DES MOINES, Iowa — “Return to Learn” plans are due at the Iowa Department of Education Wednesday, as the state begins to make its plans for the upcoming school year. Still, there’s a lot up in the air for different school districts upon the deadline.
The 327 school districts in the state have flexibility when it comes to developing these “return to learn” plans. A few things have to the same across the board, however. One, it doesn’t matter if kids are in the classroom or at home, there has to be a plan for continuous learning. Two, these seven areas must be addressed:
- Health and Safety
- Iowa Academic Standards
- Social-Emotional-Behavioral Health
Dr. Ann Lebo with the Iowa Department of Education said these plans are going to be dependent on the facilities and resources the schools already have. Things like social distancing on school buses or in already limited classroom space can be tricky. That’s why schools, through guidance from the Iowa Department of Education, are creating three separate plans:
- On-Site Learning
- Virtual, Continuous Learning
- Hybrid (a mixture of both on-site and continuous learning)
“Each district has the flexibility to design [plans] in a way that best meets the needs of their students,” Jen Lindaman, the Chief Academic Officer for Ankeny Schools said. “For us, we shared a draft [with the community]. I think that’s what’s important, regardless of any detail we would talk about in these plans, is that all of these plans are in draft format. The reason for that is that we get guidance nearly daily from our governing bodies. That guidance can come from the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), from the Iowa Department of Education, and as those pieces of guidance change and develop over the course of this summer, we’re responding to those changes.”
Above is a draft of Ankeny’s hybrid plans, as of now, that they shared with their community. Even in this plan, they have a few different options. One has school centers operating at 25 percent capacity with four different groups attending class once a week and having remote learning the other four days. The other option has schools operating at 50 percent capacity where groups physically attend school two days a week.
“We’re planning for unknown outcomes right now. We don’t know what is ahead. When you’re creating plans for the unknown, you’re doing your best to predict what you might be facing and then just being ready to respond if that changes. So it’s the unknown, that’s the most challenging for us,” Lindaman said.
Norwalk Community School District is also working on numerous “drafts” for their Return to Learn plans. Superintendent DT Magee said they are currently working with multiple different stakeholders and plan to release some plans for the fall to the public in the month of July.
“What are the requirements that we can’t control? So what is the Iowa Department of Public Health require? What does the Iowa Department of Education say? We have some contingency plans. So we’ve been doing things like setting up classrooms with different levels of social or physical distancing. We have different models in place for transportation, but transportation is an issue that people should definitely pay attention to,” DT Magee said. “If we have to social distance six feet with students and or adults that might be on the bus. We have special education buses that has some adults ride with students. That’s going to make it a challenge. We may be asking parents and other community members for assistance related to transportation and other issues to help us navigate these choppy waters right now.”
Magee said internet connectivity is another big issue for Norwalk Schools. Even though they are a one-to-one school district, meaning every student K-12 is provided a Chromebook, they still struggle with families across economic lines having access to fast-speed internet.
“We have some families who have, you know, a certain level of affluence, but they might live out on an acreage and they don’t have good coverage for either cell signal or any internet connectivity,” Magee said. “So that’s been an interesting part of this process is just learning how internet connectivity is a challenge for families.”
Magee recognizes this unknown is hard for families as well but said things are just too fluid right now to guarantee any given plan just yet.
“What I would encourage parents to do is think about their own contingency plans. If we would have to shut down a classroom, or a building, or the district, what’s your contingency plan?” Magee said. “Similar to, it’s definitely a different level of concern, but similar to inclement weather days. What is your plan on an upcoming weather day when we have to postpone or cancel school?”
Norwalk also is grappling with multiple scenarios for the fall. Magee said they are also considering a hybrid option which would allow parents to choose if they want their children to learn on-site or remotely.
A day before the Return to Learn deadline, the Iowa Department of Education released a four-page document to address multiple items including face mask policies, enforcing social distancing, and the power of a school district to close or keep open its facilities. In summary, the document said it’s all up to the individual school district to make those decisions. Both Ankeny and Norwalk told Iowa Media’s Whitney Blakemore official decisions on requiring face masks have not been made yet.
“As guidance changes throughout the summer, we’ll be making firm decisions. We certainly want to keep our kids and our faculty stay safe” Lindaman said. “If we are not able to provide for social distancing then masks are going to be important for us. So again, as we get closer to the start date things will be more concrete, but certainly masks are in consideration for us.”
For more information on the Iowa Department of Education’s Return to Learn, visit their support page here.