New Castle unrolls back-to-school plan

New Castle Area School District Superintendent Debbie DeBlasio speaks during the June graduation ceremony at Taggart Stadium.

After nearly a year of online learning, New Castle Area School District students will be going back to school.

The younger set — students in kindergarten through grade 5 — will return to school for half days on Jan. 28. 

The older students will be phased in, according to a schedule presented to the school board by PowerPoint on Tuesday by Superintendent Debbie DeBlasio. The board approved the plan in an 8-0 vote in a meeting via Zoom. Member Pat Amabile did not participate in the meeting. 

The board approved a rollout plan that would stagger the returns to school, send younger children back first, then phase in the older students on varied schedules, DeBlasio said. The teachers returned to school in full swing this week.

"Everyone agreed, you have to be safe and the kids need to be in school," board president Stacey Fleo said Wednesday. "We have to have this so the kids are getting the education they should be getting."

When schools closed last year on March 13, the district made computers available to all of the students, and teachers in the district struggled to switch over to 100 percent online learning for the first time. When school started again in September, the teachers had been through more extensive training to present the curriculum virtually to the students from their classrooms into their homes. Now they are in training again to teach both ways.

An all-virtual model also is available for parents if they don't feel comfortable sending their children back to school.

"It's their choice," DeBlasio said. 

The back-to-school plan, as approved, is:

•Kindergarten through 5th grade will return to school for half-days only on Jan. 28, the day after the second semester begins. Harry W. Lockley hours will be from 8:35 a.m. to noon. Students will learn virtually in the afternoon, from 1 to 2:45 p.m., at home. During the afternoons, schools will be sanitized. DeBlasio said a reason for the half-days is because social distancing is not possible in the cafeteria at lunchtime. The students will be given lunches to take home with them as they leave. Teachers will have prep time from 2:45 to 3:20 p.m. and from 3:20 to 3:30 p.m. they will have virtual office hours, team meetings and one-on-one tutoring.

At George Washington Intermediate School, students will begin school at 8:35 a.m. and be dismissed at 11:35 a.m. for required afternoon online schooling at home from 12:35 to 2:20 p.m.

•Junior high students, grades 6 through 8, would return to school Feb. 8, and would go all day, divided into two alternating groups, to ensure social distancing at lunchtime. Group A would attend Mondays and Tuesdays, and Group B would attend Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays would be deep-cleaning day at the schools, during which time students will learn online from home, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:33 p.m. 

•Students in grades 9 through 12 would return to school Feb. 18 in two separate groups, with group A attending on Mondays and Tuesdays and group B attending Thursdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, the school will be deep cleaned while all students learn virtually. 

"Everyone will be back in school then," DeBlasio said, adding that in perusing the county's numbers of COVID-19 cases, "if things change, there is the option of going virtual. But my thinking and feeling is, let's try to get the children back and see what happens."

She added that she is basing those conclusions on what the state Department of Health is advising about getting the younger children back in school.

DeBlasio had written a letter to parents on Jan. 5, stating, that while the recommendation of the Department of Health is to stay with virtual learning at home until the county has had two consecutive weeks designated in the Moderate Phase, the district is planning for students to return after seeing a plateau in countywide numbers.

"I'm optimistic and proceeding cautiously," she said. "The governor recommends we need to get the elementary children back in school."

She encouraged the parents further to minimize socializing and large group gatherings so that the numbers have a chance to be reduced and students can get back to school.

She told the school board that the administration will revisit the plans for the elementary schools on Feb. 16, to see if any changes need to be made.

Plans for secondary grades will be reviewed on Feb. 22, when plans will begin to start phases of traditional in-person schooling for full days.

DeBlasio told the board she is working with health officials to try to arrange for vaccines for the teachers and staff.

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Debbie's been a journalist at the New Castle News since 1978, and covers county government, police and fire, New Castle schools, environment and various other realms. She also writes features, takes photos and video and copy edits.

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