The St. Joseph School District plans to keep students home on Wednesdays, with the remaining days of the week scheduled in differing ways, for the indefinite future.
Dr. Doug Van Zyl, superintendent of schools, said on Thursday that it’s too early to know if hybrid education, launched on Monday, will succeed in resolving critical problems observed in recent weeks with the availability of substitutes to cover sick and quarantined staff, the leading cause of the mid-semester schedule adjustment. Part of the situation is owed to the abundance of caution being taken even with people who may not have COVID-19.
“If somebody gets really bad allergies, we’re telling them to stay home,” Van Zyl said.
Although more than 1 in 4 SJSD students enrolled for the semester in the online Virtual Academy, the situation beforehand was such that classes were having to be combined for days at a time as employees go through 14-day COVID-19 quarantine. The new schedule has significantly reduced the number of students in a given building on a given day, with the aim of being able to meet education labor needs more easily. The Board of Education will hear an assessment from Van Zyl and other administrators each month before it decides if hybrid education will continue. It is not possible to assess how long it might go on, he said, because the underlying reasons for it will still be there.
“For us not to be able to have enough substitute teachers in the classroom, we already struggled with that even before COVID took place,” Van Zyl said. “And that’s across the nation, it’s not just a St. Joe issue to find enough substitutes, because it’s kind of a thankless job.”
Dr. Sandy Steggall, superintendent of schools for Clinton County R-III school district in Plattsburg, Missouri, is an advocate for the four-day school schedule, which her district adopted in years past, and anticipates that districts switching to having fewer days per week in class will become more common for reasons beyond the pandemic.
“I’m hoping it becomes a long-term solution, because it really helps to support our teachers,” she said. “It is not unusual for you to walk over to a school building and see a principal covering a classroom, because a teacher is out on quarantine, and there’s not enough substitutes to fill those needs ... This is the year that we’re all going to have to pitch in and help out.”
Re-allotting the time in class is just one part of it; the pandemic is forcing districts to build curriculum around each student’s needs, because especially with regard to matters like online education, no two children learn the same.
“What I think the good thing is that will come out of COVID-19 is the complete restructure of education, which is long overdue, in my opinion,” she said. “I really think it’s gonna peel back the layers of education and show what we’ve been doing was probably not the best for kids over the last several years. And that we really need to work at identifying how we’re going to individualize our instruction.”
Van Zyl has reached similar conclusions.
“You know, if I (still) had kids in school, I would tell you, each one of them would probably be at different levels of how successful they’re being academically, because ... every one of my kids is different, just like everybody else’s students are different. So some (students) are probably doing really well. Some are probably struggling, and the challenge is going to be how do we deal with that? And how do we help those kids who are struggling?”
Mark Weis, principal of Robidoux Middle School, said he considers himself relatively fortunate in how most of his teachers and staff have not had to quarantine. The effects of hybrid education are still an open question, but he has the assets he requires to fulfill his mission.
“I mean, I will brag upon my staff; we’ve actually had just one situation in which we’ve had a teacher out,” he said.
“We have a great staff here. They are truly special. They spent the last week and a half planning and preparing, providing learning opportunities that are unique for our in-person learners and our remote learners. We just ask the parents, if they have concerns or questions, please communicate. And we’ll make things work in both ways.”