Hays schools ready to start

Randy Gonzales
Special to Hays Daily News

There is no hiding the fact that masks are the new normal at local schools as they begin classes this week.

That new normal also includes social distancing, temperature checks, different learning options and even how students eat lunch. Welcome to Fall 2020.

“We know the plan’s not perfect, but we’re ready to adjust as needed,” said Thomas More Prep-Marian principal Chad Meitner. “We just need to get started so we can use our experiences to make things work.”

TMP has both high-school and junior-high students in the same building. Classes start Monday, with the first two days devoted to hybrid learning. That would include online instruction. It also helps students become familiar with online learning in case TMP has to move to an online-only learning environment, as was the case in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meitner said the TMP leadership team would meet weekly to determine if classroom instruction can continue, or if it needs to transition to online learning.

TMP does have a remote learning option to start the school year. Of the 266 junior and senior high students, four will take classes with the remote option.

Hays High School also plans classroom instruction when school starts Wednesday. Principal Marty Straub said parents do have a hybrid learning option, in which a student would have some classroom instruction and other classes would be digital. Some of those classes would be taken while the student was in the building and others would be taken remotely. Of a fall enrollment of approximately 860 students at HHS, about 35 to 40 will be taught using the hybrid option.

At Hays Middle School, Principal Tom Albers said of about 760 students, approximately 60 will be taught using a remote option.

“We’re excited to have kids in the building,” Albers said. “We’ll do everything we can to make people safe. That’s our number one priority.”

Hays Middle School will require masks and social distance as much as possible. An additional lunchroom space will be upstairs in the gym, with the bleachers pulled back to accommodate tables.

In addition to requiring masks and social distancing, Hays High will have temperature checks for all faculty, staff and students each day. There will be extended lunchroom rotations, so fewer students will be eating at the same time, and 20 tables have been added to the cafeteria.

HHS also has added 13 hand-sanitizing stations. Students will be expected to wash their hands before each class and before and leaving the lunchroom. Seating in each room will face in the same direction. The building will open a half hour later, at 7 a.m., and dismissal will be staggered every two minutes to alleviate congestion in the hallways.

“We’re trying to do the best we can, there’s no guarantees, obviously,” Straub said. “I’m hopeful the kids want to be in school enough to do these small things we’re asking them to do. I hope the parents understand, whether they agree or disagree with all these things, they understand the intention is to try to keep our kids and teachers in school.”

Ashley Minear, a human resources assistant at Unified School District 489, said there are fewer substitute teachers and para substitutes available this fall, but she did not attribute it to COVID-19 concerns.

“The numbers are definitely lower,” Minear said. “I think a lot of the reason for that is a lot of people who subbed were college students who have now moved away. Or, some people I have spoken with had to get full-time positions elsewhere.”

Minear said only one or two potential substitute teachers expressed concern about the coronavirus. Minear said there always is a concern about having enough substitutes available.

“Even before COVID, there would be times you didn’t have enough subs to cover for every absence,” Minear said, adding that in that case, full-time teachers would rotate during the day filling in.

Meitner does not anticipate TMP having a problem finding substitute teachers this fall.

The school normally counts on seven to eight subs and has lost three due to health concerns, but has added one.

TMP also has additional health and safety protocols implemented for the school year. Face coverings will be required for all students, teachers and staff. Social distancing will be practiced. Teachers, under certain guidelines, will be allowed to give students short mask breaks. Classes with a large number of students will be moved to another location, such as the learning commons area, the auditorium, the dining hall and Al Billinger Fieldhouse.

“It gives the teacher flexibility,” Meitner said. “A big chunk of spaces can be instructional now. It’s not just limited to the classroom.”

A lunch session has been added, from two to three. Now, there will be no more than 90 students eating lunch at one time.

There will be a temperature check of teachers and staff every day, as well as for visitors. However, Meitner said per the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, students will not have their temperatures checked.

Meitner said a committee has been working since early this summer on devising a plan for the fall. He said most families are on board.

“There have been a few families who have voiced their displeasure with being required to wear masks, and a few cautious about lunch,” Meitner said. “But other than that, it has been very supportive, and everybody is excited to start and see how it goes.”