SHELBY — Student field trips to Florida, Texas and possibly Europe. Securing Wi-Fi hotspots. Student achievement/state test score results. Finalizing the location of the 2022 Shelby High School graduation location. Homecoming. Planning for the future Shelby Whippets athletic complex.
They are separate topics linked by a single theme: the uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which is more than 18 months old.
Discussions about coronavirus and related issues such as masks, student illnesses and labor-intensive contact tracing dominated this month’s meeting of the Shelby Board of Education on Sept. 20.
When officials changed topics, discussions about the impact of the coronavirus followed. No one expressed surprise. This is the third academic year in a row impacted by the pandemic, which forced extended school closures in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years in Shelby.
“This whole thing is just so difficult for everyone,” School Board President Lorie White said at one point in the wide-ranging discussions.
“Unfortunately, this is just going to be an up and down battle,” she said later.
“We’re all just hoping,” Mrs. White also said as the district monitors case data.
Superintendent Tim Tarvin reported that district officials have indicated that quarantine cases are "really the most challenging part of their job right now.”
“For instance today (Sept. 20), nine out at the high school, 15 at the middle school, 17 at Auburn, 14 at Dowds, and we’ve got a number of kids quarantined at the pre-school, as well,” Tarvin said of Little Whippets.
“Trying to keep those kids current with the curriculum is a challenge,” he said.
Tarvin spoke of Shelby’s optional mask policy and coronavirus cases. “There’s no raw data to support what I’m going to say, but my guess is that our numbers will continue to fluctuate,” he said. “Hopefully they won’t fluctuate too high.”
After Shelby schools closed on Friday, Sept. 3 ahead of the Labor Day weekend, coronavirus numbers trended downward from 38 (all students) at that time to 11 (8 students and 3 staff) on Sept. 20.
“There’s nothing to say we could walk in tomorrow or by the end of the week and our numbers have become elevated again,” Tarvin said, adding that the district has options.
A mask mandate and remote learning were mentioned.
“I’ll speak for (Assistant Superintendent) Paul (Walker) and the building principals in here, from previous discussions we know we do not want to go to remote learning unless that’s an absolute necessity,” Tarvin quickly added.
“Data supports that in-person learning is certainly more effective and more positive for students,” Tarvin continued. “Worst-case scenario we would go to a mask mandate and maybe even a targeted mask mandate depending on what building is elevated, and if that didn’t work, then we would consider something else.”
In telling families to keep ill children at home and not send them to school regardless of the illness, Tarvin noted the change that the pandemic era has brought to the issue.
“We appreciate that work ethic that our community has that ‘No, you’re going to school unless you’re in the bathroom getting physically sick…’ Well right now we’re in a place in society where we can’t afford to do that,” Tarvin said.
Mrs. White shared her observations and mentioned Homecoming. “We have a fair number of kids who are wearing their masks voluntarily whether it’s their coaches who are encouraging them or they don’t want to lose their Homecoming dance,” she said. “I applaud kids for that, for having that foresight. Good for them.”
In 2020, the Homecoming dance was not held due to coronavirus health restrictions.
Superintendent Tarvin spoke of the hard work by school principals. “Our principals do a diligent job of contact-tracing,” he said, calling it labor-intensive.
“It’s necessary, but it’s also frustrating because you’re asking kids to stay home who are not symptomatic, and they're missing academics,” Tarvin said earlier. “I’ve got a grandson right now who is home. It’s difficult. It’s challenging for family members and kids, as well.”
School Board member Carl Ridenour said: “I think it’s important, too, that we listen to what health professionals are telling us. We did that last December (by closing schools), and we took a lot of grief for it. And we’ll continue to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
“Medical professionals have the right idea of what we’re supposed to be doing, and we’re following their advice,” Ridenour added.
In discussing state test score results and the pandemic, Assistant Superintendent Walker noted that Shelby schools had more than 400 students get some type of online schooling last academic year. “Kids in and out, extended absences, transitioning back and forth,” he said.
As for the current school year, “we’re licensing our (Wi-Fi ) hotspots back up with Verizon and be able to distribute those to families so we’re prepared for the school year when you would get quarantined for two weeks or you're sick and out for two or three weeks,” Walker told the school board.
Superintendent Tarvin said: “It’s challenging when you have a student who is out for an extended period of time because they’re ill or they’re quarantined. You have to deliver services to them. That’s the challenge.”
Shelby High School Principal John Gies described the hotspots as a "big thing."
"Because when you have kids who are home and don’t have internet access, it’s really difficult," he said.
"The (academic) subject matters," Gies said later in describing the complexities involving remote learning. "It depends on what grade level you're in. It depends on the content of the courses. That time (early September) when our absence list was huge, my gosh, it was really hard."
Walker said: “It’s just hard to be engaged all day when you’re home and everybody else is in school. That’s what we’re finding out, how to keep those children engaged. Maybe we can do it for 10 days but, boy, that is a breaking point if they happen to get it again or end up being sick.”
As for student field trips out of state to places such as Disney World, Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth, Texas and possibly Europe?
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Tarvin said. “We need to really consider where are we sending our kids and all of the ripple effects of them going if someone were to get sick or how do they get home? What’s the ripple effect it has on the kids who are also on the trip?”
“If you think contact tracing here has a domino effect, think if you’re on a charter bus or 12 hours from Shelby or whatever,” he said, adding that trip planning involving issues such as making deposits for buses and hotels and setting up food arrangements needed to begin in the not too distant future.
During discussions, the possibility of travel insurance was raised.
“I was thinking that,” Mrs. White said in reaction. “The Toronto trip two years ago was waylaid at the beginning of this pandemic. I know people didn’t necessarily get all of their money back from that….”
“I guess at the end of the day, it’s voluntary if you want to go,” she said, adding that they would “know the risks.”
Earlier, Superintendent Tarvin said: “We just need to keep them (trips) on our radar and have some probably serious conversations as we move forward here in the next couple of months.”
Even the Shelby Whippets athletic complex is impacted by COVID and current events.
“Manpower is hard to come by, materials are hard to come by, permits are hard to come by,” said Scott Harvey, the school district's director of buildings, grounds and safety.
“Everything with COVID and everything else and the supply chain is putting things back,” Harvey said. “We’re lucky we had the (2023) timeframe we did…We wouldn’t have made it next year.”