Three weeks and counting … a look at the many challenges schools face

The last few weeks of summer bring myriad logistical challenges to Mt. Hope High School

Posted 8/6/20

In a normal August, a high school principal has a lot to do. She and her team finalize student schedules, oversee the last of the summer building maintenance and set up orientation for new teachers …

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Three weeks and counting … a look at the many challenges schools face

The last few weeks of summer bring myriad logistical challenges to Mt. Hope High School

Posted

In a normal August, a high school principal has a lot to do. She and her team finalize student schedules, oversee the last of the summer building maintenance and set up orientation for new teachers and students.

This month has no resemblance to a normal August. Mt. Hope High School Principal Deb Dibiase has a to-do list unlike any she, or any other high school principal, has ever seen.

In the Covid-19 era, any statement about the future comes with an asterisk, and the plan to reopen schools has several. Schools will reopen to students and staff in a little more than three weeks (*assuming the governor stays the course; *assuming Rhode Island’s infection rates remain consistently low; * assuming the teachers’ union that has said 80 percent of members are opposed to the current plan don’t throw a wrench in the works).

Though uncertainty hangs over all Rhode Island schools, Dr. Dibiase and her team have no choice but to problem-solve the massive logistical challenges they face. With about 500 students plus 100 percent of staff expected to enter the building for the first time in nearly six months, they have a lot of decision to make, quickly.

“Every day we try to figure out a couple more things and move forward,” Dr. Dibiase said.

Socially distant classrooms

The Bristol Warren Regional School District is planning to welcome all elementary school students into buildings every day, but because of space limitations, it will require half of middle school and high school students to stay home every day. So the older students will go into the building only two or three days per week, on a rotating schedule. That means about 500 students will be entering Mt. Hope every day.

When they enter school grounds, they will be wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart from everyone else at all times. After sanitizing their hands when entering the building, they will move to classrooms that have desks sitting six feet apart and facing the same direction.

Dr. Dibiase and staff have been going through every classroom and figuring out how many desks or works spaces they can accommodate. In some spaces, like the ceramics room, they will be installing plastic dividers to separate students from one another.

Cleaning and sanitizing classrooms

Mt. Hope plans to run its normal seven-period, drop-two class schedule. That means the students have a seven-class workload, and they go to five of them every day. It also means that the bell rings and everyone pours out of their classrooms to switch classes four times per day.

This is where things get really interesting. They have to clean and sanitize 80 classrooms in 10 minutes — and do it four times per day.

This will require everyone to exit the classrooms and remain six feet apart in the hallways at all times, while a custodial team races into the rooms with what Dr. Dibiase called new “super sprayers” to apply a sanitizing solution to all surfaces.

They’re still waiting for the super sprayers to arrive to test the system, but they’re hoping 10 minutes is enough time to do all 80 classrooms. The new school schedule has 10-minute transitions between classes.

Separately, the district plans to hire five new custodians, at an estimated cost of $415,000 annually.

One-way traffic patterns

Dr. Dibiase and team are also spending time mapping out a one-way traffic flow for the building. To reduce the instances where people come into close proximity to others, the district wants everyone to flow in the same direction at all times.

For a school like Mt. Hope, which can seem like a labyrinth to an outsider, this creates challenges. The good news is everyone will have a robust 10 minutes to get where they’re going.

Four cafeterias

Mt. Hope has one cafeteria. To operate within the guidelines, it needs four.

“For lunch, we can’t have a group larger than 50 at a time, even if they’re 6 feet apart. We’re going to have 500 students in the building, and we run four separate lunch periods, so we need a minimum of four separate places for kids to eat in the building,” Dr. Dibiase said.

The current plan is to use the actual cafeteria, the gym, probably the library and … they’re not sure about the fourth space yet.

Once students are seated in one of the four cafeterias, they will eat mostly alone — one student per table. If they order hot lunch, it will be delivered throughout the building by a new team of lunch aides (new hires for the district) who bring packaged hot meals on carts.

Students in two places

Once everyone is actually in their classrooms (wearing masks and facing the same direction in desks six feet apart), the teacher faces a new array of challenges. While she teaches to the 12 or so students seated in front of her, she must be conscious of another 12 or so students who are trying to follow along from home via a live feed from the classroom.

This will be accomplished using both Google Classroom and a document camera. The Google platform is familiar to everyone, as it was the primary mode of instruction and communication during a spring of distance learning. The document camera is a small device that projects what appears on a document, or what a teacher writes onto a smart board, to the audience of students back at home.

So while students at home can see the written materials on their laptops, they will be listening to the teacher and to the students actually inside the classroom.

How will a student at home ask a question during a live classroom session? A few ideas have been suggested. One is to use an in-classroom student to monitor the Google platform and notify the teacher if anyone at home has a question. Another is to have the teacher wear a single earpiece so she can hear a student at home who wants to join the conversation.

The teaching part

All of the technology and rules will most likely impact how teachers teach this year.

The teacher who gets animated, moves around the room, uses multiple whiteboards and props throughout his lessons, will have to adjust his routines. He can’t get too close to students, turn them in multiple directions, or use visuals that the audience sitting at home can’t see.

The teacher who relies on group projects or team exercises may have to rethink part of her curriculum. She can’t utilize lessons that require students to gather in close physical spaces in many of the ways they used to.

Despite the challenges, Dr. Dibiase is eternally optimistic, especially about the staff. She said the teachers showed a remarkable level of teamwork, collaboration and creativity when the entire district was suddenly thrust into distance learning last fall.

“From a teacher’s perspective, it’s going to be a challenge,” Dr. Dibiase said. “And I’m sure there is going to be some angst, but knowing our teachers, I’m sure they’ll work through it and be rock stars.”

And there’s more …

There are many more things on the to-do list this month. The Mt. Hope team is still working through the logistics of things like music and art and physical education. How can they hold those classes and stay within the restrictions of physical distancing (especially when the gym doubles as a cafeteria) and shared materials (they have to be cleaned constantly)?

So far, they’re taking things one at a time — taking a look at one class, or one department (like science labs) to work though each set of logistical challenges.

“We have to be careful not to make a one- size-fits-all model throughout the building,” Dr. Dibiase said. There may be some variation in rules from class to class.

“Until we actually live it, and start to experiment, it’s difficult to know everything,” she said. “With anything new, the minute it starts, we’re going to learn from it. We’ll adapt, we’ll modify, we’ll learn from the teachers, we’ll from the students, and we’ll make changes.”

Despite all the conditions this August, the principal maintains that optimistic spirit.

“Our teachers are awesome, and I honestly think they’re going to be amazing,” Dr. Dibiase said.

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