On the precipice of opening their doors for every student, Colonial School District officials said there were new concerns a virtual-only approach may be imminent as COVID-19 cases increase across the state, and the country.
"We really put a lot of effort and energy into bringing back students face-to-face. Phase I, Phase II, Phase III. Phase IV is on the horizon for post-Thanksgiving...on November 30," Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Menzer said Tuesday, November 10, 2020, detailing when middle school and some high school students were planned to return. "Over the past several weeks, though, we have seen an increase of use of our Colonial COVID protocols, and our colonial COVID teams coordination with DPH regarding quarantine of staff and students."
At the beginning of the school year, hopeful the district was on track to get everyone safely through the door, Menzer said their schools were seeing great success with their online offerings and, most importantly, significant engagement with the equipment they've provided to students.
Since the district closed at the start of the pandemic, Menzer said they've issue 10,931 internet-capable devices to students and families who needed them.
"We've been running the Colonial Virtual Academy since the start of the school year. I think a lot of the fanfare has been in place around bringing students back, face-to-face, but I think it's important to share...some data from our Virtual Academy that has been working very, very well for our families and students," he said. "Right now, our Chromebooks are averaging over 9,000 connections to the internet every day."
He also commended the district's IT managers who manage to keep the whole operation running in the face of a significant increase in the need for digital education.
"Not only is the the hardware and the instruction occurring, but we have an incredible depth of support for both our students and our families," Menzer said. "Our educational tech department has handled over 834 tickets from staff seeking support with these various learning platforms and instructional models. For staff, our IT department handled over 2074 IT tickets for hardware or programming issues...We've responded to over 2,300 IT tickets for parents and students in the community since the beginning of the pandemic. We do provide we provide tech support for our families with Chromebook replacement and repair, updates and maintenance."
And that support has provided teachers with the opportunity to engage in new and unanticipated ways.
"It's changing the dynamic of how students learn, and how teachers look at education," he said. "One of our pre-K teachers talked about how this is giving them an opportunity to not just engage with the student, but the entire family, around learning for the student."
While providing a reliable infrastructure, and seeing success through their efforts, there is also an electricity among teachers excited to see their students again, seated at their desks and ready to learn. While 60% of the district's families opted for a virtual option, they want to see the return of the students to their buildings.
"Virtual is working in Colonial. We feel confident in our teachers' and our families' ability to adapt to this troubling time," Menzer said, highlighting that Phase III began on November 9th, and the 40% of parents who opted for their child's in-person learning were returning to the classroom."
Colonial will continue to welcome students back as long as the situation remains viable, and the teachers are excited for the opportunity to see their young charges again.
"Staff [are] happy to see students and students happy to be in buildings. Our students, when they all came in, they get a COVID gift bag with a thermometer and a colonial kiddo mask...and frequently asked questions about COVID for parents," he said. "Staff, when they first come in, are excited but anxious. They're nervous. It is a fearful time, you can't deny that. I go back to that same building after the students have been there for a week. And they're like, 'This is the best thing in the world, I love this.'"
That experience is in danger now, as COVID-19 cases begin to tick upwards among a population exhausted with limiting their interpersonal interactions who are becoming more lax in their approach to social distancing and limits on gatherings.
"Although we have been notified of several positive cases among students and staff, the great majority of the quarantines have involved staff and students who are identified by DPH as being close contacts to a positive case," Menzer said. "We expect these conversations to increase in the coming months, given the uptick in COVID predicted by public health experts."
The district will continue to monitor the situation as it develops and adjust as needed. But Menzer urged all of the Colonial family to take COVID-19 seriously so all their good work didn't go to waste
"We're going to continue to urge all families, students, staff, and our parents to continue to follow the DPH and state guidelines around COVID," he said. "Be it mask-wearing, maintaining social distancing, hand-washing, and sanitizing, and then getting tested regularly for COVID, so you know your COVID status. All those things help us; they help you save this community."