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Q&A with Principal Nathanael Hostetler on Reopening School


Head principal Nathanael Hostetler talks to Sean Fowler at an assembly.

By Ashlynn Perez

COVID-19 has brought nothing but questions. In these uncertain times, our communities have sought answers about the future and how our schools will move forward despite these unprecedented conditions. 

FHN’s head principal Nathanael Hostetler answered a few questions about the 2020-21 school year as students are split between in-person and virtual learning options. Hostetler was able to discuss how these instruction types will look, as well as the safety precautions FHN is taking to ensure a healthy environment for students and faculty. 

Q: What is the percentage of FHN students choosing virtual versus in-person learning?

“So it’s roughly 28.5% of students online and so that would be 71.5% in-person.”

Q: Will all teachers be teaching both online and in-person, or have certain teachers been assigned to a specific instruction type?

“Nobody’s been assigned just yet. Essentially the way to think of this is we’re creating an online school. The students in that online school will be from all three brick-and-mortar high schools, and the teachers teaching in that online school will be from all three brick-and-mortar high schools. So we’re in the process of determining what the needs of those students in the virtual school are. After that we’ll be able to identify specifically which teachers teach where. To the greatest degree possible we’re going to have teachers either fully online or fully in-person, but that may not always play out depending on the needs of the kids in the online school.”

Q: What will virtual learning look like at FHN?

“It’s going to be a lot different than last spring, which by all accounts is good. We’ve been working to provide some training already and quite a bit more in the next couple weeks for teachers on a program called Canvas, which is a learning management system. Essentially, it’s a way to deliver instruction virtually and you can house notes, videos, information and assignments, and it puts together calendars for kids. There’s a lot going on in Canvas. We’ve actually been using it extensively in all our Project Lead The Way (PLTW) classes. We’re very happy with it. So we’re training teachers on that, and so online instruction will be delivered in most cases through Canvas. There may be some students who are taking online courses through programs outside the district depending on what our availability is, but we should have most of our folks receiving instruction from FHSD teachers. 

Then the classes will be what are called synchronous. All three high schools are working right now to make sure that our schedules match. Our start and end times have always been the same, but there have been some variations on when our seminar is, for example, so we’re lining that up. That way, classes will always start at the same time regardless of the high school. Then online classes will take place during those class periods. So if you’re online, you will have your classes at the same time your in-person peers did across the three high schools. The expectation for students is that they spend roughly 25 minutes a day face-to-face, whether that be Zoom calls or other ways to interact directly. So that’s what it will look like, roughly speaking. There will be some variations from class to class with expectations or homework, but the online instruction will be very robust.”

Q: What will in-person learning look like at FHN?

“The in-person learning will be the more familiar format of the two. We’re working hard to make sure the class sizes stay as small as we can so that we can maintain social distance within classrooms. We’ll be following a synchronous schedule just like we’ve always done. We will have five lunch shifts instead of three; that will reduce the number of kids in the cafeteria. But the in-person instruction should look very similar, with the exceptions of social distancing and slightly smaller class sizes.”

Q: What are the benefits of providing two instruction options for FHN staff and students?

“We can deliver both in-person and virtual instruction well and with high quality, but there are a couple of benefits. One, it makes managing large spaces in a school a lot easier. If we have 1250 students here instead of 1700, managing a cafeteria suddenly becomes a lot more feasible. Managing a library becomes an easier thing. Hallways are easier to manage. So there’s a safety factor in that.

Then additionally, having that online option gives those who are potentially medically fragile, or who live with people who are medically fragile, it gives that option. It makes it more feasible for them. So giving this option helps us keep people safe. It’s a huge benefit. Even for teachers who want to go online, not because it’s their preferred instructional delivery method but because they are caretakers for people who are medically fragile – we want to do our best to take care of them.”

Q: What will be the biggest challenges to this system?

“Some of the challenges are going to be instructional. Part of the reason FHN, FHC and FHHS are able to offer so many classes is because we are big schools. Well, we’re not as big as we used to be now because a good chunk of our kids are going virtual. We’re going to have to work a little bit harder with scheduling to make sure kids get the classes they need. 

There are going to be challenges with the different ways people think about the coronavirus. I know that we’re going to have families who are pretty skeptical about what’s going on in the world and are not going to want to see their students in masks, but that doesn’t mean we can let that happen. We still have to maintain a high level of safety. I see that being a challenge.

A lot of things that are the cultural pillars of high school – things like homecoming and prom and assemblies – are going to become a lot more difficult as well. At this point, it’s not safe to bring 1700 people into a gymnasium all together. That’s just not a good plan right now. It may be later, but it isn’t now. So that’s going to be a challenge. 

There’s going to be an adjustment between what we were and what we are. In and of itself, it’s going to be difficult. I think that there are going to be some folks for whom it will really, fully sink in that things have changed when they walk into their high school and it no longer feels the way it used to. I think that’s going to be a hard moment. We’re going to have to have some time to process the things we’ve lost and talk through that. We need to support one another emotionally, even while trying to maintain physical distance, and that’s not always easy. 

So there are a lot of challenges. There are a lot of things we have to think through and do our best to get right. And safety is the paramount concern, the paramount challenge. We’re thinking through that, we’re making changes, but at the end of the day, we’re going to have to stay vigilant. We’re going to have to make sure we’re taking care of business with that. Safety is a challenge that won’t go away.”

Q: What tips do you have for students, either choosing virtual or in-person?

“Things are not going to look like they used to look. At least not for a while. We may get back to what it looked like or something similar, but right now things are not going to look like they have in the past, and if we dwell on that it’s going to hurt. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t joy to be found in what we’re doing. We are still a community, and we’re all still here. If we focus on that, it’s going to make some of these challenges a lot easier to deal with.”

Q: What precautions is FHN taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

“There’s kind of a list. There’s the district expectation that everybody wears masks in classrooms and in hallways. That is probably the single strongest line of defense that we have. We also have shifted from three lunches to five. We used to run about 550 to 600 people per lunch shift, but by the time we lose a little less than 30% of students in the building and add two lunch shifts, then we’re down to something like 250 people. We’re also looking at opening up the Learning Commons for lunch as well, and that means the number in the cafeteria may drop as low as 200. 

We’re also asking that students not arrive prior to 6:50 a.m., and that when they do arrive, they go directly to their classrooms. One of the times that people gather the most is before school, and when that happens, social distancing is very difficult. We’re encouraging kids to drive or ride with their parents as much as possible because school buses are also very tough to distance. 

We’re requiring teachers to have assigned seats for each of their classes, so if a student were to have COVID-19, we could tell in each of their classes who they sat next to. That way, we can contact trace more effectively. The same may be true in the cafeteria; we’re sorting through what that would look like, as well. 

The cleaning that we’re utilizing is much more extensive. We’re providing hand sanitizer and a chemical called lemon quat, and teachers are going to utilize that to keep their classrooms clean. Students will likely be cleaning their workspaces as well. Wherever possible, we’re reducing the number of students to a classroom so we can do a good job of maintaining social distance. We’re also setting limits on the number of people who can be in a large space, like a gymnasium, a cafeteria. 

So we’re working through a whole series of different steps to try to make sure we stay as safe as possible. The way to think of this is: the safer we are, the fewer transmissions we’re going to experience here on campus, and the fewer transmissions we have, the longer we can stay in session in-person. If at all possible, I’d like to avoid going into a shutdown. That’s my goal. It will take everyone working together to make that happen – people maintaining social distance, keeping their masks on, being conscientious about washing their hands and washing their workspaces. The more people working together, the better off we’re going to be at maintaining in-person instruction.”

Q: How do you think the district would deal with a potential outbreak in schools?

“It depends on what that outbreak looks like. If there were to be a case here and there within a school, I don’t know that we’d really shut down. There’d be some people who would go home and quarantine, there might be some classes that would quarantine. If it were broader than that, potentially individual schools could shut down. The district is actually working in collaboration with the county health department to put together a series of flow charts that help to guide decisions. The number of people affected during an outbreak really impacts how we react to it, and the number of schools it impacts changes how we react to it, too.”

Q: How will sports and extracurriculars look different this year?

“We’re working through what crowd sizes may look like. I know there are lots of questions about indoor sports versus outdoor sports. The picture at MSHAA is changing on a daily basis, too, so we’re getting guidance from them and trying to adapt to that. There’s going to be some variability. We’re going to have to adapt and overcome. We have to keep our wits about us and take care of business, and like I said, the safer we stay, the greater the odds that we’ll be able to stay open.”

Q: What is the probability of the current plan changing as the year goes on?

“As case numbers change, I would anticipate some adaptations. We could end up in a shutdown, we could not. It’s really just going to depend on what happens in our school doors, but also what happens outside the doors and how people in the community react. I do sincerely hope we can continue an in-person option throughout.”

Q: Any final comments?

“I’m grateful that we’re going to get to see each other again, even if we have to stay a little farther apart and look at each other through masks. I’m really grateful that we get to see each other again and feel that connectedness.”