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Tupelo High School students make their way into the new campus storm shelter and gymnasium before a pep rally. Students are set to return to campuses on Aug. 12.

TUPELO • Tupelo Public School District released a blueprint on Friday detailing steps for reopening schools for the 2020-21 school year in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The district partnered with the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) to develop the plan, which will follow CDC considerations in response to the virus as students return to school on Aug. 12.

TPSD Superintendent Dr. Rob Picou held a press conference on Friday morning to present the blueprint and address questions.

Picou said the biggest challenge in creating the plan was all the uncertainties involved. Guidance from local and state agencies changes constantly, and he stressed that more changes to the blueprint are to be expected over time.

There are two learning scenarios as schools reopen: a traditional schedule which requires students to be physically present in school with scheduling modifications to follow CDC and Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) recommendations, and a virtual schedule with instruction provided completely online through virtual delivery by TPSD staff.

K-2 students whose parents choose the traditional schedule will have self-contained classrooms with no team teaching and approximately 20 students in a class. Lawhon second grade will utilize team teaching.

Students in grades 3-5 whose parents choose the traditional schedule will also have self-contained classrooms, but team teaching will be incorporated with teachers moving from class to class and approximately 24 students in a class.

Students in grades 6-12 whose parents choose the traditional schedule will follow a block schedule. Secondary classrooms will accommodate CDC considerations for social distancing where feasible. Schedules will be created to minimize transition times between classes and facilitate controlled arrival and dismissal times.

The district is currently working to determine how many students will opt to do virtual learning, which will be important as principals work to create class schedules. Currently about 33% of parents district-wide have indicated that they are more comfortable with distance learning, but Picou said that may change as August approaches and they see how safe an environment the district has created.

“I hope that we get more students in school because I think that’s where students need to be,” Picou said. “And I think parents agree that’s where students need to be, but we just need to make sure that we have done everything that we can do to make school safe.”

Attendance will be required for students who attend traditional in-person classes and those who receive virtual instruction.

Intermittent closures are expected due to the virus and the blueprint says the “superintendent may be required to close a school or schools to prevent further spread.” Students will receive instruction online during such closures.

The issues involved with reopening schools are divided into four main topics in the blueprint: instruction, technology, health and safety and operations.

Instruction

Students will be provided with copies of textbooks and workbooks to use at home and school as a concurrent model of traditional instruction and distance learning are provided through Canvas, the district’s new learning management system. Parents will be provided with professional development on the instructional tools like Canvas, textbook resources and Chromebooks that will be used for instruction.

Early diagnostic screenings will be used to determine student readiness for grade level instruction as they return in August in order to adjust plans to accommodate them as needed.

School supplies will be provided for each student, students will face the same direction in desks or at tables, and group work or partner interactions in class will be limited.

Current grading, promotion and retention policies for TPSD will be followed.

Technology

WiFi extenders will allow access to the internet in one parking lot at each school for district-issued devices.

Every K-12 student will receive a Chromebook. More than 3,600 Chromebooks were purchased to replace older out-of-warranty Chromebooks and fulfill the district’s 1:1 initiative so that every student has a device. 2,000 additional chargers will be purchased for two different models of Chromebooks used in the district.

TPSD is researching several options to help with audio projection in the classroom to help teachers effectively communicate with students. The district is also looking into video enhancement that would allow for recorded lectures as well as live streaming of classes to provide effective virtual learning.

A system will be established to provide technical support and address issues and questions from parents.

Health and Safety

The district will share videos to educate families about health and safety protocols.

Traditional water fountains will be replaced with touchless fountains and bottle fill stations, and touchless hand soap, hand sanitizer machines, sinks and toilets will be installed.

Students will be “encouraged” to wear face masks/shields when social distancing is not possible, while staff will be “expected” to wear them when in direct contact with students.

In short, masks will be worn when “applicable and feasible,” Picou said. He explained that applicable means when you cannot achieve social distancing and with feasible, it’s not feasible to expect a third-grader to wear a mask all day.

“Teachers are going to have to use their discretion in terms of when it’s right to use the mask, when it’s appropriate to use the face covering and when it’s not,” Picou said. “Our first goal would be to achieve social distancing.”

When asked what will happen if a student or teacher refuses to wear a mask when social distancing isn’t possible, Picou said he’s “going to have to have faith in everyone’s willingness to do what’s right.”

“At this point in time I, like a lot of people in this community, am very afraid and I’m worried about the health and safety of the staff and the students,” Picou said.

Face shields and masks will be provided for all students and teachers.

The district will work with health agencies and community organizations to provide services to students and staff in the areas of mental and physical health as school starts, and there will be professional development in the area of social/emotional support.

Signage will be posted in high-traffic areas to explain how to stop the spread of COVID-19. They will cover symptoms, preventative measures, good hygiene and school/district-specific protocols.

TPSD will ensure that ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible. Guidelines will be created for parent visits, like scheduling office visits and not allowing parents to walk students to classrooms, etc.

Temperature screenings will be conducted by the district, but details are still in the works. Parents will be asked to take their child’s temperature daily prior to sending them to school, and if their child has a temperature of 100 degrees or higher, they must be kept home until they are fever free for 24 hours without fever reducing medicine.

Operations

In the area of food service, students will be allowed to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer machines before and after meals. There will be designated entry and exit paths in the cafeteria, and alternate models for food distribution will be used, like serving meals in the classroom. Disposable plates and utensils will be used.

In the area of transportation, students and bus drivers will be provided with hand sanitizer and face masks/shields. Buses will be cleaned and disinfected daily and after each route. Children will be spaced out on buses to allow for social distancing where feasible.

High-touch areas will be cleaned throughout each school before the opening of schools and each day when school starts.

Cafeterias may be repurposed as classrooms if needed to help address social distancing needs.

Nurses’ stations will be upgraded and janitorial staff will be increased. Additional equipment will be purchased for disinfecting schools, and additional furniture will be bought for teachers and classrooms to meet CDC guidelines.

While concluding Friday’s press conference, Picou thanked parents, principals, Tupelo’s medical community, the TPSD Board of Trustees, MDE, Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton and state legislators for their support and assistance as plans are developed for the fall semester.

Teachers will return to schools on Aug. 3 for staff development regarding Canvas and various aspects of the plan. School was originally scheduled to start on Aug. 10, but two days were moved to the end of the school year to allow for more prep time before students return to campus on Aug. 12.

Tupelo’s full reopening blueprint can be viewed at the following link: https://www.tupeloschools.com/fs/resource-manager/view/8fe19adb-72cb-4ad1-98dd-66f0e5ce7a91

blake.alsup@journalinc.com

Twitter: @AlsupTheWriter

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