Trepidation, excitement, and masks for everyone as Delaware schools reopen for in-person learning

After 18 months of shutdowns and mostly virtual or hybrid learning, students will be piling into schools across the state this week.

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Students in Delaware are returning to fully open schools this week, like these kids heading into Ursuline Academy in Wilmington. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Students in Delaware are returning to fully open schools this week, like these kids heading into Ursuline Academy in Wilmington. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Dorrell Green has both the 30,000-foot and ground-floor perspective of the return to in-person learning for Delaware’s K-12 students.

The buildings are reopening to all students after nearly 18 months of mostly virtual or hybrid education.

Green has the dual view because he’s superintendent of the state’s largest school district, Red Clay, and has three children in district schools.

From his leadership post, he is responsible for 30 schools and about 16,600 students as they begin navigating the third straight school year impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Mask-wearing has been mandated statewide at both public and private schools for all students and staff, COVID-19 testing will be offered at schools that want it, and other mitigation measures will be in place, such as one-way walking through crowded corridors between classes.

As educators work to prevent, or at least minimize, the in-school spread of COVID-19, they also aim to help students rebound academically. The 2019-20 school year ended abruptly in March 2020 with more than two months of classes remaining when the pandemic struck. Last year, most students took all or some of their classes virtually from home or a child care center.

“Our focus to start the year will be really creating welcoming cultures and environments where students can understand the processes that we have in place,’’ Green told WHYY News. “How we’re bringing everyone back together and showing that we have the necessary supports and really looking at the whole child, whole student kind of approach.”

“Our athletics have kicked off,” Green said. “So we’re ready to get back into the full swing of things, understanding we’re still in the midst of a pandemic with the goal that our mitigating strategies” will allow educators “to keep our schools open. It’s where we need to be.”

During the academic year that ended in June, just 13% of Delaware students spent time learning in a classroom. Of the rest, 40% were fully remote, and 47% did a mix of both in-person and online learning.

So with schools open to all students, Green and other educators had hoped face coverings wouldn’t be part of the 2021-22 academic equation.

But a serious surge of COVID-19 cases led Gov. John Carney on Aug. 10 to make masks mandatory in schools. Since then, the rate of cases, positivity rates, and hospitalizations has continued to escalate.

As of Monday, the 7-day average of new weekly cases was 356 — a level not seen since early February during the winter surge. More worrisome to public health officials is the number of people hospitalized: 217, also the highest number seen since February.

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While Green acknowledged there is a mountain of concern among educators, students, and parents about how to keep schools open and functioning, he also saw a more positive dynamic at work when he recently accompanied his daughter, a ninth-grader at Red Clay’s Conrad Schools of Science, to an orientation night.

The student was nervous until she saw one of her favorite teachers.

“Her whole demeanor changed,’’ Green recalled. “It went from a level of anxiety and worry and trepidation, because that was the first time that she stepped foot back in our building since last year. I literally watched her shed that anxiety and that worry because her teacher made her feel excited, even with the fact that she’s vaccinated and would prefer not to wear a mask.”

Dorrell Green stands inside a classroom
Red Clay Superintendent Dorrell Green stands inside a classroom. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Stephanie Ingram, president of the Delaware State Education Association, which represents public school teachers and other school employees, said her members share that excitement and anticipation.

“They’re ready to get back into the building, ready to greet their new students and to get started,” Ingram told WHYY News. “We’re taking the lessons that we learned. The school year just wrapped up just a couple of months ago. We’re still working with kind of that same mindset.”

Some teachers are not thrilled with wearing masks, but none have threatened to quit, she said. Most educators “definitely understand that wearing a mask is the best way to keep everyone safe. You know, we want to be in the building with our students. Wearing a mask is one of the ways that we can make sure we do that.”

As for helping bring students back up to speed, Ingram acknowledged that it will be challenging.

Fewer students took the required proficiency tests last year, and scores fell across the board. For example, just 26% of students statewide from grades 3 to 8 were proficient in math. Two years ago, the figure was 44%. The English proficiency figures also dropped during that period from 53% to 41%.

Ingram said teachers would assess their students in the opening days, and determine “how we can best meet their needs to meet them where they are, to move them forward, and I think that’s what educators are going to keep doing.”

She said teachers will have an idea about each student’s needs from their assessments last year, and input from their previous teachers.

“We don’t kind of think about it like they’ve lost anything. The idea is that when we get back together, we’re going to be able to kind of catch you up and keep moving forward.”

Matt Burrows, superintendent of the fast-growing Appoquinmink district in the Middletown area of southern New Castle County, said many students took advantage of summer learning programs to get caught up.

“Students will continue that into the fall. By no means did we think this was going to be a three-month or six-month cure,’’ Burrows said. “We looked at more like 18 months of providing the supports and the services that the students need. I hope that next summer we’re having a different conversation.”

Appoqunimink has also faced a crisis outside of the classroom this summer, as district leaders have been desperate to find workers to drive school bus routes. Like many other vocations, school bus contractors have struggled to fill positions in Delaware and around the country.

Like Green, Burrows said it’s critical for children to be able to spend their days in the school environment — using science equipment, making art together, spending time with friends in the cafeteria, playing sports, and connecting in person with teachers.

“If we’ve learned anything through COVID,’’ Burrows said, “it’s that human connection is so important.”

That dynamic was on display last week at an open house for middle school students. “Their excitement when they entered the building was just amazing, just to see their friends and to see their teachers,’’ Burrows said. “You can’t beat that, right?”

Purnima Montagne, incoming president of the Delaware Parent Teacher Association, said she and other parents are generally excited to have their children back in class. Still, she is concerned about the polarization over masks.

Purnima Montagne sits with her son Thejas
Incoming Delaware PTA president Purnima Montagne, with her son Thejas. (Courtesy of Purnima Montagne)

Some school board meetings in August were marked by rancor and protests by parents who complained about Carney’s mask mandate. Green and Burrows said accommodations are being made for virtual learning for what they said is a small fraction of students who cannot wear masks for health reasons or won’t for philosophical reasons.

“I don’t understand why masking should be such a controversial issue,’’ Montagne told WHYY News. “It has worked. People have done it.”

She noted that when schools were shut down abruptly in March 2020, many parents urged administrators to reopen in full for the 2020-21 academic year.

“We had a lot of parents write in and say, ‘Hey, the kids can wear masks. You know, they wore masks in their summer jobs. Why not let them wear masks and come in? Don’t shut down school.’ Well, now that schools aren’t shut down and kids are coming in and wearing masks, some parents are now taking the position of, ‘Why do they have to wear masks?’”

The bottom line for Montagne, she said, is protecting everybody in a school building to the best extent possible, so they can remain open.

“It’s not a negotiation,’’ she said. “ It’s really about keeping kids safe and all of us safe.”

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