By Brandon Martin
The Henry County School Board approved a hybrid instruction plan in a 5-2 majority during a Sept. 24 special session, allowing for some students to return to in-person instruction on Oct. 12.
Students participating in the hybrid plan will be divided into two groups, “AA” and “BB,” with each group to attend in-school instruction two days each week. Virtual learning will be used for the remaining three days.
Parents will have the option of selecting the hybrid plan or remaining all-virtual but, as part of the motion, students will be required to wear masks inside of school buildings. Extenuating circumstances can be discussed with the principal.
Dr. Merris Stambaugh, vice chairman and of the Collinsville District, made the motion, which was seconded by Francis Zehr, of the Ridgeway District. The proposal was supported by Thomas Auker, chairman and of the Blackberry District; Terri Flanagan, of the Horsepasture District, and Cherie Whitlow, member-at-large. Two members – Ben Gravely, of the Iriswood District, and Teddy Martin II, of the Reed Creek District — voted against the motion.
“I’ve been in education for 40 years and this has been one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve had to make my entire career,” Gravely said. “I’ve listened to both sides, and both are valid and compelling arguments coming from teachers and staff; however, my decisions have always been based on the safety of our students and our stakeholders.”
Gravely recalled recent actions taken to prevent school shootings.
“We are dealing with a shooter now that we can’t identify,” he said. “We are dealing with a shooter now that not only affects the kids in school but affects parents, grandparents, guardians–and I say that because I really struggle with this hybrid model at this particular time.”
His statement was met with applause from approximately 40 teachers and parents in attendance.
“I’m concerned about the safety of our kids,” Gravely added. “We talk about percentages; we talk about death rates. It is of my opinion that one death is one too many.”
Zehr said his position is consistent with a previously agreed upon standard.
“I’ve always said publicly many times to many people that I would not vote to send kids back to a hybrid model until it (cases) went down two weeks in a row,” he said. “Well, now we are two weeks in a row. We are well within CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance. We aren’t starting until Oct. 12. If the numbers were to spike, the superintendent is watching every single day. If it spikes, we can call it off before it even gets started for heaven’s sake.”
Zehr added “you’ve got these kids out there with psychological and emotional damage. They need to be back in school for a couple of days and they need the encouragement of their counselors and teachers.”
After commending teachers and staff for their work during virtual learning, Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer said the virtual environment does not work for all learners.
“Yes, there are some students thriving in the virtual learning model but, for most, virtual learning will never measure up to the experience of being in the school,” she said.
Stambaugh questioned the shortcomings that have been experienced with virtual learning so far.
“We have had many people say ‘I don’t have the internet. I have to drive to sit outside of a school. We don’t have a car. It’s problematic because we have to get to an area and sit in a car,’” Strayer said. “We’ve had people ask if we could sit out benches and tables at the schools while the weather was nice so they could sit outside the school and do their homework on the weekends.”
Additionally, Strayer said issues arise when students don’t have an adult at home to help with the loss of connectivity. Overall, she said that broadband connectivity has been the biggest impediment to virtual learning.
“Even though we provided kajeets to everyone that can’t get internet, many of our families live in areas where their MiFi will not work because there is no cell service,” Strayer said. “Those students have definitely struggled with virtual learning.”
Because of the debate surrounding the return to in-person instruction, Strayer said a survey was taken to gauge interest.
“The recent survey results had 4,996 responses,” she said. “With 3,530 students planning on returning to in-person learning on an ‘AA’ ‘BB’ hybrid format, and 1,466 students planning to continue virtual learning.”
Like Zehr, Strayer also said the decision came down to the decrease in cases.
“We announced that we wanted to return to school when we saw a two-week decline in new positive cases and we did not have high community transmission,” she said. “Now, we have the new CDC metric to follow as well. At this time, our cases have decreased significantly since we voted to move to our virtual plan. Over the last two weeks, we have seen cases slightly fluctuate and we have been in a low to moderate risk category on the CDC metric.”
The shift to in-person instruction doesn’t mean that all the preparation the virtual method has been for nothing, according to Strayer.
“Teachers aren’t able to provide instruction the same as they have in past years; however, they did have the opportunity to redesign instruction and to offer students learning experiences that are innovative, creative and relevant,” Strayer said. “Technology and virtual interaction with students gives teachers an avenue to meet students where they are, provide differentiated lessons, and give meaningful feedback to help students achieve.”
Gravely asked about the most significant finding from the survey.
“The teachers spoke in the survey pretty clearly that they wanted a mask mandate for students,” Strayer said.
Before casting his vote, Gravely also asked for the procedure should a case arise when students are back in school.
“There is not one answer for that question,” Strayer said, and explained that if a student tests positive, contact tracing will immediately begin. Individuals will then be notified via telephone if they were within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.
“That will not require a shutdown of us, a school or a classroom,” Strayer said. “It depends on the amount of exposure.”
Strayer added that the school is already taking measures to help limit the exposure through instructional videos to teach proper use of personal protective equipment, sanitization, and even how to sit on the bus properly.
Before the vote, Jerry Byrd, a parent in the Collinsville District, addressed the board about his concern with the return-to-school plan.
“My oldest son has a chromosome condition and receives special education services,” he said. “His disability also puts him at a higher risk than most. Due to recent changes to special education, he is in regular English and Math classes for the first time since third grade.”
Currently, Byrd said his son has daily Zoom meetings to help him with the work.
“He is maintaining Cs in Math and English with this amount of help,” he said. “With the current return-to-school plan, we’ve been told this level of help, for our students who choose the virtual option, will no longer be there. Students must complete a virtual learning agreement and become an independent. If they can’t keep up, they will be required to return in person anyway.”
Additionally, Byrd said that teachers will be required to come early and stay later to help with the arrival and departure of youngsters, leaving “no time before or after school to work with the virtual learners.”
While noting that teachers would still find time to go the extra mile, Byrd asked the board if a decision to return to class would be fair to instructors.
Brad Kinkema, also s parent from the Collinsville District, supported a return to in-person instruction.
“I’m here to tell you simply that virtual learning doesn’t work,” Kinkema said. “It’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s not the administrators’ fault. It’s not the parents’ or the kids’ fault. This isn’t designed to be a way to learn for elementary-age school kids or high school kids.”
Kinkema said he also has noticed the impact of the lack of social interaction.
“As a husband, I’ve seen a teacher that is frustrated and doing the best she can under the circumstances,” he said. “She goes to school every day. She finishes up. She goes to work out, to get her frustrations out. She’ll come home to eat and then she’ll get back on the computer for another 2 to 3 more hours. She does the same thing on Saturday and Sunday.”