As positive cases of COVID-19 trend up in states across the U.S., school districts in Iowa including Vinton-Shellsburg plan the return of students this fall and what that may look like given different scenarios.

“Recently, we completed three different surveys — family, sixth through 12th grade students and staff — asking about living conditions, access to food, mental health and how the pandemic has affected them,” Vinton-Shellsburg Superintendent Kyle Koeppen said. “We also asked about how learning went during the school closure and got some valuable feedback.”

After collecting this data, the school district formed a district leadership team composed of school building leaders and broke down into subcommittees devoted to health and safety, infrastructure, social/emotional support, special education and standards assessments. The teams looked at guidelines from the Iowa Department of Education and the American Academy of Pediatrics to form recommendations to the school board.

“Our goal is to be back face-to-face with mitigation strategies in play,” Koeppen said.

These mitigation strategies hand sanitizer in every classroom, kaivac cleaning machines, electro-static disinfectant for cleaning large areas (buses, rooms), personal protective equipment provided to all students and staff members, and each building will implement their own strategies based on the ages they teach. Students will be physically distant when possible, yet face coverings will be necessary at “appropriate times” such as potentially riding the school bus or assemblies. An extra shuttle bus to Shellsburg will be provided in the 2020-21 school year to accommodate the changes, according to Koeppen.

“We’re also looking at how to mitigate hallway passing time and keeping kids in cohorts as much as possible,” Koeppen said. “When you think about elementary it’s a lot easier because you can stay within that class. At the high school and middle school levels, there’s been some really neat ideas from teachers around scheduling. They could change scheduling to try to keep kids together. We need a lot of input from our teachers to be able to finalize those plans.”

Koeppen stated that plans may change quickly if the state were to come down with new restrictions over the course of the next few months or during the school year. According to the survey results, teachers made a “loud and clear” statement they were not prepared to teach remotely. Through Grant Wood AEA, V-S teachers will receive remote teaching training over the summer in lue of traditional professional development.

The new superintendent reiterated that in-person learning was the preference and online-only learning would be implemented if the school were to be closed again for an extended period of time.

“This would mean we are experiencing community spread and the virus is a lot more aggressive in Benton County than it is currently,” Koeppen said. “Benton County has been fortunate to have fewer cases than in surrounding communities. We have a hybrid model consisting of two groups. Group A would be in the classrooms on Monday and Tuesday, Group B on Thursday and Friday, while Wednesday is a sanitizing day between. This would be very hard on teachers and parents/guardians alike, so this would be our least preferred option.”

The federal government is providing funds to pay for the PPE and extra sanitizing equipment this school year. Summer high school athletes are currently competing in shortened seasons under guidelines from the Iowa Department of Public Health. The Department of Education recently gave the green light for strength training at schools to begin on July 1. As of publication, Vinton-Shellsburg has not begun any such programs.

“Our staff is working very hard to provide as many mitigation strategies as possible to make school safe coming back for all staff and students,” Koeppen said. “We really need to prepare for each scenario and be able to pivot, one way or the other. But our goal is to have students back at school.”

This is a developing story and Vinton Newspapers will provide updates as they are made available.