Schools on Martha’s Vineyard, which have been closed since mid-March, are heading into uncharted waters as they prepare for an academic year like no other.
During an educational forum offered to families, school officials dove deep into the many guidelines and restrictions established by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
Almost 200 participants attended the forum, many of whom asked questions and raised concerns about the start of the year. Some wondered what resources would be available to families who choose remote learning, and others asked about home screening procedures, and what best practice is when a student is sick or is waiting for a pending COVID-19 test.
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said that a number of committees within the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVYPS) reopening task force will be focusing on various aspects of safety, and drafting a plan.
The plan will be shared with the community in the first week of August, after hearing from families, then will be sent to DESE for review.
“We know that things are changing quickly, so even after that time, we may have to make adjustments,” D’Andrea said.
According to D’Andrea, the primary focus of the reopening forums, which he said he would like to hold regularly from now on, is health and wellness for both students and staff.
D’Andrea said families are being surveyed to determine what they feel comfortable with in regards to what school will look like, and whether they will take advantage of bus transportation.
D’Andrea said that school officials recognize the value of in-person learning, so that will be the ultimate goal, so long as everyone is safe (although remote learning will be available).
School nurse Catherine Coogan is the head of the health and wellness subcommittee. She went over in detail the provisions set forth by the state, and made note of some ways Island schools are considering responding to that guidance.
One question raised by the school community was how bus transportation will be handled with such stringent social distancing requirements.
Coogan said masks will always be required of both students and staff when traveling on the bus. In school, masks are only required for students in grades two and up, although younger students are encouraged to wear masks.
According to Coogan, DESE is basing seating diagrams for students both in the classroom and on the bus on a three-foot distance, but Island schools are hoping to have a six-foot distance policy.
Children in the same household may sit together on the bus, and windows will be left open when appropriate. Students will be assigned to a particular seat on the bus, based on pickup and drop-off location.
MVYPS is also recommending bus monitors, to ensure that students are behaving appropriately by social distancing and wearing their masks. The monitor would also help the bus driver with screening students, and administering hand sanitizer when students load and unload from the bus. As part of students’ morning routines, a screening checklist will have to be filled out and given to the bus driver before boarding.
When possible, families are encouraged to use other modes of transportation besides the bus, as this will reduce the amount of contact kids have with one another. Drivers will also have to perform a pre-screening on themselves before coming to work each day.
Students may have to stagger their arrival times at school in order to avoid crowding the outside of the building, according to Coogan.
Inside the school buildings, people will only be exempt from masks if they have developmental, medical, or behavioral health needs that make mask wearing an issue.
Coogan said a schedule might be made for students to avoid crowding the bathrooms, and arrows or colored footprints should be used to provide direction for students on how they should move through the hallways.
According to Coogan, mask breaks for students and staff “will be a new activity,” and students will have at least two mask breaks per day. These breaks would ideally occur outside, but Coogan said they can occur inside, as long as students are safely distanced.
For any student or staff member who is symptomatic or not feeling well, a COVID-19 medical waiting room will be created that will be separate from the main nurse’s office. Students that go to that room will be assessed by the nurse, even if they are experiencing only minor symptoms.
“You can expect more students will be sent home as a precautionary measure,” Coogan said.
During recess, students will be monitored closely, and will not be able to use climbing structures or other shared equipment.
For classes such as music and physical education that require increased respiration, Coogan said, teachers should prioritize outdoor activities when possible. If these activities take place indoors, students must be wearing masks, and must be spaced apart by six feet.
“We will be encouraging students to sing at a lower volume, or all face one direction. Same with theater; we trying to keep voice projection down,” Coogan said,
Instead of students moving around to different classrooms, Coogan said one option is for teachers to go to the students. This will minimize the risk of contagion, and allow students to be contained in one space.
“We support eating in the classroom when possible, but students will have to be six feet apart when they aren’t wearing a mask, which is obviously when they are eating,” Coogan said.
She said schools will try to have students eat outside when possible, and have lunches be delivered to classrooms, instead of having them pick food up at a central location. School meals will be offered by pickup or delivery to remote learners.
Water fountains will not be used for direct consumption, although students are encouraged to bring their own reusable water bottles and use the touch-free refill stations inside the schools.
Although Coogan said this school year will be “very challenging,” school and local health officials are working hard to plan for what is to come.