With classes in the Perry Community School District set to start in two weeks, the school board held a work session Wednesday morning with administrators in order to hammer out scheduling and coordination details for both the onsite and online Return to Learn (R2L) plans.
The upshot of the meeting was the school board’s provisional approval for a 1:45 p.m. dismissal each weekday for onsite learners, with teachers devoting the 90 minutes gained to their online duties. The board is expected to formally approve the schedule at its Monday night meeting.
Perry Elementary School Principal Ned Menke urged the school board to action.
“School’s coming, and we’re kind of on crunch time here,” Menke said. “The sooner we make a decision, the sooner we can start planning for staff and letting them know what we’re going to need to do.”
As of Wednesday, some 230 of the district’s 1,675 enrolled students have signed up for online learning, about 15% of the students. The time needed to provide virtual lessons for these distance learners was the rationale for the early dismissal time.
Perry School Board President Kyle Baxter said he supported the 1:45 p.m. dismissal, but he said he was concerned about the cost in instruction time to 90% of onsite students.
“I’m also concerned about the 90%,” said PCSD Superintendent Clark Wicks, “but in this unprecedented time, I would like to see the online be as successful as the onsite, obviously, quality for all, and then revisit each month and see what we’ve got going.”
Vice President Linda Andorf, a former special-needs teacher, said the extra time will be needed by teachers for the online component.
“Unfortunately, we’re asking our teachers to do — we’re basically doubling up their workload by preparing onsite, and then they need to put it online,” Andorf said.
The principals of the elementary, middle and high schools addressed the proposal for early dismissal, and the discussion also included staff members who spoke to the effect of early-outs on food service, transportation, special needs and extracurricular activities.
“I know it’s understood, but it just needs to be said,” said PHS Principal Dan Marburger. “Our goal is to get kids back and to get them back full time on a normal basis as soon as we can, but we’ve got to do it safely and without burning out our teachers. That’s why I appreciate you guys considering this because I know it’s a huge step. Like I said, I know our kids are probably fairly safe with everything that we have in place. It’s my staff that I’ve got to have to run a building.”
Jenn Nelson, director of the PHS Vocal Music Department and president of the Perry Education Association (PEA) teachers union, presented the board with results of a survey of PEA members in response to the school district’s R2L plans. The district employed 140 licensed full-time teachers in 2019, according to Iowa Department of Education records. The PEA has about 75 members.
“Time for the online learning piece is the thing that really just keeps coming up,” Nelson told to school board. “There’s concern about the time, being able to do face-to-face instruction and then also reach those online learners and do a good job as a whole and have time to contact families and communicate with students, do grade work, provide feedback. There is a lot of concern about just having enough time to make that happen and do a good job at it.”
Nelson said some of the comments on the survey were highly critical of the school board and administration and were “hard to read,” but she said uncertainty is causing anxiety.
“We know you’re all working very hard,” she said, “and no one envies any of these decisions that you have to make. There are no good answers right now. We understand it’s very difficult.”
Wicks said no plan will please everyone, and every plan will have its critics.
“However we look at it,” he said, “my goal right now isn’t — somebody said, ‘Boy, you sure have a terrible job,’ and I say, ‘Well, but not if we look at the target.’ I think, like many things, if we have a lot of people that are unhappy, that maybe means that we’re trying to strike a balance. Everybody’s going to have to dive into it. We are going to get complaints on both sides. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision. It just means, guys, this is a COVID-19 time. Let’s work together on it.”
Having attained greater clarity and definition on the question of timing and scheduling, the school board ended the work session and agreed to talk more at their 6 p.m. meeting Monday, Aug. 10 in the Brady Library at PHS.
“What a great discussion,” Wicks said in wrapping up. “That we can throw out ideas and discuss, that we can all come to one decision that everybody’s on that. I hope, from a media perspective, if I could just interject here, this is a chance, I think, to champion what a process should look like, what a process should be with compassion, with listening, and I hope that all of us can leave this room, saying, ‘You know, we discussed this. We are trying to do our very best with quality instruction and do it with a very caring heart and with listening.’ So I hope that that’s the message that all of us can have, media included, superintendent included, the board, so thank you so much for being here.”