The Grain Valley School Board voted during their October 15th business meeting to extend the hybrid learning model for secondary students through the end of the first semester. In a 5-2 vote, the board approved the current plan continue through January 22, 2021. Through the hybrid model, secondary level students attend in-person classes two days per week and remotely from home three days per week. Early childhood and elementary students will continue with full in-person instruction with a 100% virtual option.
During the patron comment portion of the meeting, approximately 10 district patrons shared their opinions and personal experiences with the board. The majority of those who spoke indicated a preference to continue with the hybrid model, citing safety concerns and the positive aspects of the hybrid model (including smaller class sizes, smaller course load). Those voicing concern over the hybrid model pointed to a drop in motivation among some students, the stress parents face attempting to assist students with schoolwork while also juggling work and home responsibilities, and the lack of a consistent schedule for special education and other struggling students.
Grain Valley parent Jason Williams voiced support for the resumption of full in-person learning, pointing to concerns over the struggles special needs students experience being removed from class and related supports on a daily basis.
“I fear that years down the road, we are going to look back, and studies are going to be done, and it will show we are hurting our kids more by keeping them at home. We know the risks, but I think parents can weigh that risk and determine if they want to send their kids to school or not,” Williams said.
Grain Valley Schools Superintendent Marc Snow presented data from parent and secondary staff surveys conducted to gauge each population’s comfort with extending the hybrid model or ending it after the first quarter.
151 6th -12th grade teachers completed the survey, with 86% indicating a preference to continue with the hybrid model.
760 high school parents responded, with 51.25% stated they would prefer full in-person classes, but 25.66% of families would have their students enrolled as virtual students if only in-person and virtual were offered. This represents a potential increase of 14.83% compared to those enrolled virtually in the first quarter. 90.28% of families responding to the survey would stay with hybrid if hybrid and virtual were the only options.
At the middle school level, 771 middle school parents responded, with 59.61% of families preferring full in-person learning. 90.77% of middle school respondents would stay with hybrid or transfer from virtual to hybrid, if hybrid and virtual were the only options.
Snow pointed to fill rates for substitutes, indicating the percentage of substitutes who were able to cover staff absences reduced from 85% in mid-September to 79% the week of October 5-9.
Snow also mentioned 14 of 18 area districts reported they will continue with some version of hybrid instruction in the second quarter.
Board member Jeff Coleman made his position clear at the outset, stating he would vote against the continuation of the hybrid model. While voicing his support for the teachers and their concerns, he expressed his belief that students are “more resilient” and recover more quickly from COVID-19 than more vulnerable populations.
“We as people go out to the grocery store, we go out to eat, we do all the things that we have to do. Our parents are having to go to work,” Coleman said.
Referring to a pediatric counselor who testified before the board a few months ago, Coleman referred to the belief that “it is of greater risk not to come to school than it is to come to school with the possibility of contracting COVID. I applaud those teachers who have kids in school that are cruising along and have good successes, but not everybody is in that category,” Coleman said.
“We have to get back to some similarity of what regular life is again and as teachers, I do want to keep you safe,” Coleman said.
Citing multiple comments made by parents regarding the particular struggles of special needs students, English inquired what plans the district administration is considering to attend to their needs.
Referencing the board’s initial decision to proceed with the hybrid model at the start of the school year, English stated, “We did what we thought was the greatest good at the time. I truly believe that it is working. But I’m hearing from families here that they are hurting. There are things that are going on in their homes related to education that have them frustrated. Is there anything else that we can do as an administration and as a district to reach those kids. What can we do to reach that percent (of struggling students) that we’re not currently doing,” English asked.
“I think this is something that we need to chew on, or we’re going to find ourselves in unchartered waters again here in a few months trying to make the same decision.”
“That last question is something I asked of our cabinet earlier today,” Snow said. “What are the answers we can give to parents who say ‘my kid is struggling’. We need to continue to talk about that.”
“What I’m looking for as a board member is a plan. I want to see that strategy in writing so that I can hold that up and show it to patrons and teachers and say ‘here’s what we need to see as a group to really bring kids back to school’,” English said.
Snow provided his opinion on the best course of action before the board vote.
“I’ve never been a person who’s thrived on conflict, so I don’t like the fact that this has divided our community and our board. As Superintendent, I have tried not to make any decisions that are politically driven, and I believe my decisions need to have one thing in mind, and that is what is right for the kids. Those decisions for kids need to factor in the educational, mental, emotional, and health needs of kids. To be honest, I have had a difficult time deciding what my recommendation is going to be,” Snow said.
“As an educator, I have to believe that everyone who teaches or has taught thinks the best place for kids to be is in the classroom on a full time basis. In a perfect world, that would certainly be the case. Unfortunately, we are not currently living in a perfect world. Our world has dealt us an unfair hand to play, and in our world we have health and safety concerns that we must not disregard.”
Snow pointed to the constant upheaval staff is feeling with ongoing quarantines of staff and students, “disrupting the classroom environment”.
Snow continued, “We are barely, and I emphasize barely, keeping up with our ability to properly staff our schools. I’m concerned that doubling the number of students in our secondary school classrooms will double that impact.”
“Although it brings me no pleasure to do so, I believe the right thing to do right now is to continue with the hybrid learning model for the secondary students through at least the second quarter. That said, I do not have a vote, and that decision is ultimately up to this board,” Snow said.
The Board proceeded to approve Snow’s recommendation 5-2, with Jeff Coleman and Tisha Homfeld voting against continuing the hybrid plan.
In an email announcing the decision, the district outlined gating criteria for returning students to the classroom full-time, including:
Total new cases per 100,000 in Eastern Jackson County falling below 200. The rate is currently 215.
The Positivity rate in Eastern Jackson County trending below 10%. The positivity rate is currently at 15.05%.
In other business, Snow reported the board will consider refunding of 2016 and 2017 bonds during its November meeting, with a potential savings of $1.5 million. Snow also reported the district will receive $167,000 in funding from Jackson County through the CARES Act to offset expenses related to COVID-19, including hot spots, cleaning supplies, and bottle fillers at water fountains.
Snow reported the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is distributing rapid COVID-19 tests, enabling districts to test symptomatic students and staff in 15 minutes. The district applied for 5,000 testing kits and has 5 district nurses who can administer tests.
Dr. Brad Welle, Deputy Superintendent of Student and Community Services, reported the Grain Valley Education Foundation has raised $850,000 since 2010.
Dr. Beth Mulvey, Assistant Superintendent of Academic Services, reported the board will consider middle school math curriculum during its November meeting.
The board will meet for a regular board meeting on November 19, 2020.