Back to school plans differ between larger and smaller districts

Published: Aug. 17, 2020 at 7:47 PM CDT
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ABERDEEN, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Schools across the state are back in session this week, with almost all enacting back-to-school plans to curb the spread of COVID-19. But depending on the size of the district, students and faculty may be seeing different restrictions.

Both larger and smaller districts in the state have shaped their plans around not only the number of cases in their counties but also how many students are enrolled in their districts. That gap in numbers has been a key factor for schools deciding how they’ll enforce social distancing guidelines, what options to give students with online content, and how they plan on dealing with any known cases in schools.

Dr. Jeff Danielsen, Superintendent of the Watertown School District, said that although the district is one of the largest in the state, and that the increased number of students could mean more chances for spikes in cases, having multiple school buildings will allow some flexibility in keeping students in class.

“This thing could play out, the term I use is a rolling blackout, where it might be that we have a number of cases in say one classroom, and that classroom has to go home say for two weeks. You know we have five elementary schools. Maybe there’s a cluster at one elementary school, and the entire elementary school has to shut down and go virtual for two weeks,” said Danielsen.

Danielsen said Watertown’s ability to not only create a hybrid situation for individual students but also for the district and allow most students to stay in school will allow the district to quickly adapt to any spikes in COVID-19 numbers. But that doesn’t mean that the same applies to every school district in the state.

“I think everyone’s goal is to hopefully not have to get to the point where the entire district shuts down. And obviously, that’s going to look a little different depending on your school size. So the number will have to be higher in Watertown than say one of our neighbors like a Florence or a Henry who are smaller.”

Those are questions that many smaller districts have had to answer in developing their back-to-school plans. Northwestern School District, based in Mellette, has had to figure out how to prevent the spread of the virus, while having every student in a single K-12 building. Dr. Ryan Bruns is the Superintendent of the district. In addition to hybrid and online options for students, he said the district’s main goal is to prepare for every situation that might occur in the building, in the case of a positive test.

“Large school, small school, we have the same concerns. We wouldn’t be able to segregate in a manner that a large school would, having multiple buildings. But we did create an intensive plan with a committee, and we sat down and considered all the scenarios that we might come across.” said Bruns.

Bruns said that limiting the movement of students between areas of the school will be important moving forward. Where in an average year students of all ages would have to move through most of the school to get to class, the district has been trying to limit which areas of the school-age groups are separated. The elementary and middle/high school sections of the building will be limited in who can cross into each area. Shared teachers like art and music instructors will be also doing more in-class visits, rather than having every grade use the same room throughout the day.

“Obviously we’ll try and keep an eye out for those situations, and to mitigate the risk. We’ll do everything possible to keep classes separate from each other,” said Bruns.

Another unique challenge also facing Northwestern is the district’s makeup of multiple towns. Should cases begin to rise in any one of those areas, Bruns said the school will have to play an important role in preventing spread between students, and therefore between towns.

“Northwestern school district is unique in the fact that we nine towns in our district. If we had an outbreak in one of those towns, we’d work the Department of Health, follow CDC guidelines, to possibly quarantine. But the Department of Health would be working with those families and those communities as well. We just need the support of and the guidance from those types of officials, to help us move forward. To continue providing education for the rest of the students in our district.”

So far both school districts have said that around five percent of their students have opted to begin the year with online-only instruction, helping to limit the number of students in buildings. As for each districts’ back-to-school plans, each superintendent said that they only serve as a starting point for the year, and certainly would need to be re-evaluated sometime in the Fall semester.

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