Guidance for masks in schools varies widely across US states

Des Moines Public Schools custodian Tracy Harris cleans a chair in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School July 8 in Des Moines. Updated cleaning protocols was one of the Return to Learn topics presented to the Ottumwa school board Monday night as part of an overall presentation of the plan.

OTTUMWA — The Ottumwa school board took in details of the district’s current Return to Learn plan Monday night. Topics ranged from masks to cleaning routines and busing. Technology, substitute teachers and meal service plans were also highlighted.

Masks

The current return to learn plan has masks required for all staff and “strongly encouraged” for students.

“It was abundantly clear from the staff survey that they want masks for staff to feel safe,” said Superintendent Mike McGrory.

He said that while the district can require students to wear them, the downside would be managing the mandate, especially with younger students. There would also be concerns about the masks being brought home for proper cleaning and being brought back to school.

Board member Morgan Brown agreed, calling such a requirement “unrealistic while well-intentioned.”

Board president David Weilbrenner said that while young kids may not be as susceptible to COVID-19, “we do have a lot of adults working in these buildings” and they need to be taken into consideration. “If we can enforce a dress code, then we can enforce a mask.”

Board member Nancy Manson said she would like to see masks required for all, adding that children over the age of 2 at the Indian Hills day Child Development Center are required to wear masks.

Christina Schark said that if the district goes to the hybrid learning option discussed in the meeting that she doesn’t see the point in requiring masks. “By definition you go to hybrid to social distance in the classroom,” she said. However, if the district stays with the face-to-face learning option, she is in favor of masks for all.

Board vice president Jeremy Weller had another concern. Even if not required, he would like to see students wearing them in the hallways during transition times at Evans Middle School and Ottumwa High School, saying even at 50 percent of the populations, it’s still a lot of students in a limited space.

McGrory said one option to alleviate that issue is the possibility of teachers rotating classrooms rather than the students “so you don’t have the hallway traffic.”

“I like that,” Weller responded.

If there were a requirement for masks, it wouldn’t necessarily be a permanent requirement. “In three months, four months down the road we can always come back and look at that again,” Weller said. “It’s a lot easier to require some of that stuff up front and lessen our restrictions later” than it would be to come back later in the year and add the requirement.

The board plans to vote on a mask requirement at Monday’s special meeting pending the outcome of the decision of a hybrid learning model.

Substitute teachers

“What are we going to do if we have an outbreak? I think it’s inevitable that it would happen. What are we going to do for teachers and other staff when they’re gone?” Weilbrenner questioned.

Teri King, the district human resources director, addressed substitute teachers, saying the district had already sent out a survey to its pool of substitutes on whether they planned to return to the district. “We’ll be able to use that data to be able to guide our efforts into which areas we will need to do more recruiting for subs,” she said.

King acknowledged there will be a need for substitutes in every position, especially teachers. She said she’s been in touch with district partners of Buena Vista University and William Penn University to offer teacher education classes in the evenings and weekends so weekdays are open for the students. That would allow, under Department of Education regulations, for juniors and seniors in teacher education programs to serve as substitutes with the approval of their respective college.

King also said under the latest proclamation by Gov. Kim Reynolds that requirements for substitute teachers has been lowered. Substitutes now can get a license with an A.A. degree or 60 college credit hours rather than needing and B.A., which will open up the pool of potential candidates.

Busing

The board also revisited the issue of busing, which had been an earlier concern for the district in the return to learn development process.

“I’ve been very pleased with the measures they’re taking,” McGrory said of Durham Bus Services, the district’s busing contractor. He said masks will be required of all drivers and that they have a good cleaning and sanitizing routine in place. Students will also be social distanced when possible.

“Obviously, if we go to a hybrid model, I think we can actually have true social distancing. We won’t have that under a full face-to-face,” he said.

“Implementing that hybrid would reduce the capacity of buses” to by one-third to half, said Jason Knowles of Durham. “You could probably get some better social distancing on buses.”

“The other way to achieve the social distancing for busing that I would not be a fan of would be not busing students we’re not required to bus,” McGrory said. He said that increases the chances of students, especially at-risk students, not making it to school at all. “I wouldn’t be an advocate of that.”

Cleaning

Chuck Bray, director of buildings and maintenance for the district, said the community surveys the district conducted indicated cleaning and sanitizing of spaces was a big concern for the respondents.

“What we’re looking at is an increased emphasis on disinfecting throughout the day,” he said.

Custodians will also continue their mandatory trainings, including training on how to safely use new products.

The district has also implemented “systemic inventories.” “Some of these things are hard to get because all the schools are looking for the same things at the same time,” Bray said. He said they have stockpiled supplies such as personal protective equipment, disinfecting wipes and hand wipes.

“With the inventory that we’re going to have on a weekly basis, I think that we can stay ahead of the game,” he told the board.

“One of the things we’re going to make sure of is each teacher has an abundant supply of not only the hand wipes but the disinfecting wipes,” Bray said. “We’re also putting in extra hand sanitizing stations at the schools, in the hallways, a couple spots in the building, just kind of reminding the kids to sanitize their hands when they’re coming in from outside.

He also said he and Kim Hellige, director of community programs, have been working on posting signs everywhere to remind students on social distancing and hand washing protocols. They’re also looking at the possibility of stickers on the floor “just reminding kids on a regular basis.”

It’s very important, he said, that they work on educating every individual on how to protect themselves. “You are responsible for yourself,” he said.

McGrory commented on additional steps the district is taking. “We know this is a high-need area for this year, so that’s why we’re adding additional custodians” he said. “We’re also working with the custodial group to see if they would have an interest in us contracting cleaning services so when you have an outbreak, if you have an outbreak, we can hire a contracting service so our staff doesn’t get overwhelmed with the cleaning.”

“And that,” Bray said, “would get a good turnaround time on the classroom. I think we could almost open it up the next day.”

TechnologyWith the district planning a possible hybrid learning option as well as the Virtual Bulldog Learning program, technology is key to the education plan this year.

Technology Director Tyler Courtney said the district has enough devices in place for each student to have one to take home as well as a stockpile of extras should the need arise.

“The last thing we’re going through right now is the mandatory question that we embedded into the registration process” asking families about the need for internet assistance. “Even if families didn’t access the previous surveys, we still have that data available to us,” he said. He told the board that currently about 273 households have been identified as needing assistance, with about 70 of those needing hot spots.

Weller asked if the district had enough time to get everyone that needs it set up with internet in time for the Aug. 24 start date once the registration window closes and numbers are finalized.

Courtney said that the district is ready to go with Mediacom for the installations — “in fact, they’re waiting on us,” he said — and that the hot spots are on a two-day shipping process.

Courtney said once devices and internet are in place, it leaves three components: security, software and support.

The security features would filter out and block students from seeing or accessing harmful and inappropriate material as well as offer monitoring for cyber-bullying and threats of self-harm.

He next spoke on software. “In order for us to accomplish the remote or hybrid environment, both the students and the staff will need to have specific software for learning management. High school students and staff will continue to use Schoology, which was implemented in the 2019-20 school year, and grades K-8 will use Google Classroom.

“This is the platform where teachers can post assignments, students can turn back in the assignments and the will be created all on the same platform,” he said.

Support will also be an issue, with Courtney saying as more and more learning moves online, support will need to be quicker and more efficient. He said zones will be restructured throughout the district to provide support.

“We’ll be providing as much support as we can online remotely via phone calls, chat, whatever we can do to help the students and their families quicker,” he said. If a physical appointment needs to be made for repairs, there would be some type of curb-side pickup for that.

McGrory also told the board that a recommendation would be coming to them next month to move up the adoption plan for K-8 devices by a year. “A lot of them are in poor shape and we want to make sure we have quality devices for our students this year.”Meal service

Ottumwa students attending school will be utilizing the cafeteria space, said Yvonne Johnson, director of food service.

As the USDA has not made recommendations on feeding virtual students yet, she said she could only speak about the service for students who will be in school physically.

“I can feed them, and we’re going to attempt to do that using the cafeteria and other spaces,” Johnson said.

Staggered meal times and the possibility of adding outside eating places for high school and middle school students are being explored.

“We would really like to be able to do the social distancing and provide those meals in the cafeteria to try to make the experience of the meal service as normal as possible. They’ve had a lot of disruption; food brings people together. It think it’s important for kids to try to be together.

Look for continuing coverage of the Ottumwa Return to Learn plan in future editions of the Ottumwa Courier.

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.

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