Last week, the South Heart School Board approved its school district's detailed plan for reopening the school for the 2020-2021 school year.
In addition to outlining when and under what circumstances masks may be required, the plan also includes an altered schedule, changes to distance learning and seating charts.
"Our return to school committee put in a lot of hours and a lot of discussion," said Superintendent Calvin Dean. "And obviously, we put a great deal of value into the input that we received from our staff and our community, so I feel good about it. It was a very thorough process that we went through."
The district did not create a sweeping 'yes' or 'no' answer to the mandate of masks; instead, whether or not students will be asked to wear them depends on the situation.
"That is probably one of the toughest things that all schools have been dealing with, is masks ... Obviously, you have the guidance that comes from North Dakota Department of Health and the CDC ... but there is still a lot of varying opinion out there," Dean said. "There are experts out there that say that the masks are not effective, and you've heard experts say that they think it actually makes it worse because they're hot, they're uncomfortable. Students, especially younger students, are going to be constantly messing around with them and playing around with them, and that was a lot of the feedback that we got from our parents."
He said some parents wondered if wearing masks would be worse than not wearing them, as students may be touching their face or their mask to adjust it.
"Obviously, if things get worse, we're going to have to revisit that issue and maybe mandate masks at some point, but as we begin the school year, our intent is to allow it to be optional - with the exception of a choir scenario where you have a large number of students standing next to each other singing and projecting their voice," Dean said.
Students will be required to wear masks when singing in choir. Masks may also be mandated under a code yellow.
The COVID-19 threat level in the state is determined by the North Dakota Department of Health and is color-coded to indicate severity. Each school districts' plan includes a blue/green portion, yellow portion and orange/red portion.
"The entire state right now is one color, and there was discussion about having every county have their own color, but at this point, they're not going that direction, last time I heard. We felt that just because the entire state may be categorized as yellow, does that mean that our community and our school is impacted in that (way)," Dean said.
Some areas may be more heavily impacted than Stark County, but that won't necessarily be reflected in the state's color coding.
"If we get into a yellow category as a state, that's when our response team will get together, and we'll make a determination as to (whether) the yellow really apply to us; is it more of an issue that's happening in other areas of the state; and then make a decision about masks at that time," Dean said.
In the mornings, students will immediately go to their first classroom where their temperatures will be taken as they wait for school to start. Students with a temperature above 100.4 may be asked to leave after their temperature is retaken and verified.
In the past, South Heart Public School has operated on a 7-period schedule. Beginning last semester during the quarantine, it moved to an 8-period schedule which it divided into four blocks on alternating days.
Students will attend their 1st through 4th period classes on Mondays and Wednesdays and their 5th through 8th period classes Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The change in schedule allows for less movement among students and for less frequent deep cleaning of classrooms, in which contact surfaces such as doorknobs and desks will be sanitized in between each class.
"When we do want a break between classes, we're only doing it three times a day, and we can do a better job of cleaning the classroom in between to get it prepped for the next class coming in," Dean said.
Students will have a seating chart on the bus, in the lunch room and in the classroom.
"Anywhere we can establish a seating chart - to the best of our ability - we feel might help keep the same students near the same students on a daily basis, but also it helps with contract tracing with Southwestern District Health Unit in the event that they have to do that as well," Dean said.
Fridays will be reserved for what the district is calling Distance Education Fridays. Students attending school face-to-face will learn at home, virtually, on these days.
The district is giving its students the option of coming to school for face-to-face instruction or remaining at home and distancing learning.
Students who choose distance learning may receive extra help from their teachers on Fridays.
"Our staff would be able to devote that entire day to reaching out to those families that are choosing the distance education delivery method and/or having the additional ... prep time ... but basically they're either preparing for those classes or they're working with those students directly," Dean said.
Regardless of which the student and their family chooses, all students will be trained on online learning management systems in the first 2-3 weeks of school. These systems will be used by students who chose distance learning and will be used by all students in the event of a code orange/red, in which the governor could mandate statewide school closure like it did last spring.
Students who opt to attend school virtually this year will still be expected to maintain their class schedule.
"As much as we possibly can, we are going to have them live in the room, virtually. Sometimes, based on the grade level or subject level, it may not be possible to do a live feed to everybody that's home, but basically those students are in-school, Monday through Thursday, from home," Dean said.
Since the student body will be learning from home on Fridays, students who chose to learn virtually may be more apt to come in to the school to seek assistance from their teachers when needed, Dean suggested.
For more information about the district's plan, see their website under Back to School Information.