The Douglas County School District's board Saturday voted unanimously to reopen its schools on a "hybrid" learning model, with the option for students to attend school completely online if they feel unsafe attending in-person amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The action came at a marathon weekend board meeting.
Superintendent Thomas Tucker cautioned that the district could still pivot to full "e-learning" after the school year begins, depending on how COVID-19 data shapes up in coming weeks.
“This has been a really tough decision,” Tucker said.
Local COVID-19 data trends played heavily in the decision to shift toward hybrid learning, Tucker said.
Dr. John Douglas, director of the Tri-County Health Department, which sets public-health policy for Douglas County, made a presentation to the board Saturday, noting that COVID-19 rates in the county had risen from roughly 2% to 3% a couple weeks ago to roughly 6% now.
Board directors pointed to the worsening COVID-19 data trends before voting and said a hybrid model allows the district to more easily pivot to full in-person or full online learning if the pandemic improves or escalates in coming weeks.
As part of the new reentry plan, teachers and staff will return to school on Aug. 4.
Professional development days are planned on Aug. 4, 5 and 6 and outside of those days staff will review curriculum, work with principals and plan for how to operate in both hybrid and eLearning models.
Tucker said the district planned additional professional development days focused solely on online learning because he expects the district could need to switch to e-learning “on a moment’s notice.”
Students will return on a staggered schedule and undergo orientation between Aug. 17 to Aug. 21. During that week schools will operate at 20% capacity, each day with different students.
Tucker said he believed it would be impossible to start students on an e-learning program without seeing them, and that the orientation week would also provide time to finalize cohorts.
A cohort system presented July 25 had students breaking up into A and B groups. Cohort A would attend school in-person on Monday and Wednesday and online on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Cohort B students would follow a reverse schedule, also with Friday as an e-learning" day.
Board President David Ray and other directors asked district staff to return with more details still about the hybrid plan in August, including how schools can assign students into cohorts.
Directors unanimously approved the recommendation after nearly nine hours of discussion, beginning the meeting at 8 a.m.
District staff, school principals and directors evaluated three possible learning models — all in-person, hybrid and e-learning — before approving the reentry plan.
Principals who spoke Saturday said they would make whatever plan board directors approved work for their schools, but several doubted they could implement all the strategies recommended to curb COVID-19’s spread if schools returned to full in-person learning.
“Being able to do all of those factors in a school that has nearly 2,300 students in it is going to be extremely difficult and challenging if not impossible,” Chaparral High School Principal Greg Gotchey said.
Director Krista Holtzmann noted the virus had spread seriously in communities that opened too early and said she could not ignore rising case positivity rates in Douglas County.
Director Elizabeth Hanson commended principals for voicing their concerns about a return to in-person learning, calling them courageous and urging upset community members to direct their anger toward directors and not school staff.
Director Kevin Leung said he preferred starting the school year remotely although he still voted to approve the hybrid learning model.
“A human life is very sacred and it’s very important and nothing can replace a human life when they are gone,” he said, “so for that I don’t think we are ready for in-person learning.”
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