OTTUMWA — After months of planning for a face-to-face return to school next month, the Ottumwa School Board is shifting its attention to a hybrid learning plan.
“We would be in the top 20 as far as size in these school districts in Iowa. Most of [the larger districts] are looking at a hybrid as well,” Superintendent Mike McGrory told the board Monday night. “I would say at least most of the schools are having a combination of virtual and face-to-face.”
Board President David Weilbrenner said two months ago, with coronavirus numbers in a decline, the board wouldn’t be having this discussion. “COVID is not gone. In fact, it’s gotten worse.”
Jeff Kirby, director of innovative programs, presented a possible hybrid program where students are broken up into two cohorts. Cohort A would attend school Mondays and Tuesdays while Cohort B attended virtually, then they would switch around Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fridays would alternate for the half day, with the afternoons being reserved for professional development. Teachers would instruct with cameras on them for the virtual students to view, so there would be new learning for all students each day. Engagement with students will be done in small groups or a one-on-one basis. Students in the same families would be in the same rotation.
“The biggest downside is it becomes a day care issue for parents,” McGrory said. “If we were to consider something like this, as a district I think we want to be proactive in maybe coming up with some day care options.”
Morgan Brown asked if it would be possible to combine face-to-face for younger learners, saying the data he’s seen has shown children under 10 transmit COVID-19 at a significantly lower rate, with the hybrid option for older students. McGrory said that hybrid plans can take multiple forms, and something like that would be an option. The key, he said, would be to fulfill the hybrid requirement of at least 50 percent of learning being completed in person.
Christina Schark asked about the possibility of providing an option for parents to elect 100 percent face-to-face, such as has been done with the new virtual learning program. “If there are legitimate reasons for 100 percent online, which there are, I think there’s legitimate reasons for a 100 percent in-face option.”
McGrory said it’s something he hasn’t really seen in other districts as it adds logistical issues to the equation. Weilbrenner said that effectively the board needs to choose between hybrid or face-to-face with the ability to re-evaluate later in the school year.
“The hybrid option still puts kids back in school,” he said. “It’s not a fun decision to make. We’re going to make some people happy and some people not.”
Board vice president Jeremy Weller summed up his thoughts: “What do we, as a board, want to do? Do we want to have the most safe environment, not just for students but for staff? Is that our goal here? Is it our goal to provide a learning environment that is safe for everybody or is it to offer convenience for parents and students?
“I would like to think that we’re all here wanting the best safety and best environment for everybody involved, and I think the only way you get that is through a hybrid model and you require masks of everybody. That’s the safest way to do this. If you want to do what’s convenient and maybe what parents want … then you’re taking safety out of it.”
“I want both,” Schark said. “I want something that works for our parents and I want a safe environment. I want kids back in school and I want them safe. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I think we can offer both options.
“I think there are families who [in order] to make work and school and home and family work for them, they have to have their child supervised 8-3,” she added. “It’s not a convenience issue, it’s a public education service that we’re offering to families who need it to be able to make their lives flow and function well.”
That brought the discussion back to a day care option.
“I think day care is going to be a huge impact on kindergarten through third or fourth grade, Day care for some parents is a necessity, and for some students the safest place they can be is at school, not at home,” board member Nancy Manson said. “I think if they’re going to be in day care, I’d like to see them in school.”
Brown agreed. “If they’re all together at day care, how is that different than school?”
McGrory said that was a legitimate question, but that the goal of the plan would be reduce the student population in one location to follow social distancing guidelines.
“I think the [hybrid example] is the best of both worlds,” Schark said, “but I know that child care coverage is a huge factor for our families in Ottumwa so we have got to come up with some way we can help with that with the families that need it.”
Brown said he would like to have more details on a plan for that because it would be a likely factor in tipping his vote. “If we don’t have a good option for that, I don’t think I could support going hybrid.”
“I hate to call it day care because I would like to think while they were there they would be learning,” Weilbrenner said. “I don’t think it should be day care; I think it should be a learning experience, just in a different building and try to social distance that just like we would in school.”
“If we’re able to come up with the space to have all these kids distanced, is there a reason why we couldn’t use that space to just have school? Can we just have school there even if it’s not your traditional building?” Brown asked.
“I don’t think there’s any possible way we’re going to have space in the school district and empty classrooms to be able to put in day care,” Manson said. “I think that day care is a huge problem, and I think that it is a huge detriment to hybrid learning and I think we’re starting way too late in the game. I think that hybrid is not going to work for lower elementary students just because of day care.”
“I think this is an opportunity for us to work with our stakeholders in our community to make it happen,” Weller said, offering the example of many large churches that are often empty during the week that kids could be brought to during the day, be supervised and be fed. “I think we have an opportunity to make this work. It might take a little bit more effort than what we’ve done in the past, but I think we have the opportunity to make this happen, and I’d like to see us do it.”
With no action item on the meeting agenda, the board did not make a vote Monday night. However, McGrory and the board did note that with the first day of school less than a month away, a decision is needed as soon as possible.
“Parents want to know what’s going on, because if they have to make plans for their kids two days a week, they want to know that tonight, not in three weeks,” Weller said.
McGrory and the board agreed to set a special board session for Monday, Aug. 3 — with an action item — to present hybrid learning options that also address the concern of day care.
“I think it’s critical that a decision has to be made in order for our parents and staff to be able to prepare for the school year,” McGrory said.