#schoolsafety | Preparation for new school year focuses attention on staff | News

As students begin returning to campuses after almost six months away because of the COVID-19 pandemic, district superintendents are dealing with the fears of both youths and staff.

“They’re scared,” said Cache Public Schools Superintendent Chad Hance, of staff members who returned to his campus last week to teach and to support those who are on campus to begin the 2020-2021 school year in traditional classrooms.

Hance said he counts himself among the staffers with concerns. His wife is a school nurse, and Hance said she will be in constant contact with sick students, a deeper-than-normal concern as adults launch learning efforts while trying to ensure a safe environment for everyone.

“There are a lot of unknown variables,” Hance said, of what is facing staff members as they return to teach in classrooms that administrators are trying to keep at manageable levels —no more than 25 students, so social distancing protocols may be observed.

Hance said there are multiple levels of concerns. Not only are adults more prone to stronger attacks of COVID-19, many of his staff members are in the older demographic (age 60 and older) that health care experts say is more susceptible. That the reason for some mandates, for example, all adults will be wearing masks and students will be wearing masks in most instances, both stances calculated to limit exposure. And, sanitation will be a strict policy.

“We’re doing all we can to be as cautious as possible,” Hance said. “Clean, clean, clean.”

Hance admitted the challenges that the school year will pose, to include maintaining adequate staffing. Substitute teachers “will be unicorns,” he said, of the challenge of keeping a sufficient supply of substitutes on hand to fill in for teachers, when for the most part, substitute teachers are adults in older demographic more susceptible to COVID-19. And, he’s already looking at other staffing concerns: two weeks before school started, he was three bus drivers short of the number needed to run Cache routes.

In Lawton Public Schools, one-quarter of the 863 members of the certified (teaching) staff are age 56 or older, according to the district’s Human Resources Office.

LPS Superintendent Kevin Hime, addressing concerns that teachers may be retiring or resigning in high numbers, said the district hasn’t had an uncommonly large number of teachers leave. But, Lawton Public Schools also has created flexible staffing that may be appealing to those who might otherwise have left.

In particular, the district has seen the student population in its Lawton Virtual Academy swell, meaning more teachers were needed there. With almost all parents surveyed before the school year begins Monday, about 30 percent of LPS students chose to enroll in virtual classes. Hime said the district has about 2,000 virtual students, including at least 600 at the high school level where students enroll in multiple classes. And, because the district’s goal is assigning every student a “homeroom” teacher while keeping each virtual class at no more than 25 students, there was an increased need for virtual teachers.

Hime said he and his administrators worked to place high risk staff members (meaning those in vulnerable populations) in virtual teaching positions, just as they have worked to keep high risk students in virtual settings or in settings with fewer people. He said the goal was, as much as possible, to let teachers volunteer for the virtual academy, giving those who have concerns about the virus the option to continue teaching while remaining safe.

“It’s bad when you lose a great teacher,” Hime said, explaining that while other good teachers will be hired, it takes a time to replace the years of experience lost when a veteran teacher resigns or retires.

And, it’s important to keep teachers just as safe as students, he said.

“Teachers are a non-renewable resource,” he said.

Teaching in the virtual academy means limiting exposure to others. While the only teachers who will work from home are those assigned to the night shift (Lawton Virtual Academy is offering evening hours from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. to help families with working parents), the remaining virtual teachers are working in confined areas.

Teachers are assigned to students in all three grade levels, with high school teachers working in a pod created at Douglass Learning Center, middle school teachers at the former Brockland Elementary, and elementary teachers at Washington and John Adams elementary schools.

Hime said the district also approved the idea of permanent subs, substitute teachers who are assigned to a specific building for the school year rather than working at whichever school needs them that day. Hime said that should there be an outbreak of COVID-19, contact tracing will be easier if a substitute is limited to one school, rather than bouncing among multiple sites.

“It goes to school safety,” he said.

Hime said if schools run out of substitutes, existing teachers will be offered a small fee (comparable to what a substitute would be paid) to take over a class.

“That will help,” he said, adding that schools will have to address potential problems because the solution of past years — combining classes under one teacher – won’t be an option unless students can be moved to a large enough setting to ensure social distancing. “Those are struggles until we figure it out. We’ll work it out.”

Duncan Public Schools Superintendent Tom Deighan said district administrators will be adapting new techniques to ensure they remain on top of what every school official knows is a constantly changing situation.

“I’m going to be in the buildings,” Deighan said. “I’m moving my office to the buildings every day. I work off of a laptop 90 percent of the time and so, for at least four hours of every day, I’m going to be in the schools working. I’ll just sit up in the hallway or the cafeteria, wherever I need to, but I’ve got to be there to see what’s going on. I’ll be riding the buses, too.

“I’ve already told everybody to expect to see the bald guy. If I don’t see it personally and if I’m asking my teachers to be there and my students to be there, and our parents — I need to be there too, because things are changing so fast, and we’ve got to stay on top of it.”

Chris Wilson contributed to this story.

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