The Blair Community Schools Board of Education approved a reopening plan, which includes a face mask requirement, for the 2020-21 school year during a special meeting Monday at Deerfield Primary School.
All BCS staff, students, parents and visitors will be required to wear a mask at all times while in district buildings when classes begin Aug. 19. Masks may be removed to eat and when outdoors.
The universal face covering policy differed from a draft plan BCS Supt. Randy Gilson presented to the board earlier this month which initially would have required students and staff to only wear masks while entering and exiting building, moving from classroom to classroom and when social distancing was not a possibility.
The change in the policy, Gilson said, was prompted by a visit from a team from the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Global Center for Health Security on July 23. BCS was one of the first schools toured by the team, which includes infectious disease and public health experts.
“They walked the schools, they sat in the classrooms and we learned so much,” he said.
The UNMC team released its “playbook,” a set of guidelines for schools to use when reopening, that same day. Those guidelines and recommendations were used in developing the BCS plan.
“I thought just physical distancing would be enough,” Gilson said. “We might need to require masks as kids came into the building and if they move around the building, but I was wrong. It isn't enough.”
During the tour, district officials showed the team a socially distanced classroom at Arbor Park Intermediate School in which desks were spaced 6 feet apart.
“They said it might be safe for 15 minutes, but it wasn't safe unless the kids had a mask on the whole time,” Gilson said.
The mask policy brought heated debate from about two dozen parents and students who attended the meeting and advocated for opening with the least amount of restrictions.
“I, for one, think if we mandate masks, they're not going to work,” parent Andrea Sortino said. “Nothing is going to get done. No learning is going to get done. Kids are going to be messing with their masks, they are going to be touching their faces 24/7.”
Parent Amy Hanson said she understands there are children who have risks, but it should be a parental decision if a student wears a masks or attends school.
“We don't have the ability to live in a zero risk society,” she said. “We are at risk every day by driving, there are other viruses that they are at risk with. I feel that the mental health of our children in the long term far more outweighs what it would do to not have school.”
Board member Laura Ronning, who supported the mask policy, said she thinks some may be underestimating children in thinking they can't adjust to wearing a mask.
“It will take some teaching and a lot of re-teaching,” she said. “I think the vast majority of the parents in our community are good people and they want to do what is best for everybody in our community. I think there are times when sometimes we have to make a sacrifice for the good of others.”
Board member Denise Ray was against wearing masks, but was willing to make the sacrifice if it meant having children in school.
“I have to get my kids back in school. We have to get our kids back in school,” she said. “If this is what we have to do to do that, we'll do it.”
While he was initially against children wearing masks, board member Steve Callaghan said he's now a proponent as it's important for students to be in school.
“I want to see the kids back in school. I want to see them having activities. I want them to be able to stay in school and not be there for three weeks and have to close down,” he said. “This plan is not perfect, but it's fluid. It can change.”
The BCS reopening plan will follow a Community Risk Dial provided by Three Rivers Public Health Department. The dial gives an overview of the current risk of COVID-19 in the health department's jurisdiction with guidance for what precautions should be taken at each risk level.
The reopening plan has four scenarios based on the four colors of the dial — green, yellow, orange and red.
Under green, which is low level risk, school would be in session for all students and staff on campus beginning Aug. 19. Under yellow, a moderate risk, schools would be at 100 percent capacity with social distancing.
Orange, or high level risk, would see 50 percent capacity in K-12 with two groups, one attending Monday and Tuesday, the other attending Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be remote learning.
Under red, or severe level risk, BCS would return to remote learning.
The plan also includes three options for students to learn: in-person, remote and virtually through Acellus Academy.
Parents stressed the need for in-person learning for their children..
“I appreciate that Blair was able to implement eLearning very quickly and get our kids continuing their education. I think that's super important,” parent Brooke Boswell said. “But I do think in-person teaching with your teacher in the classroom is so much more important. It helps teachers create relationships with their students and I think relationships are very, very important to how students learn.”
Parents can elect to have their child participate in remote learning by filling out a form, which must be returned by Monday.
Dani Ladwig, executive director of student services, said the remote learning would be different from the eLearning used in the spring when the district was forced to shut down.
During scheduled class times, students would sign on to each teacher's Zoom and join the classes live with those students who are physically present in the classroom. Expectations would be the same for remote and in-person learners.
Acellus Academy is a flexible online school. However, courses would not be taught by BCS teachers.
Transportation remains a challenge, said Tom Anderson, executive director of operations.
“With the number of students we have, with the recommendations, with the number of buses that we have and the number of drivers we have, the bottom line is, we cannot accommodate all the students at one time,” he said.
Anderson said the district will need to consider hiring more drivers to operate four extra routes and eliminating transportation under four miles.
A survey was sent out Tuesday to parents to address needs.
Parents also expressed concerns about athletics and extracurricular activities.
“I think it's very important for students to have athletics and extracurricular activities along with the academic part of their teachings because it's very important for their development and it's important for the way they interact with their peers, their emotional well being and everything,” parent Beth Ogle said.
Students will be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities regardless of in-person or remote learning.
“Activities really matter,” Activities Director Dan Hutsell said. “We're going to do everything we can to make sure that those can open and those can open safely.”
Fall sports practices are expected to begin Aug. 10. The NSAA has made a recommendation that players must wear masks when not actively participating in practices or games.
“I get that that's really weird,” Hutsell said. “That seems very foreign to me as a former athlete, but if that's what it takes to play, I'd do it.”
Band and choir will also take place, but only outdoors and socially distanced, according to the plan.