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Up in the air

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Local school officials still uncertain just how school will start

HARTINGTON — One big question mark.

That’s what the start of the 2020-21 school year looks like for area school administrators.

HNS School Supt. A.J. Johnson said all aspects of educating children — from getting them to school, to the actual classroom work and feeding them — are being discussed and debated because of COVID-19.

Johnson said the current plan is to start school on the regularly scheduled date of Aug. 17, with all students in school.

Cedar Catholic and Holy Trinity Principal Chris Uttecht recently sent out a survey to parents to see what options they would prefer in case school is not able to get off to a normal start.

If students are able to start back to school Aug. 17, the students will find their classrooms look a little different from the last time they sat in them.

The two-person tables used at Hartington-Newcastle High School are now gone and will soon be replaced by desks. All desks are being moved so they are at least six feet apart. Also, all classrooms will have a limited number of students in them with most classrooms under 20 students. The largest classroom, Johnson said, will have 23 students in it.

Uttecht said classes will be spread out throughout different rooms. The Cedar Catholic building was built to accomodate a great many more students than are now enrolled at the school, so spreading the students out should not be an issue, he said.

A great deal of thought is going into how to make the schools safe during the pandemic, Cedar Catholic-Holy Trinity School President Fr. Owen Korte said.

“The amount of discussion and planning that is going into re-opening school this fall is huge. I have never before seen so much thought, discussion, weighing of concerns, absorbing professional advice, thinking and rethinking as our Principal, teachers and staff are doing this school year,” he said. “We have to deal with issues of class size, room size, air flow, social distancing, sanitation, movement of students, Mass attendance, bus rides — you name it.”

The way the students get to school may present some challenges, Johnson said.

HNS Transportation Coordinator Russ Flamig has been contacting families to find out how many students they plan to send to school on the bus this year. Once he has that information in hand, they will be able to figure out how many students they anticipate per route and if they need to split a route to make sure they have enough room on a bus.

Johnson said once it is determined who plans to ride the bus, seating charts will be made up to keep everyone spaced out enough.

HNS school administrators are also working to make sure they have enough classrooms to properly space the students out.

With the approval of the bid from Radec Construction Monday night to renovate the former high school library, turning it into two seperate sixth-grade classrooms, the current library would then be relocated to the elementary portion of the building.

The old vo-ag building may also be utilized for classroom space this school year, Johnson said. Technology coordinator Cody Stappert will teach two classes at that facility. Another class may also be moved there, Johnson said, since the room that class is now in might not be big enough for proper social distancing.

Besides buying desks to replace the two-person tables, the school is also acquiring face masks through the Northeast Neb. Public Health Dept., just in case they will be required by the state or the local health department this school year, Johnson said.

Lunch time will also look different at HNS.

The elementary school students will now eat lunch in their classrooms, but the junior and senior high school students will utilize the commons area.

Without the younger students in the lunch room area, the school will have plenty of room to social distance the older students, Johnson said.

The school is considering the purchase of disposable food containers and utensils for the younger kids so they won’t need to return plates and trays to the lunch room.

“If we go with the disposable items, it will be more expensive but that will make it easier and we won’t constantly have kids going back and forth between the lunch room and classroom,” Johnson said.

Other changes in the lunch program include the elimination of a salad bar. All food will now be served up by the cooks,

Despite these changes, Johnson said he much prefers this plan to any alternatives that are also being considered.

If the area gets an outbreak of COVID-19 it might be necessary to switch to a schedule where only half of the students are in the building at the same time. This could entail having students in class on alternating days or alternating weeks, Johnson said.

“This is not something we would prefer, but if the need arises for us to reduce the number of kids in the building, then we could switch to an alternating day or alternating week schedule where half the students are in school at one time,” Johnson said.

The final option that may have to be considered is going back to distance learning, as they did to finish out the 2019-20 school year.

If distance learning is needed again this year, Johnson said, teachers and administrators learned a great deal on what to do, and what not to do at the end of last school year.

“It was pretty much trial by fire,” he said. “We learned some things that worked really well, and some things didn’t work out too well. Teachers have a better idea now of what works and what doesn’t work.”

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