Returning public school students to five days of in-class instruction a week is dependent on the capacities of the 40 Guam Department of Education schools.
Superintendent Jon Fernandez has been very busy visiting public schools across the island the last two weeks to assess how schools will accommodate the increased on-campus student population safely for the next school year.
While some of the smaller schools and schools down south can accommodate a normal size class for five days of instruction, other schools with larger class sizes might have have space issues, he acknowledged.
The normal class size is between 25 and 28 students. The crux of the issue is the ability to accommodate that capacity in line with Public Health’s social distancing guidelines.
“So it doesn’t help us to be able to get 23 students back in the classroom because we just can’t leave the five students out if they want to come back,” said Fernandez.
GDOE can’t turn a child away and must be creative in maximizing capacity and resources. The option on the table is to group students into cohorts.
“So the schools are happy to make this very difficult decision about whether they can go with one cohort for five days or whether we need to split the kids up, maybe two groups,” said Fernandez.
But having two cohorts is not preferred; Fernandez said they are trying to avoid this option.
“We are at the schools to say okay, we understand the challenges, but what can we do? What is it that we can do to support you in expanding the usable space in your classroom?” Fernandez said, adding later: “We don’t want there to be obstacles, but if you find them let’s talk about solutions,” Fernandez said.
Another idea the department wants to avoid in trying to get to five days of instruction is placing a cap on face-to-face student enrollment and using the online regional learning program idea to accommodate the overflow of students.
“We’re looking at all the options to give us flexibility in getting kids back to five days of instruction, so we are still doing that research. There’s a lot of avenues, a lot of questions about equity and what it means to treat students fairly,” said Fernandez.
Some schools have confirmed being able to accommodate their student population with one cohort, five days a week.
“They’re saying we are ready to go five days, they are some of the smaller schools, but they are ready to go. And many schools that say, hey, we’re not there yet we need two groups. So the question is do we allow these schools that say five days to go ahead? I mean, I’d love to do that. I really would love to do that,” said Fernandez.
But he cautioned, saying issues from another school which can’t make the accommodation may raise the concern of parents.
“We have five days of instruction for one group of children, and others are only coming two or three times a week. You know that they are not getting the same level or quantity of instruction and that just leads to other issues and questions down the road,” said Fernandez.
GDOE wants to avoid this, and to help do that, the department is planning how to spend federal funding meant to bring students back to school safely.
$287 million in federal aid
“We have $287 million in the American Rescue Plan. We’d like some of those funds to be able to at least go toward making five days of instruction possible," Fernandez said.
How those funds are spent is dependent on what feedback Fernandez receives from each school. He said a lot of the requests are common.
“Canopies, seating, more student desks, more staff support help with supervision, safety throughout the school days things like that,” said Fernandez.
Can the social distancing rule be flexible?
Fernandez has mentioned that he is looking at the Public Health guidance to see if the 3-foot physical distancing rule in the classroom can be flexible.
“I know that there was a lot to do about 6-foot versus 3-(foot) distancing because two different organizations recommended those two different standards. But really, is there much difference between 3 feet and 2 feet and 4 feet? I don’t know. I mean, that’s something that we want the public health expert to explain to us,” said Fernandez.
If GDOE is allowed flexibility, then they maintain safety while solving the capacity issues, said Fernandez.
Fernandez was adamant that the department does not want to do anything to go against the guidelines.
“What we want to do is press Public Health to evaluate what the options are and to let us know if there are options to allow for some flexibility around the 3-foot measure,” said Fernandez.
He pointed out that physical distancing isn’t the only safety measure implemented at public schools.
“We are doing the face masks a lot of sanitizing … but at the same time, we are going to need a little bit of leeway to make the judgments on the school by school level,” said Fernandez.