After much discussion that at times became a little heated, the Hiawatha School District voted 5-2 Tuesday night to get students back into the classroom on Wednesday, Sept. 2.
This is the second time the board has pushed back the start date. Earlier this month the board voted to move the start date back to Aug. 20 from the original date of Aug. 18.
However, several things happened after the early July board meeting — the governor mandated that schools not start until Sept. 8. In addition, the state school board declined to approve that mandate and the decisions fell back in the hands of the local school districts.
A few days later, school officials received a nearly 1,100 page document “Navigating 2020” detailing the proposed learning guidelines for the 2020-21 academic year. This included three phases of possible learning: Phase 1-on site; Phase 2-hybrid of on-site and remote; Phase 3-remote. School districts need to be ready to move into any of those phases at any point in time depending upon the health and wellness climate of their county pertaining to COVID-19 cases.
It’s the challenges of getting students back into the classrooms while preparing for the unknown that has led schools — like Hiawatha — to make decisions to move start dates. In addition, there is so much planning that goes into it — disinfecting, mask protocol, taking temperatures, social distancing in the classroom, playgrounds and on buses, additional staff to monitor students, along with working out plans for quarantining and how to handle positive cases of students and staff.
All of these topics and many others were discussed during Tuesday night’s special board meeting — held at the Hiawatha Middle School library and aired over Zoom. Some district patrons were not able to view the meeting, as the Zoom conference maxed out at 100 viewers. Concern over this was discussed in the meeting as well, however to allow for more viewers the meeting would have had to been stopped and rescheduled with a new Zoom meeting link sent out to the public. The board had also purchased additional microphones for the Zoom meetings to allow for viewers to hear audio better.
Board members had varying views on when to return to the classroom. Superintendent Lonnie Moser proposed following the governor’s guidance and starting Sept. 8 with kindergartners, fifth and ninth graders and remaining students in the classroom the following day.
Board member John Wright was vehemently opposed. He felt it was time to get the kids “off the couches and out from in front of the TV” and back in the classroom sooner rather than later and sort through issues as they arose. Wright said he thought that the district could adequately prepare within the next three weeks for the academic year as well as custodians sanitize buildings that essentially had been empty all year.
“It’s a virus, not cobwebs,” said Tom Simmer, president of the board, who also voted in favor of not starting until after Labor Day.
Board member Ian Schuetz was just as vehemently proposing a later start — stating if school administration and teachers asked for the additional time he felt they should give it to them.
“We want to put our best foot forward — once we go live we will have kids in the building,” Schuetz said, noting that he felt it was best to be completely prepared rather than try to fix something on the go.
Wright argued that the school board couldn’t keep waiting and waiting to get kids back in the classroom.
“We may as well wait until October then,” he said.
Moser said by starting the day after Labor Day that pushed the final days of school to the last week of May, so school would be still be completed before June. Moser also stated there were other things to consider besides just getting classrooms ready. He said supplies that were ordered in the spring still had not arrived and thermal cameras that were purchased to record temperatures — required twice a day of all staff and students — wouldn’t arrive until later in the third week of August. He also noted there were busing considerations as well — as social distancing is being required on buses with a recommendation of one student per seat and seats in between students when possible. He said two of the bus routes — to White Cloud and Robinson — were completely full and the district may have hire additional bus drivers to split those routes. Moser said additional custodial staff and a CNA will have to be hired to complete the requirements for health and wellness guidance as required by the state’s learning document. These additional positions and supplies will be reimbursed by CARES Act funds or SPARK funding for COVID-19 purposes.
Curriculum Director Jean Brintnall was at the meeting and when asked her opinion stated that she wanted this year to be great — and in order to do that then additional time to prepare would be appreciated. She said the curriculum planned for the academic year will be something that could be in use throughout all three phases and not just for the 2020-21 academic year, but 5-10 years in the future.
“The best you can give us is most appreciated and will be a better vehicle for it,” she said. “That extra time will not be wasted.”
Schuetz made a motion to start school Wednesday, Sept. 9 for kindergarten, fifth and ninth graders. Simmer seconded the motion, however it failed 5-2 with only Schuetz and Simmer voting for it and board members Jeff Brockhoff, Andrea Groth, Amy Kopp, Wright and Keith Erdley casting nay votes.
Kopp, along with Wright, pointed out that area schools were starting in the third and fourth weeks of August. Schuetz said he still felt it was too early and thought some of the schools who had not adjusted the starting time schedule were “exceptionally naive” to think they could prepare in that short of a time. Schuetz said that he felt the board should exercise it’s right to proceed with caution and start later rather than earlier.
“We’re compromising with no need to compromise,” he said. “It’s a good thing we are not bound by what other districts are doing. We’re not giving teachers and administration the time they have asked for.”
Wright said he had confidence in the school staff to hit the ground running and meet the challenges this coming school year will offer.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we can do this,” he said. “Everybody has to step up.”
Following further discussion, Erdley made a motion to start school Sept. 2 for kindergarten, fifth and ninth graders and the remaining students start Sept. 3; Kopp seconded the motion. It was passed 5-2 with Erdley, Kopp, Groth, Wright and Brockhoff voting for the motion and Schuetz and Simmer against it.
In other discussions, the board has not yet approved the learning document that board members and Moser reviewed and discussed during the meeting. Moser said further review will be given to the document before it comes before the board for approval. Guidance on social distancing in classrooms, buses and also wearing masks in situations when social distancing could not be maintained was discussed — but not voted on. Moser advised that the school district would work closely with the Multi-County Health Department to make decisions on the phases of learning and other health and wellness issues within the school facilities.
Board members admitted this was going to be a challenging year and as Simmer noted “could change again in two weeks.”
Moser said the learning plan was going to give the district the guidance to move forward with any of the learning phases if the local health department offered guidance to do so.
Also discussed was sports and co-curriculars. Based on the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s 5-4 decision Tuesday afternoon, fall sports would continue as scheduled. The board said that means that practices would begin Aug. 17 as scheduled, however they did not determine what those practices would look like at this time nor state if competitions would begin as scheduled.
There will be some adjustments to classes such as choir and band, where rooms are smaller and students will have to express air through singing and blowing into instruments. Classes may be moved outside if weather allows for social distancing and if weather does not permit then the students might go to studying music theory or other music-related material rather than performance.
In other business:
The board approved the 2020-21 budget for publication and set a budget hearing at the Aug. 10 meeting. The budget of $17,291,804 includes a decreased mill levy of 1.12 mills and an increase of $133 each student from the Base Student Aid Per Pupil state aid. Student aid is based on the number of enrolled students on the Sept. 20 count day and that proposed number is 963 for this year compared to 961 last year and 943 the year prior. Moser said he is not sure how the remote learning will play into this, but as long as students enroll in the district’s program — whether on-site or remote — they will be counted.