Belle Fourche approves return-to-school plan: School beginning a week later, virtual learning alternative optional

The Belle Fourche School District approved a proposed return-to-school plan Monday.

BELLE FOURCHE –– The Belle Fourche School District Monday approved the proposed return-to-school plan and amended calendar proposed by the school administration.

The district called the special meeting Monday to discuss the proposals and held the meeting in the Belle Fourche Middle School gymnasium to accommodate social distancing efforts for district parents and teachers in attendance. Approximately 60 people attended.

Elementary Principal Julie Hatling and High School Principal Mathew Raba were charged with amending the calendar and researching issues for the return-to-school plan.

2020-21 school calendar

Hatling said that the administration utilized results from both the staff survey as well as the parent survey to compile the concerns about the timeline and process related to returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So, we combined the various reasons that responses addressed changing the school (return) date,” she said.

The administration lumped those responses together, and the majority of the concerns requested the district delay the return until after Labor Day to responsibly observe the effects the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Aug. 7-16, and the Central States Fair, Aug. 21-30, could have on the regional COVID-19 statistics. They posed the same types of questions from the community survey and posed them to district staff.

According to the staff survey results, nearly 60% of the respondents stated they’d like the return to be delayed until Sept. 8, nearly 30% stated Aug. 19, as originally planned, and just over 10% stated “other.”

According to the plan, district staff is expected to return on Aug. 16, as planned, and utilize the time for staff preparedness. As for students, the plan provided they would return to school one week later originally planned, or the week of Aug. 31.

Raba said the student body would be broken up into halves with half attending that Monday and Wednesday, and the remaining half attending Tuesday and Thursday. Those first two days would be used to teach students about the new COVID-19 precautions the district will undertake.

Then, on Sept. 8, after the Labor Day holiday, the district would return to the regular school schedule.

Raba said that although the students would be attending fewer days than originally planned, they would still be over the amount of hours required by the state.

The remaining portions of the calendar will remain the same as previously approved.

School reopening plan

The plan delineates how the schools intend to reopen with a number of COVID-19 precautions to work to ensure safety for the school staff and students.

Social distancing will be one of the top focuses. The plan states that procedures will be implemented at each building level in order to encourage social distancing among students and staff. Although facemasks will not be required to be worn, the district is highly encouraging staff and students consider doing so. However, all students and staff are expected to carry a mask for situations where social distancing is not possible, such as small group work.

Seating will be arranged to allow for maximum physical distancing. Staff and students are encouraged to bring their own water bottles from home as water fountains will be restricted to bottle fillers only.

Hand sanitizer will be made available in every classroom, lunchrooms, and near entrances to the building. Frequent hand washing and sanitation breaks will be incorporated into daily activities.   

Visitation to school buildings will be limited and large gatherings such as pep rallies, assemblies, and field trips may be modified or suspended.

In order to support the whole child and develop a student’s passions and interests, the plan states that the district will consider maintaining extracurricular activities, as much as possible, during the various reopening phases. The events and activities will follow the same guidelines as those implemented during a regular school day.

Transportation is another hot-button issue considered by the school. Buses will run as usual. In addition to daily sanitization, students are encouraged to follow safety measures while riding the school-provided transportation. Buses will be loaded from back to front with family members encouraged to sit together. Students are highly encouraged to wear masks while on the bus and hand sanitizer will be made available for use upon entering and exiting the bus.

The plan lays out the three possible phases of school operations. The phases would be specific to each school building.

Phase 1 is the traditional face-to-face learning where there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases within the building. This phase would proceed with preparedness measures.

Phase 2, with isolated cases found within a building, the school would continue the preparedness measurers and engage an additional procedure to reassess processes to identify for gaps in strategies, allow for contract tracing, deep cleaning, and more.

Phase 3, with substantial cases in building, would include all of the actions in the previous two phases plus assess the level of spread within a building, evaluate the degree of potential exposures within the building, engage the state’s school response team, and consider options related to how to continue school, including staggered schedules and blended learning.  

The plan also included a virtual instruction option for families who would prefer their children continue to remain home during the pandemic, even if school is in session. Raba said that instructional approaches will mirror the virtual learning approach and will utilize staff and resources to fulfill instructional requirements.

The one kicker for the virtual instruction method is those who choose to utilize the modus must commit to completing an entire term prior to returning to face-to-face instruction. So, for grades K-8, that would be a trimester, for grades 9-12, a semester.

Students and staff who are ill or displaying symptoms are encouraged to stay home. The school will be utilizing a symptom screening checklist and asking parents to assess a student’s physical condition on a daily basis to decide whether to send a child to school or not. If a student becomes ill during the schoolday, parents will be notified and children would need to be picked up as soon as possible to avoid spreading illness.

Following the presentation of the amended calendar and reopening plan, the school board unanimously approved both items. Additionally, the board authorized Superintendent Dr. Steve Willard the ability to amend or modify the reopening plan and COVID-19 response as needed for the duration of the 2020-21 school year.

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