OSWEGO — Oswego schools administrators are finalizing details on plans to return middle and high school students to in-person instruction, which was halted by a surge in COVID-19 cases at the end of last year, as the respective mid-February and March return dates draw near.
Elementary students attending Oswego City School District (OCSD) schools returned to a hybrid learning model at the start of February, and option extended to families who opted into face-to-face classes in a survey conducted by the district in 2020.
The return to in-person instruction echoes concerns from some families and educators who argued the importance of reclaiming a sense of normalcy is imperative for students’ education. However, an alarming upsurge in local COVID-19 cases — which county health authorities and district leaders have attributed to a rise in mass gatherings starting in late October last year — placed health and safety roadblocks along the way.
“Wherever possible, we want to make sure we are returning our students to normalcy however we can do that,” OCSD Superintendent Mathis Calvin III told The Palladium-Times in a Friday interview. “Things are different because of the pandemic, and kids really need that sense of familiarity brought back to the learning experience as possible.”
Part of the district’s focus in reinstating a known school experience to students lies in instilling a feeling of support, Calvin added.
“It entails academic integration support, social and emotional support, it entails making sure the students who need counseling support receive it,” he said. “We want our students to be safe, have a rigorous educational experience, as much normalcy for them as possible, and we want to make sure they are well supported when they return to school.”
The district, Calvin noted, is taking reintegration efforts as collective endeavors, enlisting the help of educators, students, administrators, parents, support staff and health officials to devise reopening plans for its facilities. Next in line for reopening is Oswego Middle School (OMS), which officials said will accommodate for in-person instruction starting Feb. 22
“Safety is our (top) priority when returning your child to OMS,” wrote Principal Mary Beth Fierro in a letter sent to parents in late January. “All safety guidelines for daily screening forms and reports, temperature checking, social distancing, mask wearing and hand-washing are part of our plan.”
Fierro’s working group of stakeholders met “multiple times per week” over the course of January, and expect to deliver a finalized reopening strategy by Feb. 8.
In her letter, Fierro detailed the tenets of the potential plan, which includes a hybrid option that could see some students return to OMS for two days a week — from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. — with the rest of the school week dedicated to virtual learning. Services such as lunch and breakfast, currently expected to be served in-classroom, are also part of the school’s plan, as well as transportation services with full social distancing guidelines in place. The plan also notes school schedules will remain the same for students.
Oswego High School (OHS) students are scheduled to return in early March, according to the district’s high school reopening plan shared through a letter distributed to stakeholders in late January.
“We are all living with many new changes,” OHS Principal Patrick Wallace wrote in the letter. “The new year brings promise and hope. I have every confidence that our students, staff, faculty and community will continue to embrace these changes with creativity, patience and an open mind.”
Consistent with OMS’ plan, the high school reopening strategy includes breakfast, lunch and transportation services, and requires students to adhere to social distancing practices when moving from classroom to classroom. Students who decide to attend in-person instruction will be in school facilities for two days out of the week, with the rest of instruction taking place virtually, the plan states. The district will require students to wear masks while in school buildings and will provide masks for students, according to the reopening announcement.
Both OMS and OHS plans also include counselors with open availability for social and emotional support. OMS will also reserve Wednesdays as “Wellness Wednesdays,” an asynchronous learning day that includes “one-on-one meetings with educators, small group instruction, and check-ins with students,” per the plan’s announcement letter.
The return of elementary school students into hybrid instruction also ushered in a short-term livestreaming pilot program, which Calvin said could help alleviate challenges faced with elementary students during isolated periods of online instruction. The program uses the Google Classroom program to host virtual sessions delivered by teachers in real time, according to the pilot’s guidelines provided by the district. The program — which is also going to be implemented with OMS and OHS students upon reopening — is set to deliver the same lecture to students at home and in the class room, and runs through the course of a normal school week excluding Wednesdays, according to district guidelines.
“We feel that our students will benefit from more live instruction throughout the week from their assigned teachers as we move forward through this pandemic,” Calvin said.
Some of the expected outcomes from the program, Calvin added, include more instructional consistency and continuity, reducing asynchronous learning for students, which community members and administrators have been reluctant to embrace. Students who opted to be fully remote learners in the district survey will not participate in the pilot, according to Calvin.
Implementing new programs and reintegration strategies will also push the district toward data-driven benchmarks of evaluation, the superintendent said.
“In terms of measuring success, the district will use qualitative and quantitative data,” he said. “We will look at student outcomes that students demonstrate, whether that is through testing or outcomes for the different rubrics that we use and internal qualitative data systems.”
Student samples and classroom observations will also be part of the analysis process, Calvin added.
“We will listen to what our parents are saying to us, and we will be looking broadly at what the students are demonstrating,” he said.
The superintendent also described the current state of the pandemic as a “time like no other.”
“We are building the plane while we are flying it. All districts are,” Calvin concluded. “As we move forward, each lesson learned, we use data to drive every decision made by the district. When things go well, we learn from them and we try to add and do more. When they don’t go well, we learn from that and we correct those areas and move forward in a better way for our students.”