The Marion Center Area School Board approved the district’s health and safety plan for the upcoming fall start of the 2020-2021 school year at a meeting Monday.
The full safety plan will be available on the district website for viewing by the public. Superintendent Clint Weimer began the presentation of the plan with thanking those in the district who helped create it.
“First and foremost I wanted to thank everyone in their support and development of our safety plan,” Weimer said. “Quite an extensive team was put together to meet requirements of the state and to try and make sure we left no stone unturned in trying to make our campus as safe as possible and have a sense of normalcy when our students return.
While the goal for the district is to have all students on campus in person as soon as possible, the start of school will be a staggered program. This staggered method will have half of the students on campus beginning Aug. 31, with the second half beginning Sept. 1.
“Currently, under guidelines put out by the Department of Education, the governor’s office and the CDC … we’re recommending a staggered start. So only 50 percent of our students will be on campus at one time. That allows us to social distance the students so that they don’t have to wear a face covering while sitting at their desk,” Weimer said.
As it stands, neither the high school nor Rayne Elementary School have air conditioning. Weimer said that many expressed concerns for the students should they be forced to constantly wear face coverings during the possible high-temperature days in the early fall. By keeping students at half attendance, the further distance between students in the classroom will allow them to go without masks while at their desks. Students will, however, be required to wear masks anytime they move about the classroom or while they are in hallways.
The staggered schedule will be as follows: Group A will be students with last names A through L, and group B will be students with last names M through Z. Special allowances will be worked out for any families who have children who might have different names so that they can be kept on the same schedule to make it easier for families to arrange transportation and maintain schedules.
Groups will alternate days. One week will see Group A attending school in person on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with remote learning days on Tuesday and Thursday. Group B will attend on Tuesday and Thursday and remote learn on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The groups will switch these schedules on alternating weeks.
The week prior to Aug. 31 will be spent helping teachers prepare for the new set up as well as allowing them to create plans should anything change. Amy Gaston, director of education, said that everything is very fluid and will be able to adapt to any changes should they arise.
As of right now, the plan is to also equip each student with one-to-one devices. Gaston said the district currently has the ability to provide that for students in grades 4 to 12.
“We did order more devices and we’re hoping to have them before the start of school,” she said. “But there’s no guarantee with that, since many districts are ordering devices. Once we do get them, however, we will be rolling those down to (the lower grades). Our goal is to have all students have a one-to-one device in case we would have to move two yellow or red and students won’t be on campus.”
These devices will allow students to work on their scheduled remote learning days. Teachers will provide new learning while they are at the actual school and provide enough material for students to continue to work on their own while remote learning the next day. If students do not have internet access to work remotely, other options, such as packets, can be arranged.
“Ultimately the goal is to give students enough of a skill set off of their day of in-person learning, to go home and continue working the next day on material without being overwhelmed by new material,” Weimer said.
There are further guidelines in place for the district regarding the actual campus while students are in attendance. Three temporary custodians, one per school, will be brought on to help with sanitizing and cleaning the school. Hygiene will be constantly encouraged and hand sanitizer will be available in classrooms as well as common areas. Classrooms have also been cleared of all porous surfaces, ensuring that everything that is used can be wiped down and cleaned.
The district will also make a list of all cleaners that are used in the school and put it on its website. “We want to make sure if anyone has allergies or sensitivities, that we put that information out there,” Weimer said.
Recess will still occur, but classes will be spaced apart and the playground equipment will be sanitized and cleaned after use. Classes will also be required to stay contained and not interact as much with other classes to help in the event that a case comes up and contact tracing needs to occur.
This will also play a part in the cafeteria setup. While the district will not assign students on who to sit with, once students create a group of friends with whom to sit at lunch, they will be encouraged to continue seating as such each day.
The cafeteria, which is shared by both McCreery Elementary School and the high school, will also be subject to cleaning as thoroughly as it can be with as frequently as it is in use. Tables will also be divided by plexiglass barriers to keep students separated while at the tables.
“We understand that our cafeteria is a difficult point,” Gaston said. “It’s in use from pretty much 10:45 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon; we can’t stretch those times later or earlier. But the distancing with the plexiglass shouldn’t be an issue.”
Gaston said she and her kids tested out the plexiglass system and were able to see and hear each other clearly while seated at the table. “We know that the social aspect of lunch is important and this allows that to continue to happen.”
Busing and transportation will also see a change. Students will be limited to two per seat, loading the seats from back to front. Children from the same household will be encouraged to sit together and masks will be required at all times since social distancing is impossible. Buses will be sanitized every day.
“The staggered start will also help keep crowding on buses down,” Weimer said. “There are some buses that can be pretty crowded. If we go to full opening at any point, we will probably need to discuss adding more buses to help with that if things still stand.”
If parents or students do not feel comfortable returning to school and wish to attend via a cyber option, the board stressed its hope that they would choose to attend the Marion Center Cyber Academy as opposed to larger institutions like PA Cyber. This is mostly due to the burden it can put on the taxpayers in the district.
“We strongly encourage families who want to utilize cyber education to use our program,” Weimer said. “At the end of the day, if you choose PA Cyber or Agora, that is up-costing the community an astronomical amount of money. Currently we can educate one of our cyber students for roughly $5,000, where, on average, a student that leaves our cyberschool and goes to one of the other ones out there, costs the taxpayer anywhere from $13,000 to $26,000.”
Weimer said that sort of money leaving the district is detrimental. He also urged that students who take part in the Marion Center Cyber Academy get all the benefits of the district such as a diploma, prom and extracurricular activities and the support of the district’s teachers if need be.
“Please, if you’re considering the cyber option, contact us,” Weimer said. “We’ll work with you.”
Gaston added that, according to the survey, the district has around 90 students interested in cyber options. “That’s 90 students that will leave our district to attend (an outside) cyber school, which, if we take that average cost of $13- to $26,000, we’re looking at $1.82 million for those students to attend cyberschool. That makes the reality of it much more real, because we as a district are unable to manage that.”
Gaston said they are working on making sure that all classes on the cyber academy are taught by Marion Center teachers. “We’ve had a lot of interests from our own teachers to work with that program,” she said.
It will also be possible for students who wish to switch back to coming to the actual campus to do so, even if they start in the cyber academy.
“We do understand that we’re putting a lot of pressure on parents at this point,” Gaston said. “It’s a tough decision. With the information we have at this point, it might get more difficult, but we want to make sure that they have the option that is outside of the classroom.”
There will be an option for students with health issues who aren’t able to come to school and for whom the cyber academy might be a bad fit. Students will be worked with individually to help create programs that suit their needs.
The district is also currently working with Indiana County Technology Center to create plans for the students who attend as well as keeping up with what the guidelines that PIAA is creating for sports. Overall, the district plans to be flexible with what is decided by either organization.
Should a positive case be found in the district, board members said they will rely on the Department of Health for guidance as well as contact tracing. Depending on the severity of the situation, the school will follow the guidelines put in place, or shut down if it is called for.
“Even if it’s remote learning, our teachers will be here at the school to help kids should they need it,” Weimer said. “Unless a stay-at-home order is put in place, in which case they will be available solely online or by phone if necessary.”
Should the entire state once again go into red or have stricter guidelines put in place, the school is prepared to follow those as well.