"Certainly, the most important thing that we do in state government is educate our young children and prepare them for a bright future. [It's] a very challenging situation that we're facing."
Governor John Carney announced Tuesday during his weekly novel coronavirus COVID-19 update that educational institutions will be permitted, currently, to open in the "yellow" phase of the school reopening plan, which features a hybridization of in-person and virtual learning opportunities.
"Schools may reopen under scenario two, which is the yellow," Carney said. "It's a hybrid of mixed in-person and remote learning, so some students who will continue to learn at home with material...and then a mix of students who are coming to school--mostly, as we've talked to the school districts, mostly elementary school children, where the evidence is that the risk of infection is much less."
Officials will look at three data sets to determine in which phase schools should be placed. New cases per 100,000 residents, new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents, and percent positive rates will all be used to determine whether schools can continue to safely remain open. Any two metrics falling into a single category will determine under which phase schools reopen, with tie-breakers for a single metric in each colored phase going to the "yellow" designation.
As part of his approved plan, free COVID-19 testing will be provided by the state for school staff prior to the school year beginning, and will continue at regular intervals following the start of the year. Additionally, sites focused on testing students will be set up at schools throughout the state in the weeks prior to the start of school.
"What we'll be offering to teachers and staff is done in the home, it's done electronically, it's done through a zoom call where after students, staff and teachers receive a code, they insert that code into the computer, a prepaid UPS envelope arrives at their home, they perform the test through that Zoom call with both staff and physicians, then they drop that kit back into a UPS dropbox, UPS location, and the results will be sent to them in 48 to 72 hours by both text and email," said Division of Public Health Chief Physician Dr. Rick Pescatore. "What we'll also be doing is providing a setup such that about 25% of those teachers will be tested each week to target that once-a-month testing available for teachers. I think that it's really important. We've talked a lot about all the different legs of the stool that go into safety, to ensuring that we can get people back into school safely. Testing is an important component of that school it's an important leg of that."
Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting said the challenge they've faced hasn't just been about how to get teachers and kids back into the classroom and to do it safely, but also to try and find a way to provide all those services that orbit a child's education.
"We also want to accent the need for the delivery of not just instruction through the technological devices and the internet, but also the support that our students need," she said. "We're talking about related services for our special needs students; we're talking about mental health supports for our students; work the guidance counselor's do; work that our social and emotional support personnel do. So there are many things that we need to be working on with our students in addition to what they're academically, able to do, and being challenged to do."
While monitoring criteria which will dictate when and how schools continue to operate, Delaware Division of Public Health State Medical Director Dr. Rick Hong said he understood not every institution is the same, and there would be some flexibility to how districts approached their individual educational plans.
"If schools feel they cannot provide a safe environment for their teachers, staff, and students, they can opt to be more restrictive, which would be scenario three, which will be remote learning 100%," he said. "However, at this time, we would not recommend going the other direction, to scenario one, and provide 100% in-person learning, based on what we're seeing the state at this time."
There's no state-imposed limit on how many people can be in schools.
"As long as they are able to meet the social distancing recommendations, the infection control measures--that's really going to determine the census of the schools," said Hong.
Parents and students conducting self-assessments at home will be an integral part of the school system functioning safely for everyone, as will be face coverings for any students present in the classroom in grades 4-12. Face coverings are recommended for students in kindergarten through third grades. For those learning remotely, one of the most important things will be attendance.
"What is attendance when you can't see the child in front of you each day?" Bunting asked. "Ultimately, that's going to be something that the districts have to decide how they will do it. Obviously if the child is in school, or not in school, you can see them. If it's a remote situation, will there be a way of knowing the child is participating?"
Districts have been polling parents on their preference--virtual or in-person learning.
"Parents have had a strong voice, and they will continue to have a voice and have choice," said Bunting.
Districts are also working with staff members and the Delaware State Education Association to address issues among staff who may be immunocompromised or in higher risk categories.
"Naturally, we need to take a count of people of whatever age that do have challenges, physically, or other reasons that they could not be there. They also might be someone who could become a remote learning teacher on a regular basis, so staffing decisions will have to be made locally as well," said Bunting.
Carney said accommodations would be made for those educators.
"It's a district-by-district contractual kind of thing, but the idea is to recognize the special circumstances and make some accommodation within that contractual relationship," he said.
Carney said he understands educators' concerns.
"Teachers need to feel comfortable that it's safe. In all the teachers' groups, and individual teachers, and others that I've spoken with they've all said that they're eager to get back into their classrooms with their children on a face-to-face basis as long as it's safe to do, and that why I think it's our job, my job as governor, the job of the folks of the Division of Public Health to show that we can do it, and we can do it in a safe way so that teachers, and staff, educators have the confidence to go back into the classroom," he said. "I think the way that each of the school districts are doing it--gradually--to think through and to implement the protections that are being recommended by public health; I think our effort to test all educators as they go back into schools to periodically test them, as well as children, will help give teachers, parents, and everybody the level of comfort that is necessary to make this successful."
WDEL's Amy Cherry contributed to this report.