The COVID-19 pandemic has created a peculiar situation for school districts throughout the nation as student learning is weighed against maintaining safety in a world now all too familiar with social distancing.

On Guam, the pandemic resulted in early school closures. But now, with the school year over and a new one around the corner, the Guam Department of Education finds itself proceeding as needed while navigating the uncharted territory of the COVID-19 era. The more immediate concerns are perhaps summer school and graduation.

With the old normal now a potential public health risk, distance or online learning has shot to the forefront of alternatives to traditional classrooms. But internet access isn't a luxury open to everyone on island.

An announcement on summer school is forthcoming, but Guam DOE Superintendent Jon Fernandez on Wednesday told The Guam Daily Post that kindergarten through 8th-grade students will continue with distance learning.

For high school, where summer school is more critical for accumulating credits toward graduation, classes will include limited face-to-face meetings with teachers while most of the work will be still done at home.

"Right now we're talking about an opportunity for the student and teacher to meet at the school site ... once or twice a week for that student and teacher to interact, and then the student will have assignments at home to complete and submit," Fernandez said.

Summer may provide insight into how classes might function in the new school year. Guam DOE, for planning purposes, is targeting Aug. 11 as the beginning of the year. The assumption is that Guam will be at Pandemic Condition of Readiness 3 by that time, and that school facilities can be opened. If not, alternative planning will come into play.

A task force is currently planning for the new school year, even if the situation remains similar to today, Fernandez said.

"Not only to look at the technology side of it, which is to purchase more equipment, look at expanding internet access to those families and students who don't have ready access, but also expanding the use of hard-copy materials to reach those who may not be online," he added.

Education Stabilization Fund

Opportunities to act on these efforts are anticipated to come from $41.5 million in federal funding that Guam DOE stands to receive as part of the Education Stabilization Fund award allotted to Guam.

The funds won't just help just the department, however. Charter schools and private schools will also benefit based on enrollment, according to Fernandez.

On Monday, Guam DOE submitted its funding application to its federal counterpart. There were three main priorities among stakeholders, Fernandez said: safety, distance learning and mental health supports.

An agreement signed as part of the application contains an assurance that GovGuam would provide at least the average of appropriations made to Guam DOE over the last three years, according to Fernandez.

COVID-19 has impacted government revenue resources and it remains to be seen how this will develop for next fiscal year, but Fernandez said lawmakers have been informed of the agreement for the federal funds.

With this funding, Guam DOE is envisioning the possibility of developing schools to become community hubs for internet access, Fernandez said.

But the larger problem of reaching homes without internet access is an ongoing conversation with the lieutenant governor, Guam Community College and University of Guam, he added.

"Hopefully we'll be able to meet with the telecom providers soon to get their perspective and expertise in what strategies might be useful in tackling that challenge," Fernandez said. "We've thought about things like helping wire up public facilities to be also hubs for access. We've thought about, would vouchers to families be useful. Maybe we can target some of the housing areas where there's a single landlord for multiple tenants, to figure what services can be provided. But again, we're gonna need the expertise and participation of our telecom providers."

Grad & Go ceremonies

For now, graduations are on the horizon. And for this too, Guam DOE has had to adapt. The Grad & Go ceremonies, as they are now called, will allow graduating seniors to pick up their diploma through a drive-thru operation.

Fernandez acknowledges that there has been a lot of frustration and disappointment in the change.

"There's a lot of different emotions that different students bring to the ceremonies but it's an opportunity for them to be together and close out the school year on that high note," he said. "It's definitely not gonna be the same ... but at the same time, we don't want to miss this opportunity. ... So, in light of circumstances, doing a drive-thru graduation is the route the schools have chosen to go."

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