When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the state in March, many thought they would be away from campus only a couple of weeks.
Now school officials are making contingency plans for how schools will operate when students start the new year in August if large group gatherings are not yet allowed. That was one of the topics covered in Tuesday’s Baldwin County Board of Education meeting, which was held via teleconference for the second consecutive month.
“We don’t know what the future holds, but we have to prepare for what we think might happen,” School Superintendent Dr. Noris Price told board members.
Four scenarios are on the table if school starts as originally planned on Monday, Aug. 3. The first possibility is that schools may start operating as normal with teachers and students inside the classroom for face-to-face instruction.
The second scenario mentioned by the superintendent was a “staggered” schedule that would put half of the students attending school as normal while the other half would learn from home. Those at home, though, would be asked to connect to their classrooms virtually so they can learn in real-time with their fellow students.
The third option is what Price referred to as a blended model. It’s similar to the staggered schedule in that half of students could still come to campus while the other remains at home, but those at home would not connect to their classrooms in real-time. They would do their assignments similar to how they did while remote learning after schools closed this term.
The fourth scenario is a continuation of how schools operated after closing their campuses. Students would go back to remote learning full-time until it is safe to return to school buildings.
“We will make sure that every student has a device and every student has access to the internet,” Price said after presenting the fourth scenario.
Even with only needing to facilitate distance learning to half the student population under the staggered and blended scenarios, there are still many obstacles on that front. As was learned when the pandemic closed campuses, not every student has reliable internet access or devices at home. The Baldwin County School District (BCSD) tried and is continuing to try to remove those barriers. School system technology director Brian Daniel told board members his staff has given out nearly 900 tablets and laptops to students so they can work from home.
Then there’s the question of internet access. The Twin Lakes Library System made its internet password-free and accessible from the Mary Vinson Memorial Library parking lot so students and the general public can still get online. But not everyone can get to the library or somewhere else where there is an open and reliable internet signal. Daniel said the school district has placed an order with a company called Kajeet that makes a device that can turn a school bus into a mobile internet hotspot. The buses can be parked in areas of the community densely-populated with students without home internet access. Daniel shared that the Kajeet can connect up to 128 kids, and according to its website, the company’s signal reaches a radius of 300 feet (one football field).
“On top of that, we also were awarded hotspots through the Georgia Foundation for Public Education,” Daniel said. “The maximum you can receive is 24, so we’re getting 24 of those with all expenses paid for five months.”
Furthermore, the school district has also ordered nine wireless antennas for its school parking lots, making the internet accessible outside each building. More digital devices and internet hotspot-creating capabilities are on the way thanks to other donations and grants earned by the school district.
“We are not sitting idle,” Price said. “Whenever a grant comes out, we go after it. I think we’re going to be ready if, for any reason, we need to continue or go back to remote learning.”
The four return to school scenarios are only options if school starts back as originally planned. Price also has an employee developing a 2020-21 academic calendar that would put the start of the upcoming school year after Labor Day. That calendar will be brought to the school board when it meets next month. The superintendent reminded board members and those attending the meeting virtually that conditions surrounding the pandemic are fluid and changing almost daily, so multiple scenarios are being planned so schools don’t get caught unprepared like they were in March.
“My hope and prayer is that we’re going to open school up in August and be able to go back to normal,” District 4 BOE member John Jackson said. “If not, I know y’all will present a plan that’ll be best for everyone, so thank you.”