July 22, 2020 10:46:16 AM
STARKVILLE -- The COVID-19 pandemic and the various ways it will affect students and teachers in the rapidly approaching school year dominated discussion at Starkville-Okitbbeha Consolidated School District's Board of Trustees' meeting Tuesday night.
The board unanimously approved a Return to School Guide, which allows parents and students to choose whether the students will take classes in-person, virtually, or, in the case of grades 10-12, a hybrid of the two. School buildings and buses will be regularly cleaned and all students and staff are required to wear masks on school property.
However, prior to the vote, board members and administrators discussed the details of the guide for roughly 30 minutes of a more than three-hour meeting.
Board president Debra Prince presented a list of questions she said she'd received from parents, which included questions about what would be allowed on students' masks -- nothing that isn't already allowed on a shirt or other clothing worn at school, SOCSD Superintendent Eddie Peasant said -- to whether asthmatic students will be allowed to carry their inhalers with them throughout the day.
To the latter question, Assistant Superintendent of Federal Programs Anna Guntharp said students would be allowed to carry the inhalers provided they and their families had made a plan with the school nurse. The same goes for other students in need of special arrangements, such as students with special needs.
"As long as we have the appropriate documentation (from medical care providers), we will make allowances for that," Guntharp said.
Prince also asked about what penalties students would receive for not keeping their masks on during the school day. Guntharp said while administrators hadn't discussed the issue in depth, teachers and principals are expected to tell students to keep their masks on, and that parents will be informed if a student continually takes his or her mask off.
Prince's question, which took up the bulk of the discussion, was whether teachers and other district employees who have family members particularly susceptible to the coronavirus -- such as an elderly parent or vulnerable child at home -- will be allowed to work from home.
Guntharp said school principals are working with staff who have such family members at home.
"We are willing to work with those teachers directly," Guntharp said. "Having said that, we have to have school as well. ... That's going to be an individual decision based on that employees' needs."
While some of those teachers can teach classes virtually, she said, there are other positions that have to be on site.
"I've got to have a school nurse," she said.
She added employees have a certain amount of sick leave based on federal law, but Prince remained concerned that some employees will feel they have to go to work, even if they have a family member particularly vulnerable to the disease.
"Say you're a school teacher and you're caring for an elderly parent," Prince said. "You're face to face with however large a classroom you're going to have. So each day you have a risk of being exposed to it and you take that risk home to a person who traditionally does not do very well with this virus. Is that just a chance they have to take?"
Board secretary Jamila Taylor, who attended the meeting via Zoom, said those cases should be taken up on a case by case basis and be backed up with medical documentation for teachers and staff who really need to be able to work from home.
Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Christy Maulding finally put the issue to rest by saying that every faculty member who had raised those concerns has been able to work with their principal and will be able to teach one of the virtual classes.
"There are two teachers at Overstreet (Elementary School) and one of them is that situation exactly," Maulding said. "So (principal Cynthia) Milons went through and called all of her teachers there and identified (two teachers) and went through and had those conversations. Right now there's only a certain number she needs to be virtual, so those two who expressed that need, as long as she can meet their need at school, they were the first two that she assigned to virtual learning so they would not be exposed to classrooms of kids."
Even with the return to school guide approved, other items which in typical years would have been passed with little or no discussion, such as the student handbook and academic calendar, were longer topics of discussion as board members raised questions about schedule changes -- such as whether schools would be able to make up days if they have to temporarily close due to outbreaks.
In that case, Peasant said, it may depend on the circumstances of the closure, but ideally in that case teachers and students would move instruction online.
"Our goal will be to continue so we can count those days," he said.
Peasant also said the district is working with churches, fire departments and other organizations around Starkville to provide spaces for families to access the internet if they don't have internet at home.
"We're outfitting 10 of our school buses with wifi access, so in those places where they have a space but not the wifi or the internet, we would park those buses at those places to allow more internet connection there," he added. "We're asking them to hold eight to 10 families to receive online instruction, virtual instruction. ... That's something we're working on, to increase that virtual learning option."
Peasant said the number of students who opt for virtual learning is increasing as the district nears its Aug. 10 start date for students, and more and more parents are contacting the district to sign their children up for virtual learning.
"As late as (Monday), we had parents contacting us and changing and requesting virtual. I know for sure at the Partnership School, we've had several people contact the principal and say, 'We want to change from traditional to virtual.' I think people are reacting as I expected them to, to the current situation, current numbers."
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