A plan to keep school clean, safe


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Posted July 27, 2020 | By Brad Rogers, Executive Editor | Photo by Bruce Ackerman

Mark Vianello of Marion County Public Schools talks about the plan for reopening Marion County Public Schools during a meeting at the Marion County Public School Board.

When Marion County schools open next month, school officials plan to have a detailed plan in place to minimize the spread of coronavirus among students and staff.

“We are putting together a comprehensive plan that will ensure the safety of our students and the safety of our employees,” Deputy Superintendent of Schools Mark Vianello said.

Vianello, who headed the district’s task force that crafted a back-to-school plan, presented the safety plan to the School Board on Thursday and said it adheres strictly to the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC. That includes mandatory face masks, social distancing whenever possible and intensive cleaning.

As it stands, new Superintendent Diane Gullett recommended – and the School Board approved – moving the start of in-person school from Aug. 10 to Aug. 24. That will allow administrators more time to prepare for students and to help teachers understand the best ways to go about enforcing coronavirus protective measures.

The school district’s plan calls for, among other things, giving parents and students a choice about where to get schooling. They can attend a brick-and-mortar school, or they can take classes through MCPS Online, the county’s virtual school. If they take online classes, students will have a school-like routine of starting  at a set time each day, changing classes just like in school, and getting out of school at a set time.

So far, more than half of the 43,000 students in the county have selected either in-school or online education. Vianello said at this point, 58 percent want to attend traditional schools, while the remaining 42 percent are opting for online instruction. If the remaining students do not opt one way or the other, then they students automatically will be assigned to the school they attended last year.

The big challenge will be keeping students and staff in masks, maintaining social distancing as much as possible and, of course, keeping classrooms and high-traffic areas like the cafeteria clean.

Vianello said the moving of the start of traditional school will give administrators time to educate teachers. Students and teachers will be provided plastic face shields by the district and the district has received a donation of 100,000 masks. Moreover, he said each classroom will be provided “appropriate” cleaning materials. Buses also will be cleaned after every route, too. Students also will be incessantly encouraged to wash their hands and some of the custodial staff at each school will be shifted from nighttime hours to daytime to help with cleaning.

Another big factor in keep schools healthy will be stressing to students and parents the importance of self-monitoring student health. If a child exhibits symptoms of coronavirus, they would be required to stay home for 10 days. If they have a sibling, they would have to stay home 14 days.

“The larger concern is the number of students and the number of employees who will show symptoms in the fall,” Vianello said, explaining that allergy season may create false symptoms. A doctor’s note or a false test result will allow a student to return to school.

But, he added, “The biggest concern is making sure we have enough school employees to serve our students.”

If a large number of teachers were to get sick, Vianello said, “we’re going to be scrambling.”

The district learned a lot of lessons after the spring outbreak of the virus, at which time schools were on spring break and never resumed.

“When this happened to us in the spring, we were not ready,” he said. “It was rough. Real rough.”

And if conditions were such that it forced a shutdown of schools again, he said the school system has a “Second Interruption” plan for continuing students’ educations and helping teachers.

“We have to do better,” Vianello said. “And we have a plan if that happens again. We’re prepared.

“We have to provide a safe place for our employees and students. We have to. But we also have to get back to the business of educating our kids.”