The Osage Community School District Board of Directors met in regular assembly on Monday, July 20, where the fate of the fall 2020 semester was discussed at length.

Superintendent of schools Barb Schwamman said that there are no easy answers to the questions that parents and the community have about how to proceed next month. “This will be a fluid and flexible situation,” she said.

The board discussed the impacts that new procedures will have on students, namely psychological ones. High anxiety levels, blows to the school’s culture and climate, and crippled social and emotional learning came into the conversation as potential consequences of the Return to Learn (RTL) plan, whatever it may end up being by the time the students return.

“This has been traumatic for kids,” said Schwamman to the board in reference to the students suddenly being unable to return to school earlier this year. She said that the mental health of students has never been more important than it is now. “We will need to work on how to help kids respond to and process their feelings. They want to know what is coming up. We will have to help manage anxiety. That is a big piece of the puzzle. IF we don’t take care of this piece, the learning doesn’t happen.”

The board acknowledged that those obstacles will be heightened for students in the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) and English Language Learners (ELLs).

The final draft of the RTL must be all-encompassing and adaptive. A public school, like Osage CSD, that receives funding from the US Department of Education (ED) must provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to each disabled student in the district “regardless of the nature or severity of the person’s disability,” according to the ED. For that reason, an RTL plan that accommodates every student is amorphous and complex. Some students’ education experiences would be hindered by an online learning program, and some can’t take the slightest chance at COVID-19 exposure lest risk their health or the health of someone in their home.

Schwamman said that 51 Osage teachers have met over six different work sessions since the spring semester ended to come up with a plan. One thing that the school has decided on is that students shouldn’t be on their computers for eight hours a day.

However, the superintendent also acknowledged that there will be students who are not returning. Her message to those families was to still get an education through the Osage school system, even if it is online.

“We still want to educate those children with our curriculum,” said Schwamman. She noted that the school district has been working with Verizon and Osage Municipal Utilities to ensure that every student has a reliable internet connection. “If you choose remote learning, you will get the school’s help, support and guidance. If you choose homeschooling you are on your own.”

Schwamman said that parents who choose daily online learning should understand that it will be very different and more structured than it was in the spring.

“This has to be rigorous, this has to be graded, this has to be following the curriculum,” she said.

The board heavily focused on how to protect students who are going to be in the building, too, since over three-quarters of almost 400 Osage families who participated in a survey reportedly said that they want their children back in the classroom. Here is a summary of how the board decided to proceed:

Social distancing: Social distancing will always be encouraged. Tables and chairs will be arranged to allow for six feet between students where possible.

Masks: Schwamman said that no student will have to wear a mask eight hours a day unless they choose to, but that face coverings will be required in scenarios where social distancing isn’t possible. This may include being in the hallways between classes, group work and circle time, and riding the bus.

“Even though I hate masks, we should listen to Public Health,” said Board President Rick Sletten. “When a student wears a mask and the person to their right or left comes down with COVID, that student gets to stay while the other one stays home and quarantines. So, for our athletes, if you wear your mask you get to go and play rather than if you hadn’t.

“This is tough for us to chew, but we are going to have to chew it.”

A parent in attendance asked about medical exemptions from masks, such as asthma and eczema. The board responded that it would be up to the family to decide if the student will be able to attend school or not given the mask requirement.

General prevention: The board discussed daily prevention of COVID spread extensively. Symptom screening will be conducted, and handwashing/hygiene/cleaning protocols heightened. Group gatherings of students or faculty will be limited. Students’ temperatures may be taken and those who are considered to be running a fever may be able to attend school in an isolated room. The board is considering suspension of in-town busing since students are often sat three to a seat. Parents are urged to transport their own children where possible.

School officials grappled with decisions about lunch time, too. Schwamman said that eating lunch outside has been a “huge recommendation” from public health officials and will be encouraged for as long as weather permits. Students will not be required to wear a mask during lunch, but will be required to socially distance themselves.

“Lunch is an important social time,” said Schwamman. “We don’t want to take that away from them.”

Outbreak management: The school will reportedly operate on one of three levels depending on the presence, or imminence, of a COVID outbreak. Contract tracing will be conducted in an effort to reduce the possibility of widespread infection. If the presence of COVID is minimal to none, the school will be operating on “green level,” where all students may come to school in-person. If the risk is slight to moderate, the school will implement the “yellow level,” where students will enter a mixture of in-person and online learning. If the threat is considered severe or classified as an outbreak, the school will move in to the red stage, where all students are required to stay home and attend school online.

The board said that the decisions about closure and outbreaks come from the Department of Public Health, and that short-term school closures are possible if the suspected and confirmed cases rise.

Schwamman said that strong leadership and education to navigate these uncertain times are paramount.

“We have a lot to do and everything is changing,” she said. “Do our students have working devices? Do they have reliable internet access? What are our staff needs? What will the school calendar, attendance and grading look like?

“We need to introduce the tools and applications that will make sure our students and teachers are successful.”

In the end, the board passed a motion to bring students back for in-person learning four days a week and one day of online learning, Wednesday. However, officials said that the RTL slate might have to be wiped clean again in the very first week.

“We will do our best to evolve as the situation evolves,” said Sletten, who expressed confidence that dilligent usage of masks will contribute to the success of the RTL plan.

“None of these decisions are final,” said Schwamman. “Things are changing quickly and we are going to try to change with them. To our students who can’t physically come back in the fall, please remember that, no matter what, you are still Osage Green Devils.”

The first day of school is slated for August 24. The school board will meet in regular session again one time before then.

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