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More in-person learning weighed for Sidway

Sat, Jan 16th 2021 07:00 am

New hybrid model would add half-day for youngest students

By Karen Carr Keefe

“COVID” and “hybrid” were the operative words at Monday’s Grand Island School Board meeting. There was good news on both fronts for district students, parents, faculty and staff.

With COVID-19, rapid testing of 20% of the school population is underway and is showing low positivity rates.

With hybrid learning, a new model is under consideration to be tested at Sidway Elementary that would bring the kids back to class for in-person learning for an extra half-day per week. This would take place on Wednesdays, with half the students attending a morning session, and the other half attending in the afternoon. A survey would go out to families to gauge their needs and interest in trying this new model.

Superintendent Brian Graham said Grand Island schools are holding their own in compliance with rules for the “orange zone” micro-cluster. “We’re following the ‘orange’ mandate. We’re accomplishing that task as a school district,” he said.

“Right now, our schools are open because we’re able to test. Our schools are open because we did advocate to change testing protocols, and that has been successful, and vaccines are starting to roll, so that’s positive and optimistic. So things are moving in a good direction. They may not be moving as quickly.”

He said both the district and the board can continue to advocate for ways to return to more in-person learning.

“As soon as the state relaxes the social distancing, which is the No. 1 risk mitigator that we’re following, that’s going to give us the opportunity to bring more kids into classrooms. We can’t put 24 kids in a class and expect them to be 6-feet socially distanced.”

Graham said the district has to be careful to obey the rules, while advocating for relaxing them.

“I think it’s very important for our community to know that we are working very hard to improve our hybrid model. And we’re also working very hard to do whatever we can to bring more kids back into the classroom. We have to follow the guidance from the (state) Department of Health. I would be putting my own certification at risk if I did not follow that guidance. As a governing body, when we’re drafting a resolution … we have to put into account a resolution that isn’t going to put our board of education at risk of not following the law.”

The superintendent said the state-mandated COVID-19 testing is going very well in Grand Island schools.

“The nursing team has conducted well over 464 BinexNOW rapid tests since Dec. 15 and we’ve had two positive cases that we’ve identified. We will continue to test 20% of our students, faculty and staff until such time as we move out of the ‘orange zone’ cluster.”

He said the good news is that there are more negative cases being contributed to the database by school districts that are fulfilling the rapid testing mandate by the state. He said, hopefully, we’ll see positivity rates decline over time as more people are identified as negative.

“As much as this has been a challenge for our district, our team has done a great job and we’ve adapted to it, and now we have important information that’s going into the database. It could very well help, down the road, get us out of ‘orange.’ ”

Families have a choice of opting for the hybrid model that combines in-school and virtual learning, or the 100% virtual model for students.

“Coming back Jan. 4, we did have an increase in families choosing 100% virtual at the high school and middle school. At the high school, 22% of the students are 100% virtual, and 20% of our middle school kids are 100% virtual,” Graham said.

The percentage of 100% virtual learners is lower at the three elementary schools. At Huth, 16% of the students at are 100% virtual; Kaegebein has 13% in that category; and at Sidway, it’s 8%.

“We’ve been working and looking at ways to improve our hybrid model,” Graham said. In grades 6 through 12 this week, we announced that the synchronous lesson being taught would go from 20-minute classes to 30-minute classes starting this Wednesday.” This is real-time teaching, where the class is all participating at the same time, while at home.

Some teachers are experimenting with livestreaming their lessons. The math department at the high school has been leading the way and now science teachers are trying it, too. This is being done on the students’ off days, when they are learning, but not in person at school.

“It’s going fairly well,” said High School Principal Mike Lauria. He said faculty and the tech department don’t want to move too quickly on it because there are connectivity and internet speed concerns that the network wouldn’t be able to handle that.

Graham asked the board to give consideration to a possible enhancement to the Sidway hybrid model. The proposal is to ask children and parents about having students in the A-L cohort to come in Wednesday morning for a half-day, and then the M-Z cohort come in Wednesday for a half-day, which would give the district’s youngest children two-and-a-half days of face-to-face instruction. Wednesday would be focused on reading, writing and mathematics.

“The reason why I’m bringing this to the board now is that, if the board approves us moving in this direction and exploring, we want to send a survey out to the Sidway families that are hybrid and gather their interest, understand any issues that could be relevant to them if we did switch, say in February, to this model, understanding that there could be child care issues, first and foremost,” Graham said.

He said if the board moved to this model, it would take an economic toll, according to district Transportation Supervisor Theresa Alizadeh. Just in wages, it would be a $40,000 increase to the transportation budget to accommodate bus drivers picking up the Sidway children and bringing them to and from the extra half-day of school. The plan calls for trying the new hybrid model for 19 weeks, starting in February.

“We would not be recommending that for Huth and Kaegebein at this time, because it would be triple the cost of transportation wages,” Graham said.

He also said it would be a challenge to have enough teachers to carry out the model at the other two elementary schools. He pointed out that Sidway has two teachers who are dedicated to the 100% virtual kids in kindergarten and first grade. “But we don’t have enough teachers individually by grade level to pick up the 100% virtual kids who would be home” at the other two schools.

“It’s far more economical and reasonable to look at this model for Sidway, first, particularly with our youngest kids who are in need of more face-to-face time,” Graham said.

In another plus for Sidway, Principal Denise Dunbar said the first-graders all have their Chromebooks and kindergartners will soon have iPads. The tech department readying them for use by the kindergartners in the next week or so, she said.

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