Meade School District pushes back school start date

Christian Kotab, a computer technician with the Meade School District, sorts through iPads and MacBook computers that will be distributed to students in rural Meade schools this fall. The Meade School Board is working on a re-entry plan for the district after spending the last quarter of the last school year in distance learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pioneer photo by Deb Holland

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STURGIS — Students in the Meade School District will start classes one week later than planned this fall.

The Meade School Board voted unanimously Monday to push back the start of in-service for teachers from Aug. 25 to Aug. 31, and the start of classes for students and staff from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8 following the Labor Day holiday.

School board members are concerned that with Sturgis hosting the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally amid the COVID-19 global pandemic there are chances of a spike in cases in the community just before the start of school.

Moving the start dates back gives both teachers and students at least two weeks following the Rally before they would gather again in school buildings.

Although Meade School District Interim Superintendent Don Kirkegaard didn’t officially begin his new post in the district until this week, he said Monday that he has already met via Zoom with administrators to talk about the district’s re-entry plan.

He said he would like to come to the July 13 meeting of the school board with specifics about the district’s plan.

“The thing I really want to emphasize is that nobody has a crystal ball. If there are things that happen between now and the 31st, we’re just going to have to be flexible,” he said.

Kirkegaard said he and administrators believed having students and staff start classes on Aug. 31 would be optimal because fall sports already would be underway.

“There’s no guarantee that after Labor Day is going to be any better than before Labor Day,” he said.

But board member Courtney Mack lobbied for a post-Labor Day start which was adopted by the board.

“I’d rather be safe than regretful. We know the Rally is a big influx,” Mack said.

When school does start it will be face-to-face with as many safeguards as possible, Kirkegaard said.

“We know we are going to have some parents who don’t want their kids to come to school yet,” he said.

A survey will be made available to parents asking if they want their children to return to face-to-face instruction or if they want to do distance/virtual learning.

One option for distance/virtual learning is K12 – a commercial online public school program taught by certified teachers with state approved curriculum.

Kirkegaard clarified that current classroom teachers would not be doing both face-to-face and online teaching simultaneously.

“In Phase 1, virtual learning is not our teachers. That would really put them over the edge,” he said. “The instruction is actually coming from somebody else other than our teachers.”

One of the safeguards the district plans to put in place to lessen the spread of the coronavirus is replacing water fountains districtwide with water bottle fillers, which will cost about $35,000.

The district also will implement an adjustable lunch schedule.

“We will do everything we can to provide a lunch environment that is as safe and secure as we can,” he said. “Whether we eat in the lunchroom, or the lunchroom and some other rooms, we will do everything we can to provide social distancing.”

The district also will work with Harlow’s Bus Service to have buses sanitized before and after routes. Because many bus routes are at capacity, the district may look at adding a route or two to lessen the number of students on each bus.

The district is going to encourage parents who are able to consider shuttling their children to school by private vehicle.

Kirkegaard said the school district would attempt to social distance when possible, but it will be difficult.

And in response to a question about face masks, Kirkegaard said children will not be required to wear masks during the school day, but the district is encouraging bus students to wear them because when the buses are at capacity, there can be three students in each seat.

What still needs to be determined is a matrix for when the district would go to virtual learning if there were an outbreak. District officials have said they would like to have a plan where individual schools could be shut down and go to online learning if COVID cases spiked instead of closing all schools in the district.

Tamara Voight, a teacher at Sturgis Williams Middle School, said she would prefer pushing back the start date of school by a week.

“I feel like the safest bet to have consistent face-to-face contact would be to start a week late and start in a blended model or start having a three- or four-day school week and see how that goes,” she said prior to the board vote.

Voight also supports having as many in-service days as possible to prepare teachers for the variety of learning options that may come with heading back to classrooms amid the pandemic.

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