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Building a Schedule Around Student Rotations
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For districts with large student bodies, building a rotation of attendance days may be a good option for providing some in-person learning this fall.

The space constraints caused by social distancing are more manageable with smaller groups of students in buildings. Students also are guaranteed some face-to-face time with their teachers and some peers.

How students are divided and rotated depends on several factors, including enrollment size and transportation needs.

One school district in Washington state is planning two different versions of rotating attendance schedules while it awaits final guidance from public health and education officials on how to reopen and how much social distancing will be required.

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day Part 2: Scheduling the COVID-19 School Year

Option 1: Weekly Rotations

What it looks like: One group of students attends school four days a week, while the second group is home receiving online instruction. The following week, the groups switch. This continues for a semester and applies to all grade levels in the district.

Students take physical education and elective classes in-person, following social distancing guidelines, because their in-school days generally mirror normal schedules.

Option 2: Alternating Daily Rotations

What it looks like: Depending on enrollment size and building capacity, schools divide the student body in half, with students taking in-person classes every other day (A/B days) or in thirds, with students attending school every third day (A/B/C days).

Students are engaged in distance learning on the days when they are not in school. Fridays are generally reserved for professional development and teacher planning. Fridays can also provide a weekly opportunity for either online or in-person small group instruction for special populations and students who need extra help.

Option 3: Once-a-Week Rotations

What it looks like: Every student attends school in person one day a week. In one version, Monday through Thursday would be used as in-person teaching days, while Friday is set aside for professional development. Students continue with distance learning at home, including live virtual instruction from teachers, assignment completion, and online collaboration with classmates when they are not in school.

Here's how the Vancouver, Wash., school district is planning to adapt its schedule for attendance rotations for 24,000 students. The district's final decision on scheduling will be driven by what Washington state officials determine is safe and healthy for schools.

As of now, the district has two options on the table:

Three groups of students, rotating days of attendance
Originally, leaders of the district planned to divide its student enrollment into thirds and follow the A/B/C days rotation. That would allow all students to have face-to-face interaction with teachers twice every six days. Classes would have between six to 10 students, on average, providing teachers opportunity to support the specific needs of students. The small class sizes and student-to-teacher ratio would be ideal for peer collaboration, Vancouver leaders thought.

By retrofitting its non-classroom spaces, the district could accommodate all of its students under this model. But even with the pared down daily attendance, the district does not have enough buses in its fleet to make transportation work under strict social distancing requirements, Superintendent Steven Webb said.

That's when district leaders decided they must also plan for the one-day-a-week rotation.

"The second option is being driven literally by buses," Webb said.

Students attend school one day per week
Under this model, class sizes will likely be even smaller-on average 4 to 6 students, allowing for more personalized instruction, Webb said. Students in self-contained special education classes are expected to attend school daily.

How the district decides to divide the student body and assign attendance days is still being debated. One possibility is organizing the groups by last names to help minimize disruption to families with children of different ages, grades, and schools.

In grades K-5, in-person teaching will emphasize math and English/language arts standards. Webb expects middle and high school days to proceed as normal, with electives like art and others offered in school and online. Those classes are important to help build relationships with students, Webb said.

Local health guidelines will dictate many decisions at the last minute, Webb said. But for now, he's expecting that high school and middle school students will move from class to class. Where students eat lunch will also depend on public health guidelines. If those guidelines allow students to move among their classrooms, then they'll eat in the cafeteria, with appropriate distance between them.

If public health guidelines say movement should be restricted, students will have boxed lunches at their desks.

Vancouver has about 1,600 teachers. Webb does not yet have a clear picture of how many will return to work if the district reopens with in-person schooling. Those who don't return to work for health reasons will most likely continue working remotely, he said.

Most high schools currently have a full-time nurse, but a few with smaller enrollments share nurses. Because there will be fewer students in school on a given day under both possible scheduling models, Webb believes the district has enough health staff address students' health needs.

The district is planning a number of health and safety protocols, including taking students' temperatures at buildings' main entrances. Hand sanitizing stations will be placed at entrances, in classrooms, media centers, and all offices. Barriers will separate staff from the public in public spaces.

So far, district leaders aren't estimating that either of the rotational schedules will add significant new costs to the roughly $340 million budget, though nothing is final. With an estimated $5.5 million allotted to Vancouver through the state's share of the federal coronavirus relief funding known as the CARES Act, the district will invest in programs to address students' learning losses and to buy masks and other protective equipment for staff and students.

Vancouver is also planning an in-person summer program in August for K-5 students, depending on local health guidelines, to focus on English/language arts and math standards to help make up for some of the leaning loss. If the stringent health and safety guidelines are still in place then, then the learning loss programs will be added to the back end of the school year.

A Saturday academy is also possible to provide high school students with reviews of core standards, as well as foundational courses they may need to access higher-level content like algebra, world languages, and other Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

Regardless of which scheduling scenario Vancouver adopts, it will be an unfamiliar experience for all students.

That's why the district is thinking through what schools need to do to bring students back into a welcoming environment that also addresses their losses and trauma. And it will be incredibly important to maintain the hallmarks of the freshman orientation experience-which stresses connections-for students starting high school in this remarkably different landscape.

"That's why I think it's so critical that we have all of our students at school at some point," Webb said. "Human connections and relationships matter in terms of setting young people up for success."

Pros:

  • Rotation schedules try to address one of the biggest deficiencies with online learning-the lack of in-person, face-to-face interaction between teachers and students.
  • Helps overcome the constraints on busing when social distancing is required.
  • Students have a routine of regular in-person classes, whether it's once a week, once every three days, or every other week. On the days when they are in school, students will follow the traditional school day as much as possible, giving districts the opportunity to build in electives and physical education classes while students are on campus.
  • Allows face-to-face instruction, in small groups, for the most vulnerable students.

Cons:

  • Some risk of exposure and transmission of the virus.
  • Regular in-person instruction will be limited and interrupted on rotation schedules, so there is some concern about how this will affect the continuity of learning.
  • Students still spend a large amount of time learning remotely. Districts must ensure that they revamp their distance learning programs to improve on the spring experience and respond to parent and student concerns.
  • Child care is a major challenge for districts and a hindrance for both parents and teachers under these scenarios. Rotations can also be difficult for parents whose children go to school on different days. Districts plan to try as much as possible to ensure that students in the same family are on the same rotation, but that may not always be possible.
  • Heavy workloads for teachers who must prepare for and deliver classes both online and in person.