Flexibility is the key word that Lawton Public Schools is keeping in mind as its administrators move closer to the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.
Superintendent Kevin Hime said the district will start school in August as close to normal as possible. While that means reopening classrooms, it also will mean safety protocols for students and staff in district buildings and expanded virtual options for students who aren’t yet comfortable with traditional school settings. While some decisions have been made, others remain under discussion as district administrators resolve issues so LPS students can begin classes Aug. 21 in a safe atmosphere that will encourage learning.
And, some of those discussions will be tempered by the announcement on Saturday that a student athlete at Eisenhower High School tested positive for COVID-19, with district officials saying they continue to work under strict sanitation protocols and state health directives.
In discussions with the Lawton Board of Education on Thursday and a podcast aimed at parents and staff, Hime said nothing is set in stone.
“The No. 1 goal is still safety,” he said.
Hime said the goal is to create as many pathways for students as possible, while allowing students and parents to feel safe about their education. In a nod to traditional classroom settings, Hime said social interaction and the relationships created are an important part of the process.
According to surveys that LPS parents have been asked to complete, 65 percent of students are ready to return to school as long as safety standards are set. Under the most recent statistics, 10-15 percent of students are expected to want the virtual option, with another 10-15 percent undecided. The remainder are expected to return to traditional classrooms, but ones that also will have significant changes to reflect the district’s concern for safety.
What does that mean?
District personnel already are working to put hand sanitizer dispensers in every classroom and hallway. Hime said the district will purchase more fogging machines so custodians can sanitize schools each night. Breakfast and lunch probably will be eaten in classrooms, rather than in cafeterias where large number of students and staff would typically congregate. Recesses and assemblies will be limited, and teachers will be directed to spread out desks to ensure students adhere to social distancing rules as best they can.
Temperatures will be taken, Hime said, explaining that while digital thermometers are sufficient at elementary schools where student populations are small, the district is looking into digital scanners (which measure the entire body temperature) for secondary sites because of their larger populations.
The biggest remaining decision centers on masks, and Hime said he expects a decision to be made by Aug. 1. He said parents who have responded to the district’s on-going survey are split, with about half believing masks should be worn inside schools, and even his administrators “are back and forth on that.”
“We’ll follow the CDC to see how that works, whether we will require them or not,” Hime said, calling the decision on requiring masks “the biggest variable we have left.”
The changes made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic involve more than safety protocols. It also will change how students learn, but Hime said some of the changes tie into what the district already had plans to do or expands what it already is doing.
For example, Lawton Virtual Academy, the district’s virtual learning service, already has been open to secondary students. But, enrollment is being expanded to include students in kindergarten through fifth grade, said Lynn Cordes, LPS executive director of communications.
That decision has meant bringing in new educators, Hime said, explaining the existing virtual academy team’s expertise is in secondary level learning. Elementary administrators “are working on a plan,” he said.
Virtual learning for the fall 2020 semester will be different than the plan quickly crafted for students to complete the 2019-2020 school year.
In past years, standards required for most grade levels were taught by Spring Break, leaving the remainder of the school year as review for state testing. That held true for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester; no new standards were introduced. That will change in fall 2020.
“The expectation is to learn new material,” Hime said, adding the district’s goal is to meet students needs from a virtual platform.
The district also is putting new technology into place for students, said School Board President Carla Clodfelter.
For example, every student in pre-kindergarten through second grade will have an iPad assigned to them, while students in grades three through 12 will have ChromeBooks. The idea is to give every student a technology device, Hime said, adding students through grade five will keep their devices in their classrooms, but students grades six through 12 will be allowed to take their ChromeBooks home.
“The idea: we don’t have to share devices,” Hime said.
If COVID-19 forces the district to go completely to virtual teaching, students will have access to the technology they need. Acknowledging students who don’t have internet or wi-fi capability, the district will provide wi-fi “hot spot” boxes so students will have remote capability at home.
The goal remains being as flexible as possible, Hime said, explaining that if a student starts the school year remotely but wants to move back to a traditional classroom, “you can.”