By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer
After more than three weeks of online learning at home, students this week started coming back to Yukon school district sites.
Yukon Public Schools’ students in pre-kindergarten through third grades returned to their classrooms Wednesday morning while fourth through 12th graders will get back next Monday, Sept. 21.
YPS students have been away from classrooms since mid-March when schools statewide were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yukon teachers have been providing online instruction for students since Monday, Aug. 24 when the 2020-21 school year started.
Because of COVID-19 health and safety concerns, the new school year began with at-home “distance” learning. All YPS students were given electronic devices to support “at-home” learning as the district implemented the Continuous Learning Plan (CLP).
Yukon’s school board, at a meeting last week, voted 4-1 to have students get back to the classroom this month inside of keeping with their original plan for a post-fall break return.
YPS Superintendent Dr. Jason Simeroth believes the Yukon school district is much better prepared now should any student or staff member be quarantined – or if a classroom must close.
He referred to the “uncertainty” about a possible COVID outbreak when the decision was made in early August to keep students away from school sites.
“I’m 100% convinced the way we started was the absolute right way to start, for a multitude of reasons,” Simeroth said. “By giving these four, five weeks of Continuous Learning Plan instruction, everybody knows what to expect – if and when it happens.”
Students have been participating in athletics and extra-curricular programs because these activities are voluntary, YPS Board President Suzanne Cannon said. But education is compulsory – which means class instruction is required, whether online or in person, she noted.
“Those parents who are choosing to have their kids participate in sports, and band, and soccer, and softball – it is their choice,” Cannon said.
“It’s not something that we have mandated and it’s not that we think football is more important than history, English, science, and math.”
Yukon’s school board president – who opposed having students return to classrooms this soon – asked everyone to be flexible and to extend to each other a “measure of grace” during this transition.
“There are lots of feelings, and there are lots of opinions, and there’s lots of data, and there’s lots of controversy,” she said. “I just ask that we all be flexible and that we show each other a lot of grace.”
YPS Board Clerk Michele Hawthorne asked parents to “please have patience” with teachers as school sites reopen to students.
With new safeguards in place, Superintendent Simeroth believes it’s highly unlikely there will be mass exposures or mass quarantines.
“Unless it gets insanely contagious throughout the state and we’re mandated, I don’t see us closing down the district again,” the YPS chief said. “And I really don’t see a site or a classroom (shutting down) necessarily.”
Yukon school district administrators considered using alternative or “hybrid” learning options to reduce student population in classrooms.
“One of our concerns with the ‘A-B’ schedule is the academic piece of it,” Dr. Simeroth explained. “You’re literally only getting half the education.”
Several other Canadian County districts are using the “blended” on-line/in-person option to start the school year.
YPS officials believe classroom redesigns, staffing allocation and small student groupings will help provide physical spacing and limit virus exposure.
“We want to make sure they’re in the best instructional setting,” Simeroth said. “For us, in our opinion, A-B is not that setting.”
Class sizes also will be smaller than normal since nearly 700 YPS students are enrolled in the Yukon Virtual School for the rest of the semester.
Yukon’s school chief called it a “really bad idea” for students now taking CLP classes to switch to the Yukon Virtual School, instead of returning to classrooms.
The Yukon Virtual School – designed for highly motivated students – is vigorous and it would be quite difficult for students who have been receiving CLP instruction to catch up, Simeroth noted.
The district’s leader shared his appreciation to those patrons who contacted him personally in recent weeks – and done so with reason and thought.
“In every decision we make as a school district, somebody’s upset,” he said. “And that’s OK. Because we do the right thing, in our viewpoint, as a board and as a school district, for our kids.”
Meanwhile, Simeroth scoffed at the idea that all Yukon school buildings were closed to students because the new Redstone Intermediate wasn’t ready to open – or for political reasons.
“I really find that humorous, quite honestly,” he said. “It’s totally false.”
Weeks before the 2020-21 school year was to begin, YPS officials had planned for Redstone students and staff to be housed at the district’s former sixth grade building until the new school was ready to open.
Construction of Redstone Intermediate has progressed well in recent weeks and the district’s 13th school site will open next Monday.