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Mitchell aiming to start 2020-21 school year with live classes

Task force being assembled to discuss procedures

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Photo: Pixabay

Joe Graves is ready to start the 2020-21 school year. Very ready.

“If you let me, I’d start tomorrow,” Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District, said in a recent interview.

But kicking off the new school year is going to take a little extra planning this year before it can get rolling Aug. 19, the first scheduled day of classes.

It’s been a long few months for the district. After the arrival in the spring of COVID-19, life at the school district has been seriously disrupted. Classes moved to an online format. Athletic and extracurricular events were canceled. Even the annual graduation ceremony was modified to accommodate social distancing to slow the spread of the disease.

Now the new school year is approaching, and district officials are planning for that first day of classes.

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Live classes.

“Our commitment is that we’re going to open Aug. 19, the first day of school, with kids in attendance,” Graves said.

While the district intends to return to a traditional live classroom setting in the fall, Graves said school officials are working on alternatives in the event public health data or health and government officials indicate that it would not be appropriate to return to in-person classes.

Graves said he is assembling a task force of around 15 members to help review, revise and discuss the district reopening plans and those options. That task force will be made up of teachers, parents and other district patrons. The group will help mold the plans and prepare them for further review by the Mitchell Board of Education, which is also expected to review the plans in July for final approval.

Among the subjects the task force will consider are the three main plans for returning for the school year. Outside the return to traditional schooling, the group will consider a secondary plan that combines in-person classes and eLearning and a third plan that would see the district return to an eLearning format similar to what the district used during the spring when schools across the state closed their buildings on the recommendation of Gov. Kristi Noem.

Return to live schooling preferred

Graves said returning to traditional-style classes is the best option, as it’s the most effective method for educating students.

“It is vital because that is the normal and the optimal method of teaching kids. Kids are not terribly abstract, they are more concrete. Being in that classroom and making connections with the teacher is so critical,” Graves said.

There would be provisions in place to maintain health and safety standards, Graves said. The district would discourage and restrict student gatherings between classes and before and after school. Food service would work to ensure social distancing can be maintained at meal times, and elementary schools in the district would devise plans to make sure recess is held in a safe way.

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Wearing a mask would be encouraged, Graves said, but that would be another point of discussion for the task force.

“That’s going to be a topic for the task force. Ideally, everyone would wear a mask all the time,” Graves said.

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Bobby Reindl, a fifth grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School, shares a part of his E-learning plan for his fifth grade students. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Alternative reopening plans

If the task force or board of education elect to draw back from a full reopening to live classes, the district could choose to adopt a hybrid of live classes and eLearning that would see roughly half of the district students in live classes and the other half in an eLearning environment one day, and then reversed the next day. All students would be in class every day, just alternating between live classes and eLearning. This would cut down the density of students by half at district buildings.

“This would be teaching a full day with half the students present and half at home,” Graves said. “But again, this is only if for some reason we are not allowed to have all the students present.”

If circumstances dictate that a full return to distance learning is required, the district could also adopt an eLearning plan similar to what was put in place in the second half of the 2019-20 school year. Graves said this option would be used only if the first two options are not feasible and it would undergo several modifications based on the experience with eLearning last year.

Some changes would include using a common eLearning platform, in this case Google Suite, to allow teachers and students to work with a common starting point, while mixing in other methods of communication that suit each class individually. Training will be offered to bring faculty up to speed on the platform, and an emphasis would also be placed on student scheduling in an attempt to add a firmer structure to the day’s activities.

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“We’d only go to (full eLearning) if compelled to do so. We would follow the normal school schedule for live presentations and would go to a single computer platform so parents and students know when it’s time to go to school, here’s where to go,” Graves said. “There will be one place that covers all your students and the full schedule.”

Consolidating a student’s online resources into a single online location will improve on the previous model. Streamlining the flow of information makes learning easier for everyone, Graves said.

“I have taken virtual classes, and professors who have one means of communication, those classes work well. If you have six different sites you have to check every day, that becomes a hassle. For an adult it is a hassle,” Graves said.

Working out the details

There are several details to hammer out with every plan. Graves said the task force will also explore issues such as how to ensure transporting students by bus and after school activities is done safely. Updated procedures for facility sanitation and methods for screening students to see whether they should physically be in school will also be discussed.

Graves expects in-depth talks with the task force as they draw the road map for returning the roughly 2,800 students in the district to an effective learning model while at the same time maintaining the highest possible level of health safety for students, faculty, staff and the community at large.

Taking the lessons learned from last year, Graves said the district will do everything it can to safely set the current generation of Mitchell School District students on a path for educational success.

“Number one is getting kids back in the classroom. I’m trying to design a plan so flexible that we have a plan to address everything,” Graves said. “Whatever it takes, we will have an optimal method of education for every child.”

Related Topics: EDUCATIONCORONAVIRUS
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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