At Monday’s meeting, the Indianola School Board took stock of how the district has fared with COVID-19, and what the future possibly holds.
The district continues to operate under a hybrid learning model in which in-person classes are available five days a week, along with remote learning for any student whose family requests it.
In-person classes also dismiss 90 minutes early daily to allow teachers time with remote learners, which recently has seen growing numbers.
“We have had an increase … in both quarantined and the true remote learners,” said Superintendent Art Sathoff. “We have been having more, and I think that’s a symptom of the increased activity of the virus and people being concerned with it.”
A dashboard on the Indianola Community School District website offers insight into COVID-19 activity in the district’s buildings. According to an update on Monday, there currently are 12 confirmed cases among students and six among staff.
The dashboard, found at www.indianola.k12.ia.us/news/, doesn’t reflect the number of students and staff in quarantine.
“We don’t routinely report quarantines for a couple of reasons,” Sathoff explained. “One, we’ve been advised not to just from a medical privacy standpoint. The second thing is, that is very much a moving target, and the majority of those quarantines come from out-of-school contacts.”
The board did take an in-depth look at remote-learning data on Monday, though, including a breakdown of students who opted in and those who enrolled due to quarantine.
The latest numbers, as of Nov. 18, include 53 total remote learners at Emerson Elementary, 53 at Irving, 45 at Laura Ingalls Wilder, 38 at Whitter, 146 at the middle school and 213 at the high school.
Within those numbers, quarantine necessitated remote learning for 26 students at Emerson, 16 at Irving, 10 at Laura Ingalls Wilder, 13 at Whittier, 39 at the middle school and 38 at the high school.
But students who are quarantined in the future might take a different approach to learning.
“Right now we treat them like remote learners, and we just put them in the mix,” Sathoff said. “But as remote learner numbers increase, or as we hire people who are dedicated just to do the remote learning, we would probably need to treat quarantined students just like they’re absent from class.”
That would mean keeping them “in sync with their class,” Sathoff added, and having them access assignments via class pages online.
A TALE OF TWO SCHOOLS
At the previous school board meeting on Nov. 9, board members had unanimously voted to return to the originally approved 2020-21 calendar at the beginning of second semester, emphasizing that it’s their “intent” to do so if COVID-19 numbers allow.
Remote learning would still be available — although whether to all students or only those with a medical waiver has yet to be decided.
A sample medical waiver was included in the board packet on Monday, but Sathoff pointed out that it had been added to board policy in August, not enacted.
“This came up as a normal policy update from IASB because schools are required to have remote programs this year,” Sathoff said, referring to the Iowa Association of School Boards. “We’re not requiring this medical waiver right now. At this point, I haven’t had the board tell me we want to start doing that.”
If ICSD is able to return to the original calendar next semester, in-person school days would return to full length. The district is in the process of hiring teachers and “advocates” who would focus solely on remote teaching.
Some are expected to begin in December, Sathoff said, to assist with the current arrangement. The second semester starts on Jan. 6 for Irving, the district’s year-round program, and Jan. 20 for the other buildings.
Rob Keller, who on Nov. 9 was re-elected as school board president, asked whether the schools were facing staff shortages related to illness.
“How stretched are they as far as having teachers and staff in place and able to do what they need to do each day?” he asked.
Sathoff said that he meets with every building principal on a weekly basis, and they’re experiencing varying situations. Ahead of Monday's board meeting, for example, he met with those from Laura Ingalls Wilder and Emerson.
“It was ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ to throw a literary allusion out there,” Sathoff said. “Laura Ingalls Wilder has done very well in terms of staffing. … They’ve been fortunate not to be hit with a lot of illness and are not under the pressure that Emerson Elementary, for example, has felt.”
The board alluded to emails that they received from concerned teachers at the middle school. Sathoff confirmed that securing long-term substitute teachers amid COVID-19 hasn’t been much of an issue, but “on a daily basis, we may or may not get the position filled.
“We’re pulling our instructional coaches. We’re pulling our reading support teachers. Principals are jumping into classrooms,” he said. “It’s a concern.”
Keller also asked about administrators’ opinions of the entire district potentially going online, as some metro-area schools have done recently.
“I think, as a district, our approach would be if we have to send a building remote or, as we’ve already done, a grade level or a classroom, we would approach it that way versus just sending everybody remote — although we continue to plan,” Sathoff replied.
A government-ordered statewide closure of schools, or severe staffing shortages locally, would necessitate going fully online, he said.
A key thing to watch is COVID-19 numbers after the Thanksgiving holiday, Sathoff added. He encourages mask wearing and taking a cautious approach to traveling and large gatherings.
“If we don’t get a big post-holiday spike,” Sathoff said, “we’ll continue to be OK.”