SULLIVAN — The first day of school is often a leap of faith for parents as they watch their backpack-toting kids clamber aboard school buses. But the 2020-21 school year’s start will be even more so as students arrive at Sumner Memorial High School.
They’ll be stepping into a welcoming, but highly controlled environment where they must wear masks and obey other rules set forth by state and federal health authorities to protect everyone amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic.
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, a portion of Sumner’s 265 expected students — which represents a 13.7 percent jump over last year’s student body — will either take buses, drive themselves or be driven to the high school or log in online from home for their scheduled classes.
The 81 incoming freshmen — the Class of 2024 represents a 76 percent hike from the 2020 graduating class — accounts for the enrollment surge.
Under Sumner’s finalized back-to-school plan, formulated from extensive consultations with family and faculty over the summer, 36 students (Pathway B) have elected to attend classes remotely from home. Pathway A, a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction, has been broken down into three subgroups. The first will attend in-person classes Monday-Tuesday and learn remotely Wednesday-Friday. The second group will attend in-person classes Thursday-Friday and learn remotely from home Monday-Wednesday. The third group will attend school Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Friday and work remotely on Wednesday. Four families have chosen to home school.
Sumner Principal Ty Thurlow says devising a plan that fulfills all students’ needs but protects them and high school faculty and staff from contracting the coronavirus was a herculean task. Given the deadly virus’s fast-moving nature, and related state and federal guidelines, Thurlow acknowledges and regrets all families’ requests could not be met. He called it the hardest decision of his career.
Thurlow credited Sumner’s longtime guidance counselor, registrar and administrative assistant Lucille Null, who teamed up with Regional School Unit 24 Data Manager Ramona Bennett to turn the faculty and administrators’ back-to-school blueprint into a workable class schedule for the 2020-21 school year.
“One of the greatest attributes of the staff is truly knowing the student body and their needs,” the principal said, noting that Sumner being a small school, faculty and staff were able to gauge each household’s needs and challenges from transportation to having an adult home to oversee remote learning and schoolwork. To help ease some of those challenges, some siblings will attend in-person classes on the same day.
All Sumner’s students will be required to wear facial coverings while riding buses as well as inside and outside on the Sumner campus. Bus drivers will have extra masks on hand to enforce this practice. Masks must fit snugly against the chin and cheeks. Only two-layer neck gaiters are acceptable. The clear, plastic face shields are not allowed.
“We do have several thousand masks,” said Thurlow, adding that every student will receive one in their back-to-school packet being distributed for all incoming students from 3 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 4, at a drive-through station outside the gym door on the Sumner campus. He said the packages will contain students’ laptop computers, for which parents and guardians must pay insurance and sign a previously mailed technology protection form required before the devices can be released.
Arriving at Sumner for in-person classes, students will not be required to have their temperature taken as they enter the building. Administrators are asking families to assess their children’s health and whether they present COVID-related symptoms including a fever, cough, shortness of breath or trouble breathing. Students showing these symptoms should be kept at home as a precaution.
Wednesdays will differ in format from the other school days. No in-person classes will be held, but students will check in online with their advisory teacher. Attendance will be taken. From 8 to 9 a.m., advisory teachers and small student groups then will work together on social and emotional learning skills (SEL). SEL skills help students regulate their emotions, express themselves and cooperate and communicate with others. The weekly sessions are intended to equip students with skills, resources and strategies to improve their academic work and enhance their lives.
From 10 to 11 a.m., students will complete homework assigned the previous day or work one-on-one with a teacher on a particular skill. After 11 a.m., the students are encouraged to get outside, practice a sport or other activities as screen-time relievers.
“Personally, I would like to see our students get outside and be active,” said Thurlow, a marathoner and avid hiker, who spends much of his spare time recreating outdoors — even more so during the pandemic to relieve stress. “I think it is the key to staying healthy and happy.”
After 11 a.m., Sumner faculty will make use of the rest of the school day to confer, share ideas and further refine their online teaching techniques and strategies.
This past spring, inequities surfaced among students’ families in their technological knowledge, access to broadband internet and availability of time to devote to their children’s education. Broadband internet connection ranges widely throughout Hancock County.
Thurlow acknowledged the disparities. He said Sumner is working to obtain a limited number of Wi-Fi hot spots for certain households whose geographic location and other factors make online learning impossible.
“Hot spots are something that we are searching for,” he said, “so they can enhance the capabilities of our families.”