Students are returning to the classroom this week and next, and things are looking a lot differently than they did at the start of last year.

Schools start Tuesday, and ‘kids can be kids’ again

Jarek Rutz Headlines, Education

Students are returning to the classroom this week and next, and things are looking a lot differently than they did at the start of last year.

Students are returning to the classroom this week and next, and things are looking a lot differently than they did at the start of last year.

Caesar Rodney School District students will be the first to return to school this fall, heading back on Tuesday, Aug. 23.

Others such as Colonial start next week, but the majority head back after Labor Day.

For the first time since March 2020, the spectre of COVID-19 will be shoved into the coat closet and largely left there.

“Kids can be kids and teachers can be teachers again,” said Dr. Jeff Menzer, superintendent of Colonial School District.

Some things will change, thanks to education-focused bills from the just-ended 151st Delaware General Assembly, but there’s been no back-to-school tirades about masks, no requirements for COVID-19 testing and no demand that desks spread six feet apart.

“I think you’re gonna see this year more of a renewed, reenergized group of educators who are committed to students,” Menzer said.

The state published its 11-page guide on managing COVID in schools this year, but with virtually no restrictions or requirements inside the classrooms.

The Education Department’s guide encourages school districts to “promote” vaccination, but there is no requirement, nor will there be in-school testing. 

If a student is exposed to COVID, they do not have to quarantine or stay home from school.

The guide recommends that an exposed student wears a mask for 10 days and gets tested at least five days after their last exposure. 

There is only one COVID-related requirement heading into the school year.

“Students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 should report the positive test results to their school nurse or COVID coordinator and isolate for five days regardless of vaccination status,” the Education Department’s guide read

“On day 6 after the positive test or symptoms started to appear, the student or staff member can exit isolation if they have had no fever for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medications) and other COVID-19 symptoms are improving.”

Students or staff who test positive must also wear a mask for five days after exiting isolation.

“Classrooms look like they did three years ago,” Menzer said. “Desks are there, there’s flexible seating and furniture, there’s tables where two or more kids are sitting next to each other, and the social distancing stickers are no longer on the floors.”

He said he feels a real buzz from teachers to custodians to bus drivers, who seem to feel like a sense of normalcy has returned.

Watching teachers set up their classrooms has sparked an energy that underscores that feeling, he said.

“Philosophically, COVID knocked us on our backside, but we are looking up now,” he said. “We’re getting back up and we’re energized. We’re ready to go.” 

Education Secretary Mark Holodick said recent legislation will affect classrooms in many ways, from mental health support to Black history to readings.

“There are a number of other really impactful statutes,” he said. “This has been an incredibly busy, active legislative session in education.”

Here are some of the bills the secretary highlighted: 

Mental health services

School districts will receive part of the $14,837,972 funding to hire more counselors and others to help handle students’ mental health issues.

That will increase every year for the next two years until it reaches $22,151,592 in 2025.

“We know that when students struggle with mental health, that it often if not almost always impacts their behavior in school,” Holodick said, “and so getting to the root of those challenges and behaviors is critically important.”

Districts can choose how to spend the money.

“It takes a little time for you to navigate where and when the dollars are going to be released and how you’re going to be able to utilize them,” Colonial’s Menzer said, “so we’re really still early on in assessing the direction we’re going to take.”

He said Colonial has used some of its money to hire two additional mental professionals and will spend some of the money to hire more Communities in Schools workers. 

Those workers track students who have behavioral or academic issues and work with them, their families and their teachers to get and keep them on track. That program is credited with raising the number and rate of Colonial students who graduate.

Holodick said the support is especially important in the wake of COVID-19.

“It brings needed support, at any point, but especially as we emerge from this pandemic, having the additional support is really, really important,” Holodick said. 

Black history curriculum

Classroom instruction will now include contemporary events in discussions of Black history, while requiring schools to implement and teach a curriculum that’s focused on this history. 

Holodick said the Department of Education has spent the last year developing resources, working with New York University’s Metro Center, Delaware State University, the University of Delaware and others.

That history will be spread throughout classes, including civics, U.S. history, economics and geography at every grade level. 

District officials will come to Dover for professional development to make sure districts and schools are ready.

Delaware also is piloting the first Advanced Placement African American Studies course at Odyssey Charter, where it will be taught by Melissa Tracy. Advanced Placement classes allow students to earn college credit, if they score high enough on year-end tests.

Tracy’s course is one of 63 piloted throughout the country this year.

It allows students to explore key topics from early African kingdoms to the ongoing challenges and achievements of today, focusing on the diversity of Black communities in the United States and the African diaspora. 

If the courses go well, the College Board, which runs the AP programs, plans to fully launch the course in fall 2024. 

In Colonial, Menzer said, “There is a supervisor of curriculum instruction who has been spearheading that work and has been actually following the template and the outline that has been put out there by the state. We embraced it, and we are fortunate that we had already embraced a lot of the tenants of it.”

Reading competency and the science of reading 

Not only is the state Department of Education working on a list of material that local schools can choose from to teach according to the science of reading, but students in kindergarten through third grade will now have three new tests each year.

Those screenings are designed to spot any issues as early as possible and help students get the help they need to continue progressing.

Recently published test scores show just 42% of Delaware students meeting grade level reading standards, with minority and disabled students generally scoring much lower.. 

“The release of our statewide assessment data is concerning,” Holodick said. “That learning loss is really important, but what’s also very important is that we as a state sustain improvements through the science of reading and this package of bills, if both implemented effectively, has the potential to really improve outcomes for kids.”

The science of reading follows brain research that shows how students learn to read. Its six essential components include phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, text comprehension and oral language.

He said that COVID set schools back, but it also exposed areas where the state and its districts needed to improve, bringing those issues to the forefront of the education world. 

“Out of the gate, we’re ready to really engage with each other and embrace bringing students back so that they’re feeling great to be back in school.”

 

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