The 2020-21 school year is not due to start for months, but the Chester Area School District is not waiting until fall to begin offering services to district children.

Rather, beginning next week, the district is starting to implement Phase I of a plan to bring students back into the school building itself, according to school Superintendent Heath Larson.

"Our plan and intent is to be back in our school under the approved calendar for 2020-21 in August," said Larson, conceding that at this point no one knows how the fall will look.

"The whole goal of a Phase I, Phase II and Phase III plan is to little by little get back to as normal of an operation as we can," Larson explained.

Phase I includes three components: extended school year services for students in the district's special education program, driver's education, and weight room and gym access for athletes.

The weight room and gym are being opened -- tentatively on June 9 -- under the supervision of a coach in compliance with the recommendations issued by the South Dakota High School Activities Association in late May.

"There's a multitude of restrictions and guidelines," Larson said.

These include social distancing, not sharing equipment or cleaning it between use by competitors, and wearing protective equipment for activities that include close or sustained contact. The guidelines state that "the health and safety of students is the highest priority."

Schools are advised to implement a Phase I program for 14 days prior to progressing to Phase II if there is a downward or flat trajectory.

Larson said access to the gym and weight room is going to limited to 10 or fewer athletes during Phase I. In addition, locker rooms will be closed, athletes will be expected to bring water bottles from home, and temperatures will be checked as part of a screening process.

The school district will also take precautions when offering driver's education this summer. The classroom portion will be offered in the school lunchroom in order to allow space for social distancing.

The extended school year for special ed. students will offer identified students the opportunity for one-on-one or small group individualized instruction, according to Larson. The program is not being offered in response to concerns about instruction received when students were learning at home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our teachers and our special education staff communicated regularly with our students and parents and provided the assistance needed," Larson indicated, adding that they did "a tremendous job."

Overall, he said he feels confident that student learning did not suffer as a result of the school closure this spring. This was especially true in middle school and high school where extracurricular activities often keep students busy during the fourth quarter of the year.

"I've had teachers who said they could cover more material," Larson said. By covering more material, he explained, "the breadth of standards covered was pretty powerful."

Chester teachers were allowed to choose their own learning platforms during the closure. Many used a variety, including Google Classroom, Zoom and Blackboard, according to Larson. With elementary students, learning packets were integrated into online lessons. Communication also played a key role.

"Email got a pretty good workout," Larson said, "and phone calls. We did everything to connect with students and their families."

The Chester Area School District is not planning any special summer programs to ensure students are prepared for classes in the fall, not only because school administrators are confident about the learning that took place but also because the district is prepared to help students in the fall.

"We have a nice process in place to help students who need additional help," Larson indicated.

He is aware that despite the school's cautious optimism in beginning to implement Phase I of a plan to bring students back into the school, and his confidence regarding student learning during the closure, the future holds unknown variables.

"It's a very fluid situation," Larson said. "You never really know what the next day or the next situation will bring."

Still, the district's goal is clear.

"The whole goal is a slow and gradual process or plan to get things going again," he said.