OTTUMWA — Staff members of the Ottumwa Community School District will be donning masks when school starts next month. Students will be “strongly encouraged” to wear them.

That is the first issue addressed in the Ottumwa Return to Learn plan to be presented to the school board Monday night. When surveyed, more than 50 percent of responding staff members responded that they would feel more secure returning to school if masks were required; 42 percent responded in favor of optional masks for both students and staff.

COVID-19 topped the list of concerns of those staff members. Ninety-three percent (639) of approximately 700 staff members responded to the survey, with 67 percent of them saying that being exposed to COVID-19 concerned them the most about returning to work. An additional 50 percent were concerned about bringing the virus home to a medically fragile child or family member, while 36 percent were concerned that “the way I teach will change significantly.”

Forty percent said they are definitely returning to work in the fall with 53 percent saying they are returning with concerns; 7 percent were unsure about returning.

Extra sanitation efforts were the top ways staff would feel more secure. About 80 percent responded that increased cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing in work spaces would increase feelings of security as well as having the availability of cleaning and sanitizing supplies to employees. Additional ways staff would feel more secure is increased health and hygiene routines (71 percent), clear education and communication of illness protocol (69 percent), building and classroom safety routines (68 percent), maintaining social distancing protocols when possible (56 percent), and being provided personal protective equipment (52 percent). Eleven percent responded, “There is nothing that will make me feel secure in coming back to school in August,” while 6 percent said none of the measures are required for them to feel secure.

To address some of these measures, the Return to Learn plan recommends an increased emphasis on daily cleaning and disinfecting as well as mandatory continuing education on proper use of products. Signs will also be posted to encourage hand-washing and covering coughs and sneezes.

The district also plans to work with Wapello County Public Health to develop an illness reporting procedure for exposure to and positive test results for COVID-19.

Meals will continue to be eaten in the school cafeterias while “abiding by social distancing guidelines as much as possible,” the plan states. “Additional areas may be made available to address social distancing needs.

Busing has proven to be an obstacle in Return to Learn plans. The Ottumwa district is working with Durham School Services, its bus contractor, to “establish and enforce screening guidelines for drivers.” They will also be required to wear masks, and bus cleaning and sanitation will be completed after each route. Social distancing between students will be implemented as much as possible.

Technology and online learning

Ottumwa’s Return to Learn plan also addresses online learning.

It states a hybrid plan that alternates student attendance to “reduce building population to 50 percent” is to be established if there is a need to socially distance students further.

It also addresses the possibility that a classroom, building or district may need to close. “Staff must continue learning for all students,” the plan reads, in which case the continuous learning plans submitted to the Iowa Department of Education would be enacted. The district would also provide training on “instructing in a digital learning environment using district technology tools.”

With the realization that learning may need to transfer online at some point, the district is also providing devices to all K-12 students as well as internet access to families that “demonstrate a need through district surveys.”

The district has also created a the Bulldog Virtual Learning program for students who decide not to attend school in person or cannot do so for mental or physical health concerns. The application process will provide accurate numbers on the option to determine staffing and resource needs.

Curriculum and assessment

The Return to Learn plan recognizes that students missed learning essential grade level standards when schools closed early in the spring and that learning gaps have ensued. The plan recommendations state: “Capture and share missed essential grade level standards (content/skills). Hold vertical conversations among grade level/content areas teachers to share gathered information.” They will then develop protocols to acceleration 2020-21 learning, access pertinent data points to adjust instruction based on student needs and begin supports based on the most current data.

The full plan as well as the full results of the staff survey will be presented to the board at 6 p.m. Monday in the media center of Evans Middle School.

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

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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