The Perry Community School District (PCSD) Board of Directors adopted a Return to Learn Plan Monday for resuming fall classes on a five-day-a-week schedule with the normal pre-pandemic class sizes of about 20 to 25 students per room.
PCSD Superintendent Clark Wicks presented the board with the seven-page Return to Learn (R2L) Plan, which does not require students or staff to wear face masks or submit to temperature checks on entering the schoolhouses but does recommend the washing of hands and maintaining of social distances.
Joining Wicks to field questions about the plan from the school board were members of the PCSD administrative team, Perry High School Principal Dan Marburger, Perry Middle School Principal Shaun Kreuger and Perry Elementary School Principal Ned Menke and Vice Principal Ryan Marzen.
“There is a risk in coming to school, but there is a risk every time you get up,” Wicks said. “Anything we do in life has a risk. It will be a risk to be in school. There is going to be a risk if we’re not in school. As we weigh all of the options, I can speak for myself, and the administrators can speak for themselves, but as a team we feel that there is a great deal of risk if we do not come to school, both socially, emotionally, nutritionally, academically, all of those things.”
According to the Perry R2L Plan, “the requiring of face coverings for all staff and students is not recommended” by the Iowa Department of Education, but face masks will nevertheless be “permitted and recommended when social distancing cannot be practiced.”
The plans makes it sound like those times could be frequent because the “Perry Community School District may not be able to guarantee that physical distancing can be met in all school settings throughout the entire school day, during school activities or with transportation,” the R2L Plan said.
Classrooms will be arranged “to allow for as much social distancing as possible.”
The school bus is the one place where face masks will not only be “highly recommended” but “required” outright by the PCSD because the R2L Plan calls for buses to carry their normal loads of up to 77 students.
“We’ve listened to a lot of ideas,” Wicks said. “We’ve met for hours upon hours. We don’t have all the answers, but a couple of things that we talked about with the teachers and with the administrators is this: we want to continue building confidence while functioning effectively during this COVID-19 time.”
Wicks detailed a “strategic risk-based intervention plan” that focuses on the “density and duration” of person-to-person contact and outlined the “mitigation interventions” that aim to purify the air in the buildings, surfaces of the things in the buildings and skins of the people in the buildings.
“We want to get the staff on board in order to get that safe, manageable and reasonable Return to Learn Plan,” Wicks said, “even though this is a complex situation of risk and still functioning in a COVID-19 environment.”
Marburger said the uncertain progress of the novel coronavirus in the Perry area risks making the R2L plan moot by the time school starts Aug. 19, even after hundreds of hours have been devoted to drafting it.
“With things exploding now and rates going up again,” Marburger said, “I guess I’m uncomfortable with our goal to get everybody back. Should we be starting slower or not? That’s the toss up. We’ve got to get the kids back at some point. We’ve got to get them back. I think that’s everybody’s goal. Now how do we do it safely and in the right way? That’s always going to be the question.”
Marburger illustrated the dilemma by describing two consecutive emails that came to his inbox, the first from parents who said they would not send their child to school if a face mask were required and the second from parents who said they would not send their child to school if a face mask were not required.
“You know, we’re built to be here in school,” Wicks said. “We know that there’s many challenges, but we need to rally together — and that means the whole community — so we can make this happen.”
The school board voted unanimously to approve the R2L plan and authorizing it for one month, with the intention of reauthorizing it monthly and revising it as necessary.
The PCSD is not alone in trying to square the circle of COVID-19. School districts across Iowa and the U.S. are weighing a dizzying variety of options for the fall, including not only modes of instruction — onsite, online, hybrid — but also transportation, nutrition and physical- and mental-health variables.
For instance, the nation’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District, announced Monday that students would not be returning for in-person classes this fall. The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) union praised the decision.
“It is time to take a stand against Trump’s dangerous anti-science agenda that puts the lives of our members, our students and our families at risk,” said UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz. “We all want to physically open schools and be back with our students, but lives hang in the balance. Safety has to be the priority. We need to get this right for our communities.”
By contrast, the conservative-leaning Orange County Board of Education, also in Southern California, approved guidelines Monday for students to return to schools in the fall without social distancing or face masks.
In Arizona the representatives of some 60 of the state’s 230 school districts signed a July 7 letter to Gov. Doug Ducey, calling on him to keep school buildings and classrooms closed statewide until Oct. 1.
The districts recommended reopening in October only if data suggests it is safe to do so. They also recommended that the state education department:
- Develop agreed-upon protocol for in-person classes.
- Fund distance learning at the same level as in-person instruction, without requiring in-person classes every day of the week.
- Allow schools flexibility in the number of instructional days they have to offer.
- Suspend state testing for the 2020-2021 school year.
In a July 9 statement, the Richmond Education Association in Virginia recommended “a virtual rather than a physical return to our school buildings” in the fall. The teachers union claimed that “it is unequivocally unsafe for us to conduct in-person learning. Research is certain that this illness is airborne and highly contagious, especially indoors. It is unsafe for people to be gathering indoors in large groups in any location.”