reduced? Or will remote instruction continue?
Superintendents in school districts in Chester County are grappling with these questions, and while the start of the school year is still more than three months away, they are preparing for the worst-case scenario, while trying to figure out how to pay for the changes.
"If you look at the president's plan to re-mobilize the country, you are looking at 14 days of decreasing infections," John Sanville, superintendent of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District said in a video conference sponsored by Longwood Rotary with Dusty Blakey, superintendent of the Kennett Consolidated School District.
"If you look at the governor's plan and the way it impacts Chester County, you are looking at a 14-day period to go to level green. Schools won't reopen until there are 14 days with fewer than 262 new infections, or 19 a day. We are now averaging 50 or 60 a day. If you do the math, I think it will be some time for schools to be open in a way that we are accustomed to them being open."
Blakey said administrators still don't know whether students can prepare to come back in the fall for a normal educational year.
"It's a waiting game," Blakey said. "We don't even know how this will impact sports in the fall. We are planning on a traditional and non-traditional approach this fall."
And if school districts continue online instruction in September, it will stretch school districts' budgets to the limits. Many school districts have already dipped into their cash reserves during the pandemic to ensure students have the technology needed for proper learning.
For example, since mid-March, the Avon Grove School District has supplied Chromebooks to 583 students, internet hotspots to 63 students with an additional 53 hotspot units being delivered to students next week. To date, Avon Grove's food services division has prepared and distributed approximately 45,000 meals to the community. The cost for this was not budgeted, and as a result, Avon Grove taxpayers - like others in Chester County - can expect an increase in taxes.
While the online instruction at Kennett and Unionville has been successful, it isn't ideal.
Kennett Consolidated, which has a very diverse student population, has had to find ways to provide internet connectivity to many families. The district purchased hot spots for these families, and worked with major cable providers to provide them with free or low-cost internet.
"We identified several hundred families that don't' have internet access or technology, and have had to make that available to them," Blakey said.
To an extent, instruction through Zoom has been relatively successful, but educators say it doesn't compare to one-on-one instruction in a traditional classroom. But now that educators have found limited success with it, some plan to integrate this technology into future programs.
"Some people are tech savvy, but some aren't and we are using the Zoom process to have learning that is non-traditional learning," Blakey said. "This will change how we educate students in the future. I think it's a positive change, but it will be a lot of hard work. We had to adapt quickly, and it gives us a lot to think about on how we educate students in the future."
If nothing else, snow days for students likely will no longer be a day for sledding and building snowmen.
"In a brick and mortar environment, some students thrive, and some don't" Sanville said. "We are finding that the kids who thrive in this environment don't thrive in a normal one. There are some students who are not connecting, and have trouble connecting, and we have to put into place interventions for our support staff and counselors to reach out to students who are not engaging. It's a small population, but it is there."
And Blakey said one of the problems with remote Zoom instruction is there are often distractions.
"There's dogs, there's dogs barking, kids coming on the scene," he said. "It just shows the human side of their teachers and principals and (students) get to see them in their home environment. I think this is one of the pluses."
School superintendents in Chester County all agree the pandemic has robbed seniors of special events, such as proms, senior awards and graduations. Lawn signs are nice, but they don't fill the void.
Many school districts are planning to do in-person graduation ceremonies sometime in July, depending on how the pandemic plays out. In Unionville, the hope is for a July 25 graduation with senior awards the last week in July.
Kennett is hoping for an in-person graduation ceremony on the steps of the high school in late July, with the possibility of a drive-up graduation ceremony with caps and gowns, depending on the status of the pandemic at that time.
Said Sanville: "No one started this year thinking we would have a third of our school year done through distance learning. We have to credit our kids and staff and parents and community to pivot so quickly. It's impressive to see. It wasn't what we were anticipating and not what we are designed to do. But it's something I think is working pretty well."