GREENSBORO — How do you create “social distance” in classrooms? What about on buses?
Guilford County Schools officials are trying to answer those questions and more after classes ended for most schools on Friday. The focus now shifts to what it will take to reopen schools in August, with no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic and the constraints it creates with the need for social distancing.
As they work on their plans, they are also dealing with limitations placed by the state and the likelihood that new state rules, or other developments, may thwart or contradict what they want to do.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult to plan in this way,” Superintendent Sharon Contreras said, acknowledging families are facing that reality also.
Here’s a look at some of what is going on behind the scenes as the district prepares:
At the top of the list for school leaders is a room-by-room evaluation of every building in the school district. They are trying to figure out how physical distancing to prevent COVID-19 contagion could work.
For now, they are looking at what it would take for each student to have 44 square feet of space — a square with roughly 6.6 foot sides. At that standard, they want to know how many students can fit per classroom, and do they have enough rooms within the school district to hold the students that will return. If not, possibilities include repurposing other rooms to become classrooms and devising an alternate schedule where not all students are at school at the same time.
The district is requiring teachers to take home any materials and equipment they own, unless they can store it up off the floor. That’s to make more space for students, get the stuff out of the way of school cleaning going on this summer and be prepared for a reshuffling of classrooms, administrators said.
The district is taking a similar look at buses. They want to figure out if they spaced the students out for social distancing, how many students could each school bus take? School administrators said they would also look into possible alternatives to cut down the bus riding numbers if needed, such as maybe organizing or subsidizing carpools or walk-to-school groups.
After the Guilford County Board of Education gave its approval on May 28, the district filed an application with the state to create two new virtual academies. Those would be the Guilford eLearning Virtual Academy for grades K-5 and Guilford eLearning University Prep Academy for grades 6-12.
Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley said the expected turnaround time to hear back from the state is three to four weeks and she does not see any reason why the state would not approve their application.
As soon as the state approves the schools, she said, the district can begin lining up teachers and create an application process for students. She said admission criteria has not been determined yet.
School district administrators seized on the idea as a way to include some families and teachers who are not willing to participate with in-person instruction next school year, due to COVID-19 concerns. The district is likely to implement major cuts, including possibly school closures, if a significant portion of families choose to leave the district entirely. The non-virtual schools must begin in-person classes on Aug. 17 under current state law.
School board members are set to vote at their virtual meeting on Tuesday on whether to adopt a new version of the 2020-21 school year calendar for the traditional schools. The new calendar includes the Aug. 17 start date, which is mandated by state law. It has 182 student days, up from 177 this year.
Administrators are asking that schools that have previously been on an extended year calendar — Allen Jay Middle, Washington Montessori, Brooks Global Studies and Johnson Street Global Studies — also be on the traditional calendar. They said they do not expect any changes to the calendars for the early and middle colleges.
District leaders said they are still in conversation with the district’s “Opportunity Culture” schools, which have school-level flexibility in setting their school calendars. Oakley said it’s looking like those schools could adopt additional professional development days, on top of what would be in the new traditional schools’ calendar, but at this point she is not anticipating those schools would add any extra student days.
Student, parent, and staff survey
District staff have sent out a survey to students, parents and staff to gauge how the remote learning this year went and help the district consider plans for next year. Contreras said the surveys also ask families about their intentions for next year.
All parents, staff, and middle and high school students, should fill out the surveys, Contreras said. Surveys are due by Friday. Questions about the survey can be directed to Director of Research and Evaluation Carolyn Gilbert at email@example.com.