Returning to learn: Students stay in homeroom all day, limiting exposure to others
Central City Community School District has a student population of about 440.
Even in a small school district, it’s common for a high school teacher to have up to 140 students come through her classroom on any given day. Sometimes even more. For many during the pandemic, that amount of exposure can seem untenable.
Such was the case at Central City Community School District. Jason McLaughlin, the principal of the high school, was facing a nervous staff. Then McLaughlin and other members of the school district who were working on their Return-to-Learn plan had an epiphany for the high school: What if we could get that number of students in your classroom down to 13 a day?
No, it wasn’t fanciful thinking. In the high school, the plan revolves around homeroom and an all-hands-on-deck approach from the staff. What it boils down to is this: Students stay in the homeroom all day and take their courses online.
“It’s not really virtual,” McLaughlin said. “If they have questions, they can walk down to talk to the teacher.”
In order to accommodate this safely, however, they had to decrease the size of the homeroom classes.
“Normally, we would have up to 16 students in a homeroom,” McLaughlin said. “Now we’re using every single teacher – some of whom didn’t have homerooms before. We’re also using every single person – paras, instructional coaches, me – to ensure students have a chance to get up and go outside to exercise or give teachers breaks or enable them to conduct specific classes.”
If the chemistry teacher needs to bring together her students for a lab, for instance, someone will take over her homeroom class while she conducts the lab – the students maintaining social distancing.
“It incorporates a lot of flexibility from everyone,” McLaughlin said.
Since elementary students need more in-person time, they will conduct classrooms normally, albeit working to social distance. However, during a normal school year, elementary students would see five different teachers in a week – their main teacher and the specials: computer science, music, art and physical education. This year, they will be limited to only one special teacher each month. Each month, they will then rotate the special teachers.
The all-day homerooms in the high school will work well in containing a potential virus outbreak.
“How would we mitigate the virus when someone tests positive?” McLaughlin said. “If you’re sitting in six different classes during the day, you could see how quickly that would become unmanageable. But having just one classroom all day changes the dynamics.”
Because all assignments are online, the district is well positioned for anything – even if it means having to shelter at home again.
“We’re going to have no down time,” McLaughlin said. “For families who don’t have internet, we have hotspots on the school grounds, so students can drive up to the school, stay in their car and download what they need and go home to do their work.”
The district is taking a purposeful approach to catching students up who fell behind during the spring lockdown.
“We had a lot of students at home without a lot of support,” McLaughlin said. “Most did their work, but there were also a lot of kids who struggled.
“We’re going to be focusing on those students. In some cases, we’ll free up a teacher by taking over her class so that she can do some one-on-one with students who are struggling. And our student numbers decrease in the afternoon when students go off to take community college classes, so that gives us even more time to work with struggling learners.”
Lunch at the high school will feature grab-and-go every day, and students will eat in their classrooms. At the elementary level, students will continue to use the cafeteria, but each table is divided by Plexiglas into sections.
Busing in a rural district can be particularly challenge, even during non-pandemic times. The district is still working on a plan, which includes reaching out to parents who may be able to drive their children in and pick them up. The district may also run the routes several times to keep passenger numbers low on the bus at any given time.
Masks or face shields will be required during the day, but Central City is working to build in “mask breaks” during the day, in which students will either go outside or into the gym, staying at least six feet away from each other.
McLaughlin says the district’s plan is thanks to his team.
“When all of this craziness was going down and we had to shut down, I told them I would support what they wanted to do,” McLaughlin said, alluding to the choices between required learning in the spring, voluntary or no school at all. “And they unequivocally said ‘let’s make this required.’ That was very hard work, but because of that work last spring, we were so much better prepared to create our plan for the fall.
“They get all of the credit for this work."