In an effort to find and fix potential problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, about 30 St. Helena Parish teachers, school leaders, parents and community members took part in a simulated school day last week.
They were picked up on a school bus from their homes, sat in classrooms, ate lunch and had recess.
“We made a decision to take all the things in our plans and bring it to life,” Superintendent Kelli Joseph said.
A debrief at the end of the day identified some common concerns. Teachers were hesitant to touch students’ supplies brought from home. Staff wondered where to keep students who were showing temperature or other potential COVID-19 symptoms until their parent or family member could pick them up.
Based on the trial run, officials are already making changes. They plan to outfit bus drivers with two thermometers in case one malfunctions while checking the temperatures of each onboarding student during a route, Joseph said.
St. Helena Parish’s return-to-school plan is similar to many other districts in that parents will have the choice to complete school virtually or through a blended model of online learning and physical instruction.
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Those attending school through the blended model will rotate on a week-to-week basis and siblings will be aligned so they’re attending school on the same weeks.
Parent Teacher Organization President Tiffany Patterson took part in the simulation with her kids. While she was nervous at first about sending her five children to school, she’s now comfortable with the district’s plan.
She said physically walking through the distanced lines in the hallway, having her temperature checked multiple times and sitting six feet apart in the classroom helped eased her mind.
With two first graders, a third grader, a sixth grader and an 11th grader, it was the little ones especially she worried about.
“I was thinking, 'what if they forget to wash their hands or something,' but actually being a student on that (simulation) day getting on the bus and seeing how it works, it made me think we’re going to be fine,” she said.
St. Helena Parish is a 2-1 district, meaning each student has a laptop at home and one at school. That will minimize the back-and-forth of supplies, Joseph said.
Students will eat lunch from grab and go packages and buses will be loaded in from the back and out from the front so nobody passes each other.
"We don't want to make the kids feel like they're in prison or so restricted they can't do anything," Joseph said.
She said educators have been researching safe social distancing activities for recess like jump rope.
Water fountains will be covered and bottled water will be given to students to further reduce the number of high-contact points, a concern highlighted after the simulation day.
“Why not be nervous, right? But I feel like if we’re practicing hand washing and social distancing we’ll be okay,” Patterson said. “We have to do our part as parents, too. I encourage hand washing and sanitizing at home and when we go outside I tell them they need to wear masks all the time and keep hand sanitizer in their book bags.”