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St. John Schools outline ‘Strong Start’: Tentative Aug. 17 reopening includes traditional & virtual instruction

LAPLACE — More than 450 people were tuned into the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board meeting on Facebook Live Thursday night, anxious to hear how the district will handle the return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Board members voted to push the start date for the 2020-2021 school year back to Aug. 17. Learning is expected to begin in August in both traditional and virtual formats, though administration said the plan could change depending on the reopening phase Louisiana is in and the needs of the community and employees.

In the event that Louisiana moves back to Phase One regulations, all instruction will be delivered in a virtual format. A Phase Two or Phase Three school opening will involve a hybrid approach of virtual and in-person learning for students in grades 4-12.

Students in pre-K through third grade will follow a traditional model, returning to school full-time for in-person learning five days a week.

“We are going to plan for virtual, we are going to plan for hybrid, and we are going to plan for traditional. We don’t know what’s coming next in our community,” said Patricia Triche, overseer of the Strong Start 2020 initiative for St. John Public Schools.

Triche outlined a vision for in-person learning that includes temperature checks, social distancing, frequent hand washing, cleaning, face coverings, assigned seating and restroom schedules.

More than 1,000 students have already committed to virtual-only learning through the end of the fall 2020 semester, which will involve the hiring of virtual-only teachers assigned to specific subjects and grade levels.

The St. John Parish School Board met virtually Thursday evening to discusses the August reopening of local schools.

The Hybrid Model

Under the hybrid model of education for students in grades 4-12, students will attend school at least two days a week and receive virtual instruction at home on other days.

Students will be divided into a Gold Group and a Green Group. The Gold Group will meet Mondays and Wednesdays on campus, while the Green Group will meet Tuesdays and Thursdays on campus. Fridays will alternate, with one group meeting on campus while the other engages in online learning. Anyone not on campus will live stream lessons.

Staff will report to school daily and provide in-person and virtual instruction support.

Triche said the hybrid model would be “determinate on the levels of capacity in transportation and available technology.”

She added, “All models are subject to change according to the special needs of our EL and special education students with IEP considerations. Those students have to be looked at an individual level.”

Students in grades 4-12 with moderate to significant disabilities will have the opportunity to report to school five days a week, depending on individual needs.

School Safety

Phase Two protocols call for facial coverings for all district staff and students in grades 3-12. Facial coverings are encouraged for students in pre-K through second grade.

There will be no field trips or large group gatherings. Temperature checks will be required for all students, employees and essential visitors. Social distancing measures will be in place, and regular hand washing will be enforced among students and staff.

No outside food or gift deliveries are allowed during Phase Two, and visitors who are non-essential to school operations will not be given access to the campus. This means parents and volunteers must communicate with their child’s school by phone, virtual means or with a pre-scheduled appointment.

Cafeterias will be cleaned and disinfected daily, and grab and go carts will be utilized to minimize cafeteria lines. There will be assigned cafeteria seating.

Phase Three will also involve a hybrid model of learning in which more students will return to in-person learning, full time. Safety guidelines will remain in place based on health recommendations.

The Strong Start plan mentions that rolling closures of classes and/or school closures may be necessary based on clusters of positive COVID-19 cases.

Virtual Learning Expectations

Families who opt for the virtual-only option will continue distance learning until the end of the fall 2020 semester, regardless of which phase Louisiana is in. They may opt to begin a hybrid model of online and in-person learning at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester.

Triche said the School District plans to have full-time virtual teachers hired by the end of July, with professional development to start immediately after.

Virtual classes will meet five days per week. Teachers in grades K-12 will utilize Microsoft Teams and a Tier One curriculum, while pre-K teachers will use ABC Mouse and Frog Street if Louisiana returns to Phase One.

“Attendance is mandatory. You’re going to have work time expectations,” Triche said. “There’s going to be grading of student work, and there is going to be additional professional development for staff and support for students and families.”

Students will be provided with all of the learning tools needed to succeed, regardless of whether they are learning in a classroom or virtual setting. This includes personal computers and mobile hotspots. Triche said orientation on the technology would be provided to parents closer to the opening of schools.

St. John the Baptist Parish hopes to become a 1:1 school district this semester, according to Interim Superintendent Corey Butler.

“It’s not feasible for us to just place one computer in each household,” Butler said. “In order for us to do this thing the right way, then every child has to have a computer. That is our goal; that is what we’ve planned for.”

School Board member Debbie Schum said it might take a few months to reach this goal.

“Once we get a count of how many computers we have, they will be equitably divided by families,” Schum said. “In August, we might not have four computers for the four children. They might very well have three. We hope by November to be 1:1.”

School Transportation

The School District will work with The Luster Group to deep clean the interior of the buses prior to school opening. Cleaning of surfaces will also take place between and after each bus run, as time allows, and interior sanitizing will occur after each route. Bus drivers and attendants are required to wear PPE. Parents are asked to screen their children for fever and symptoms prior to letting them board the bus.

Steve Vales, director of transportation, said the district plans to conduct an analysis for bus re-routing services prior to the Aug. 17 opening. With bus capacity currently limited to 50 percent, the district may need to modify the existing bus routes. Students will only be able to ride one bus to and from school.

This will impact public and private school students.

“Once we make our schedule, the parochial schools will have to piggyback onto our transportation schedule and model that,” Vales said. “They are combined onto our public school bus routes.”

Reactions

Audience discussion in the live stream of the meeting was not optimistic, with many parents leaving comments such as, “These are children. Why use them as guinea pigs?” and “Why not at least wait until we get to Phase Three? Really what is the rush?” Some parents wanted more clarification on parent expectations and how virtual learning will work for the youngest students before committing to that platform.

The Board discussed putting together a document to address all questions left in the comments.

Butler said he felt confident about the start of the school year and that he believes the district will be prepared by Aug. 17.

Board member Shawn Wallace disagreed. He said, “I really am concerned about the safety of our employees and the safety of our kids. Come the 17th when we start school, I don’t think we are going to be ready. I think the numbers are going to continue to go up.”

School Board President Patrick Sanders understood the plan for students but felt there were too many unanswered questions for staff members, who as of now don’t know when they are to report back to school.

The Strong Start Plan will be available at stjohn.k12.la.us. The public will be able to view any updates or additions to the plan prior to the reopening.