ORLEANS — When you were in grade school, did your teacher ever tell you to stop looking out the window? Next month, that childhood urge to be outdoors will be put to good use as Orleans Elementary School reopens during an ongoing pandemic.
“We do anticipate even in the cooler weather we’ll have windows open,” Principal Elaine Pender told the elementary school committee Aug. 13. “We expect to have to adjust and wear warmer clothes, and use outdoor spaces as much as possible.”
Unlike the regional middle and high schools, which will offer two days in school and three days of remote learning in rotation, along with the option of full-week remote learning, the elementary school will not offer that hybrid: parents will select either in-school or remote learning for their children. The committee voted unanimously last week to support the plan.
As of Friday, a survey showed a significant majority of the school’s families opting for in-school learning. The projected enrollment is Kindergarten 19, first grade 24, second 32, third 34, fourth 37, and fifth 37, though this is expected to change by September.
Pender said OES is “set up really nicely” to respond to the new protocols. “Our school has 22 classrooms, each with a working sink and direct access to the outdoors. We’re fortunate not to have rooms that are interior rooms.”
Kindergarten and first grade classes can be accommodated in two sections, whereas older grades may require three to keep classes small. “The idea is to create small cohorts so we can provide six feet of distancing and readily use outdoor space as needed through the day,” Pender said, “not just for recess, but for reading groups, small-group mask breaks, full group instruction.”
The inside/outside regimen will begin as soon as students arrive in the morning. “With supervision from education assistants, they’ll go right to their outside door,” said Pender. “They will not go into the building first. Everyone will wear a mask, and there will be opportunities for mask breaks.” Desks will be six feet apart, “and all non-essential furniture has been removed. We want to be certain that there’s room for movement for children. We know that space is our friend.”
Specialist teachers will come to the students rather than the other way around, and when it’s time to go elsewhere in the building, outside paths will be used. Pender is looking into setting up some covered areas outside the classrooms.
All students will be given an iPad to use at school and home, and they will bring their own supplies with no sharing.
Students whose families want them to learn remotely will be assigned to a teacher “and expected to attend class every day,” Pender said. “Their engagement is expected. There’ll be an opportunity every day to join live instruction,” but that will be limited.
“Parents will be provided with information and education to be partners with us during remote learning,” said Pender. “Teachers will have all the information necessary for students to work remotely, and tech and support counselors will be working to support children at home.” If families want to switch from remote to in-school, there will be a transition period of several weeks.
Parent comments at the Aug. 13 meeting ranged from appreciation for having the building reopened for a full week of instruction to concern about cleaning and health protocols to protect children who haven’t been outside a family bubble for months. OES school nurse Mary Ellen Reed, who’s also the lead nurse for the Nauset system, responded to questions.
She said children who are identified as close contacts — having come within six feet — of a student or staff member who tested positive for the virus for at least 15 minutes within the last 48 hours “would need to self-isolate or quarantine for a period of 14 days.” Asked what that would mean for other family members, possibly including students, she said the board of health had advised that would have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis including checking symptoms.
Reed said it will be “tricky” to distinguish between the virus and the general flu or cold, but added that school nurses will have a full day of training to allow them to make the proper distinctions. “Our nurses will have a very conservative approach in terms of allowing students to stay in school versus sending them home out of an abundance of caution,” she said.
Superintendent Tom Conrad noted that the system’s upcoming eight days of training will result in “all our staff understanding protocols for keeping everyone healthy in our buildings.” He said he expected health, cleaning and other protocols to be posted on the system’s website this week. Conrad has been conferring with a Cape Cod Hospital physician on how to set up a weekly testing program for staff, particularly at the beginning of the year. He said the doctor has discouraged the idea of any overall plan for testing the student body but offered to talk with him again after committee member Ginger Marks said she wanted more details.
As of last week, about 50 parents had yet to state their preference for all in-school or all-remote learning for their children. Conrad and the committee urged them to respond as soon as possible. The superintendent said bus routes are being planned with a loss of about 65 percent of seating capacity due to COVID protocols, and he’s hopeful that parents will use the survey to let the system know how many families need transportation and how many can take their children to school. He said there will be volunteer monitors on the buses to help students maintain safe distances and masking.
“I realize this is a very, very difficult decision,” Pender said of families having to choose between five days a week in-school or all-remote learning. “No one can take it lightly. Whatever decision you make is right for you. We will support you. Your child is part of everything we do. We are doing everything we possibly can to make a happy, wonderful experience in a very different world of school and be as cautious and careful as we can.”